Opera's second chance

The ENO Works offers a space for composers to 'try things out'. It may also help turn Hackney into a vital artistic quarter. By Nick Kimberley
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The Independent Culture
How things change. Not long ago everyone loved opera. Pavarotti topped the charts, audiences flocked to see bold productions that got talked about everywhere, bel canto was the soundtrack of our lives. Now the daggers are out: opera is everyone's favourite whipping boy. As the Royal Opera House goes through its rather public trials and tribulations, the English National Opera loses its music director and the gossip columnists queue up to give their schadenfreude an airing.

In the circumstances, it's brave of English National Opera to call its latest venture the ENO Works - which almost begs the reply, "Oh no it doesn't." But perhaps it will, for this is about building a future for opera. The ENO Works is not so much a slogan, more a disused library in Hoxton which is to be home for the company's educational Baylis Programme, and for the Contemporary Opera Studio.

At least this building won't fall into disrepair, like so many of our public libraries. What's more, the ENO Works will play a part in rejuvenating a much-maligned part of Hackney. Besides this initiative, Hoxton is where you'll find Circus Space, the Blue Note Jazz Club and, soon, the British Film Institute's videotheque. Put those alongside the Geffrye Museum, the nearby Hackney Empire and Spitalfields Market with its embryonic opera house: it all adds up to an impressive artistic quarter.

The Contemporary Opera Studio's administrator is Sarah Hickson, who will collaborate with the ENO's composer-in-association, Mark-Anthony Turnage. The Studio itself is not a new venture, but it has been somewhat dormant for several years. Much of the work it produced was in formats - five- minute and 20-minute operas - that failed to find a true audience.

"The company wanted to revive the Studio," says Hickson, "but only after appointing a composer-in-association. That places a composer at the heart of what ENO is doing. After all, composers used to be working members of an opera company. That's difficult to achieve now, but how does a composer get experience in writing for the stage if they don't have access to an opera company?"

The Studio provides access for six composers: Turnage, Julian Grant, Julian Anderson, David Sawer and Param Vir. This is not a finite list, but resources are limited. Some of these composers are already working on projects originating outside the Studio, while Turnage is blessed, or perhaps cursed, with two commissions: Twice Through the Heart (librettist Jackie Kay) for the 1997 Aldeburgh Festival, and The Silver Tassie (libretto by Amanda Holden after Sean O'Casey's play) for ENO in 1998.

What the Studio offers, suggests Turnage, is "a safe environment where composers can try things out". Hickson adds: "There's always such pressure on a composer. They get their big chance to write an opera, and often they're working in an environment completely divorced from the company, the singers, the director - everyone who in the end creates the opera with them. And they're supposed to bring it all together in the crunch period of six-week rehearsals. It's no surprise composers feel vulnerable at that moment."

Turnage points out: "You can't change much at that stage. Apart from anything else, the singers will have learnt the material. The answer is to work with the other people involved over a period of years. I'm only about six months into writing Twice Through the Heart, but I've already had workshops with Sally Burgess, who will be taking the lead role. There's a lot of suspicion between singers and composers. With the Studio they will have a chance to build up relationships."

Not everyone, Turnage admits, wants to work that way: "A composer like Michael Tippett would never work in a studio situation. He produces the piece, and that's it. Other composers, and I'm one of them, love working with individuals. You build up a trust: in the workshops I've had with Sally Burgess, I've already made changes so that she feels more comfortable. It becomes more personal and, I hope, it becomes better."

Hickson points out that the process is not all one-way: "The Studio has a role within ENO as a national opera company, so that the company knows where contemporary opera fits and how it's developing. Singers, music staff, orchestral players will benefit from having a chance to work alongside composers and librettists, and they will be able to say to composers, 'Come to this rehearsal, and you'll see how this will work in context, what our relationship with the character is, how long it takes to walk from one side of the stage to the other.' There are basic things that a composer may not always know: about how voices work, what tessitura means to a singer, and so on.

"It's important that people don't necessarily associate 'studio' and 'contemporary' with 'small scale' - say a 15-minute piece for piano and drums. If someone wants to do that, fine, but it should not be imposed. There is this problem that, because a lot of new work is done by smaller, and therefore poorer companies, who are funded project by project, it's much more difficult to make long-term plans. The Studio is something permanent, a resource for the company and opera in general."

Turnage adds: "The pieces shouldn't be labelled 'studio projects' - and maybe there should be a better word than 'workshop'. There's a real resistance to it. People think it means running all over the place and embarrassing yourself. For me, the most attractive thing about workshopping is the instrumental stage. A lot of things go wrong with textures, with balance, as I found out fairly early when I was writing my first opera, Greek. At the studio we've set up a system whereby every six months during the writing of a piece, we'll try out, say, the first 15 minutes, so that we build things up gradually."

For this to work, everyone - singers. music staff, directors as well as composers and librettists - has to be involved. "It's important that the director is there quite early on," says Turnage. "Often they get involved at a much later date, which can be unhelpful." Hickson agrees: "The director can help the librettist in terms of shaping things dramatically. That's often needed at an early stage: you can't start unpicking a piece after huge chunks have been written."

If this begins to sound as if everything about new opera is a crisis, Hickson and Turnage are both aware that there is, in fact, no shortage of successful new operas. That, though, is easily forgotten since so few new works are ever seen again, Hickson suggests. "It's much more sexy to do a new work and, in order to get funding, you have to put on a premiere."

"That's very English. In Germany, for example, if a company has a success with a new work, another company in another town will want to do it. Here the attitude is, 'Oh, they did that, so we can't.' I didn't see Judith Weir's A Night at the Chinese Opera when that was done in 1987 - why hasn't it been staged again? Operas that are quite successful, at least critically, have to wait 10, 15 years to be seen again," says Turnage. "But," he adds, "that can't be the duty of the Contemporary Opera Studio at the moment."

It is important, both Hickson and Turnage feel, that the Studio is not seen simply as a laboratory for experimentation. Finished products must emerge from the ENO Works. Plans are afoot for a festival in 1998, built around what the Studio will have achieved. In the meantime, the Studio, like the Baylis Programme's educational and outreach projects, will undoubtedly benefit from having a permanent home. Turnage recalls: "When I first got to know people at the Coliseum years ago, they were always very friendly. 'Drop in any time,' they'd say. But with a huge place like the London Coliseum, where do you drop in? Here, people will be able to try things out - and we have to make it attractive and welcoming."

Precisely the problem facing new opera itself, of course. It's early days but, with good judgement and a bit of luck, the ENO Works may turn into a bit of the good news that opera so sorely needs at the moment.