Stephen Oliver's brief, but brilliant career

The energy he put into his life and composing was extraordinary. But when will his works be properly appreciated?
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Stephen Oliver, who would have been 50 this month, was one of those Halley's comets that blaze occasionally across the cultural and musical scene. He made people laugh in real life; he made them cry in the theatre. He lived, breathed and drank the stage. He composed as if there was no tomorrow.

Tragically, there was no tomorrow. His poignant death in 1992 at just 42, soon after the premiere of perhaps his finest achievement, the opera Timon of Athens, directed at ENO by Graham Vick, stanched the spring but confirmed him as many other things: one of the great, not merely hopes, but achievers of British musical theatre; a poignant AIDS icon; and a figure, like Richard Burton or Kenneth Tynan or James Dean - or even Mozart himself - to whom Fate kissed goodbye at the peak of their powers.

Timon, Tom Jones, The Duchess of Malfi, Il Giardino, Sasha, Mario the Magician, Blondel, Beauty and the Beast, - these are just a handful of the stageworks, many of them composed for the annual Batignano Festival in Tuscany, for which this prolific, exhausting, often exasperating but eminently lovable near-genius deserves to be remembered. Oliver composed some 40 stage pieces, quite apart from 90 or so scores - including the brilliantly memorable Nicholas Nickleby (1980) and Peter Pan (two years later) - for the Royal Shakespeare Company. The merits of the best of those have still to be assessed. He left church music; chamber music (the superb series of ricercari for various instruments); a feature film (Lady Jane); music for television; a symphony.

This extraordinary facility - with the connotation of easy command, not facileness - is something all who knew him talk of. That, and the loud laugh. Oliver could turn his hand, it seemed, to just about anything.

Music entered his blood by the age of eight, when he became a chorister at St Paul's Cathedral. But he cut his teeth at Oxford, where the conductor Jane Glover has "an enduring vision of him sailing down Broad Street with billowing scholar's gown and black hair streaming. Stephen never entered a room unnoticed. You couldn't ignore him. He was always singing or laughing or planning. That was what made him such terrific company.

"He was a great person for turning up out of the blue at concerts, coming round the back, and, while other people shuffled from foot to foot, knowing instinctively what to say - he'd encapsulate all the good things you'd done and ignore the bad. And then perhaps weeks later he'd suddenly say 'You could have done this' or 'maybe you should try that'. Quite apart from a wonderful friend, he was a yardstick. I desperately miss his feedback.

"Quite apart from being so musically literate, Stephen was phenomenally well-read. Not only did he write most of his own libretti, but he had that Mozartian gift for writing fabulously for the voice, for knowing its natural limits and cadences and exactly what voices can manage best."

It was for conductor Nicholas Cleobury and his elder brother Stephen, now Musical Director of the BBC Singers and King's College Cambridge, that Oliver composed Kyoto, a piece for organ duet, back in l977. Oliver and Nick Cleobury studied music together as undergraduates at Worcester College, Oxford. "Meeting Stephen was the first time I'd rubbed shoulders with someone so incredibly literate. Even then he was talking about Timon - 20 years before he composed it for ENO.

"He was a godsend at tutorials. Sometimes we'd turn up, neither of us having a clue what to say. But Stephen was the most brilliant flanneller, coming up with stuff that was not merely amusing but well-informed. He was sophisticated way beyond his years. Stephen was also a brilliant technician, with a remarkable facility at harmony and counterpoint. As for parody - he could turn you out a pastiche of anything. He would parody himself mercilessly too. He could be bumptious, but there was always this niceness about him: under the hyperactive surface was this incredibly talented, sensitive being."

Jane Glover agrees: "There was this quieter side to Stephen. Sometimes he would retreat into himself - the obverse of the extrovert public persona. But he was also capable of great concern and compassion for others."

One of his works that still regularly gets an airing is the musical Blondel, on which he collaborated with Tim Rice. Had he lived, they might well have done another. Rice remembers their collaboration with warmth and gratitude: "The joy was that he was so funny. He'd come down to Oxfordshire to discuss the plans for Blondel and simply have one in stitches. But he was also extraordinarily literate. We'd go on long walks together and he'd be holding forth passionately about Dickens and Shakespeare and so on. He was just great fun to work with.

"It was perhaps disappointing Blondel didn't do even better, although it did pretty well: it had a great cast, and Stephen's music was super. There were a couple of songs like 'The Least of my Troubles' and 'Running Back for More', which Elaine Paige later recorded, that were just gorgeous. It triumphed at its opening in Bath, and was a huge success at the Old Vic (which it reopened in October l983). My children, who were still small when we were writing it, are forever playing the CD."

Oliver's legacy is vast. As Jonathan Dove, whose talents among contemporary composers come perhaps closest to Oliver's, pointed out at the time of Timon, that he had a rare, inspired gift for word-setting: scrupulously respectful of the nuances and cadences of natural speech: "His singers are not canaries, but actors who speak the music." You can hear it in Timon; you can hear it in Mario and Il Giardino. What's more, he had the dramatic gift too: as Dove point out, "An actor's sense of timing informs his dramatic pacing."

All these qualities came together in his last masterpiece. That Timon, with its angst and foreboding - Oliver knew as he composed it that his time was almost up - is not yet performed worldwide only reflects the dilatoriness of operahouses in cottoning on to recent work.

The Stephen Oliver Opera Prize does live on as his legacy. But that the rest of the bawdy, riotous, pithy, satirical, dazzling Oliver canon - Blondel apart - remains unrecorded, and receives only periodic performances, is not just a pathetic oversight. It's a dire loss.