MUSIC / A Martian sends a libretto home: Seven years ago, the poet Craig Raine learnt a lesson about new opera: 'People find it hard to hear the words.' Now he realises that if something's worth singing once, it's worth singing 42 times

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A few weeks ago a caller to a radio phone-in programe compared the Reverend Anthony Freeman, dismissed from his parish for professing that he didn't believe in a transcendent god, to a vegetarian in a butcher's shop - the inference being that anyone in such a position would be not simply a hypocrite, but bad for trade as well.

You feel you're encountering, if not actual heresy, something of the same disregard for commercial etiquette when you hear Craig Raine stating quite baldly that 'opera is a flawed form. It's wonderful when it works. But, if it's something new, people find it very hard to hear the words. The fact is, there is a band interfering with the transmission of the words between the audience and the singers.'

He came up against the consequences of this fact in 1987, when The Electrification of the Soviet Union - his words, Nigel Osborne's music - was premiered at Glyndebourne. 'If you're in eight weeks of rehearsals with people, everybody in the opera house knows the opera by heart by the time it goes on, including the people who are checking the coats.' It follows that it is hard to establish precisely what parts of the opera are audible: 'On the first night I could hear everything, including the bits I knew were impossible to hear because there was too much brass. My wife came to the first night, and at the interval I was tremendously pleased, and what I wanted to say to her was '90 per cent', but I thought, 'I must scale this down.' So I said, 'Well, pretty good isn't it, 70 per cent?' And she looked at me and she said, 'Craig, don't fool yourself. Seventeen.' '

That experience helps to account for the fact that Sand Storm, his second collaboration with Osborne, to be premiered at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on 23 August, is utterly unlike anything else he has done. It deals with characteristic preoccupations - one is the collision of the domestic and personal with the epic: here, a parents' grief for their dead daughter is juxtaposed with Priam's for Hector. But to anybody even remotely acquainted with Raine's work, the novelty of approach is plain from a glance at the printed libretto: it's a sparse, repetitive piece, especially by Raine's standards, his hallmark density of expression and metaphoric pizzazz evaporated.

As Raine tells it, however, this isn't a new beginning, more a matter of horses for courses. His first opera was written from a position of relative ignorance of operatic convention. He himself says, 'If The Electrification has a strength, it's that I wasn't going thinking, 'There has to be a trio, there has to be a duet', or any of that stuff. I just wrote it as drama.'

Sand Storm, by contrast, represents a thorough rethinking of the needs of opera. Its repetitive, ritualistic construction was, first of all, a technical solution to the inherent problems of audibility. Raine cites John Adams's Nixon in China: 'It has a great deal of repetition - I mean, people sing everything 42 times - and the result is, you actually get a far greater percentage of the words.'

This idea was given further impetus by John Woolrich, for whom the libretto was originally written as part of the Royal Opera's Garden Venture. At Raine's first meeting with him, before the idea of collaboration had been broached, Woolrich complained that other poets he had worked with had written far too many words - in one case, after Woolrich had imposed cuts, the librettist had insisted on having the entire text published in the programme: 'He said people just sat there reading the programme and not listening to the music. So I got a very strong message from him that he wanted fewer words.'

Raine had another reason for writing the opera as he did: 'We think grief is monolithic; it's really a whole fan of emotions.' He was interested in the idea that this 'manifold variety' could be produced musically: 'What I wanted was that the audience would hear the same words, but the music would change them. So you'd hear one batch of words and they would sound tender to the listener, and then in the next section you would hear the same words again and they would sound angry.' So in Sand Storm reiteration becomes a means of conveying variety.

As it turned out, the projected collaboration with John Woolrich fell through, for reasons that Raine says he doesn't entirely understand. A major reason was, however, that he didn't hit it off with the director. On The Electrification, he had fought cat and dog with Peter Sellars from the word go, and enjoyed himself enormously. He has no doubt that Sellars is a genius, saying 'Singers will do anything for him,' and attributing to him 'perfect pitch for what happens in the theatre'. 'I learnt masses from him. Sure, I chased him round the set. I once threw a glass of champagne in his face because I was so irritated by something he'd done . . . but he's magic.'

One of the lessons he learnt from Sellars was that 'it's not just the words, what you're thinking of is in terms of stage imagery, stage pictures, what this will look like.' There had also been a clear demarcation, though: 'With Sellars it was perfectly clear that the words were mine, the music was Nigel's and what happened on the stage was his.' With Woolrich, however, Raine found himself pushed into far closer involvement with the action. Originally, he insisted that what happened on stage should be the director's business, but Woolrich wouldn't take no for an answer: 'He kept on grilling me, taking me out to Indian restaurants and giving me lots of beer, keeping me up until two in the morning, and saying 'What happens? what happens? what happens?', and in the end I actually told him.'

What does happen is, in keeping with the words, highly abstract and ritualised. But having stepped over the line into director's territory, Raine was dismayed to find that the director proposed for this project wanted to change what he had written - and unlike Sellars, he felt, was not inclined to argue it through. 'We had a meeting that wasn't entirely satisfactory, but wasn't full of ill-feeling. She rang me up the next day to say that she wanted to share positive feelings with me about the piece, but now they didn't need to be in touch till the dress rehearsals, and obviously some things would have to be changed. So I wrote John a postcard, saying everything can be changed, but nothing is to be changed without discussion with me. And he wrote back and said, clearly the chemistry's not working, the project's dead.'

So the libretto for Sand Storm went into freefall. Nigel Osborne described on these pages two weeks ago how he ended up incorporating it into his Sarajevo trilogy, which David Freeman is producing for Opera Factory at the Queen Elizabeth Hall later this month. After fighting to be consulted over the staging, though, Raine has had to stand aside simply because the rehearsal dates didn't fit: 'I'm sort of interested to see what David will do with it . . . I know that what I've written will not be exactly reproduced, it couldn't possibly be.' If it even comes close to Raine's vision, though, it should be strong meat.

'Sarajevo' opens on Tuesday 23 August at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank Centre, SE1 (071-928 8800) and runs until 3 September. Sponsored by Spero Communications in association with the Independent. Tickets are priced pounds 10- pounds 25, except for the premiere, when they carry a pounds 10 premium in aid of the reconstruction of the Obala Arts Centre and the Unesco appeal for the National & University Library of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Craig Raine's novel 'History: The Home Movie' is published by Penguin on 12 Sept

(Photograph omitted)