OPERA / Taking the fur out of mothballs: Siegfried Matthus is that rarity, a popular modern opera composer. Antony Peattie met him

A popular new opera? It seems, well, unlikely. Generally, new operas are commissioned out of duty ('or the repertory will die') and mounted economically, once, before being buried in obscurity. Yet here is an exception: Cornet Christoph Rilke's Song of Love and Death is an opera with an unfashionably long title by Siegfried Matthus (a composer who was big in East Germany but more or less unknown here), which is now receiving its 11th new production in the eight years since it was premiered in Dresden. Those new productions have taken it to audiences as far apart as Alessandria in Italy, Manhattan and Munich. And each occasion has garnered great reviews and even more effective word-of-mouth: audiences grow, once they hear that the performance provides that rare experience, an emotional, theatrical and intelligent evening at the opera.

The Song of Love and Death now comes to Britain in a lavish new production by Glyndebourne Touring Opera. Despite all the company's efforts, nobody could be found to sponsor it. The myth that sponsors love GTO needs to be scotched. Nobody wanted to sponsor the new production of La boheme last year, for example. Matthus's opera suits GTO's enterprising repertory, which mixes in contemporary works with a basic diet of Mozart and other classics: Song of Love and Death follows Tippett's New Year and precedes Birtwistle's new work, The Second Mrs Kong, scheduled for 1994.

It suits GTO in another way, too, since it makes exceptional demands on the chorus: GTO's chorus consists largely of young singers, who use it as a transitional stage between college and the first steps on the soloist's ladder to success. This isn't always an advantage in dramatic terms but here it helps. They see its virtuosic choral writing as a challenge: occasionally a cappella in 16 parts, it demands from them all a soloist's responsibility to pitch correctly.

Two members of GTO went to Munich to see the most recent staging. Before it began, they glanced into the pit and were horrified to see an electric piano: 'That's not in the budget]' exclaimed one. All became clear in the performance, however: the chorus coped with the score's demands by singing from the pit, where they were fed notes from the piano on earphones, while a movement group cavorted on stage. That won't happen here. I sat in on a rehearsal with the composer, who was thrilled at the way the singers rose to the challenges but surprised to learn that GTO's chorus master, David Angus, will not be taking a separate curtain call, as happens elsewhere.

Matthus is an affable, youthful 60- year-old, with large, blue, innocent eyes. He explained how Song of Love and Death came into existence. 'Harry Kupfer, who ran Dresden's opera house, commissioned me to write an opera for the reopening of the theatre. I composed Judith, the story of Judith and Holofernes. But suddenly Harry went to run Berlin's Komische Oper and took Judith with him. So I had to write another work at short notice. I couldn't think what text to use, and was running my eyes along my bookshelves, when I saw a book I hadn't read since I was at school, Rilke's cycle of prose poems about his ancestor, Cornet Rilke. I took it down, and discovered that it cried out to be set to music: it already calls for drums and horn, the rest soon fell into place.'

Matthus is not the first to have seen the work's potential for music. It irritated Rilke himself that composers wanted to add another layer since, as he said, 'It has its own music.' (He once lamented that 'the old fur will have to be given up: the music moths have got into it.') Often the musical settings avoid dramatising it completely: Kurt Weill wrote a symphonic poem, Frank Martin a concert setting for mezzo-soprano and chamber orchestra (recently recorded, rather well, by Marjana Lipovsek on Orfeo C164881A).

What distinguishes Matthus's version is its dramatic viability, its proven effectiveness on stage. This seems unlikely, to anyone who knows the text, since it consists of fragmentary impressions. Matthus adapts the text, however, allocating the narrative lines to the hero's shadow, the voice of his thoughts. ('We all speak with several different voices,' he points out engagingly, 'and tend to contradict ourselves.') He also enlarges it by incorporating other poems or fragments by Rilke. When the soldiers riding to war pass a statue of the Madonna, for example, Matthus takes a Song of the Column that Rilke wrote and sets it for women's chorus. Elsewhere, he finds appropriate lines for women working in the fields, for gypsies and, above all, for the lovers in their ecstasy.

This scene is a quartet rather than a duet, since the Countess, like the Cornet, is accompanied by the voice of her thoughts. Matthus rises to the challenge and writes a brief but sumptuous quartet for two sopranos and two mezzos. Perhaps it's worth saying that Matthus writes tunes, socking melodies that stay with the listener after the event.

The opera's text is a skilled literary work, with a sure grasp of the meaning and implications of the original's dramaturgy. I wondered where Matthus had learnt to create such a dramatically cogent structure. 'From Felsenstein' he answers. When I ask what exactly he learnt from the great director, who founded Berlin's Komische Oper after the war, he says simply, 'Everything. I was resident composer and dramaturg, part of a young team that included Kurt Masur, Gotz Friedrich and Joachim Herz. It was a very exciting time. We read through scores over long periods, never taking anything for granted, starting with the title-page. Felsenstein's principle was to ask questions, repeatedly.'

A director's eye informs Song of Love and Death with theatrical life. Even the prominent role of the chorus, which occasionally plays an almost orchestral, as well as dramatic, role, originated in a theatrical context. 'I saw an extremely striking production of Gorky's play Mother by Lyubimov that toured to Berlin. The chorus made up the sets - in one form it represented the barracks, in another grouping a room. That was one of the basic inspirations for my opera, for its musical shape as well for its dramatic course.'

The GTO production of Song of Love and Death has three performances at Sadler's Wells and then travels to Norwich, Plymouth, Manchester, Oxford and Southampton. This should be cause for celebration. But the Arts Council, armed with the best intentions - of 'making opera accessible to wider audiences' - is bent on destroying GTO, so as to bring cut-down versions of the repertory, with reduced orchestras, cheap stagings and juvenile casts to smaller theatres. If your priority, in the words of Beverly Anderson, Chair of the Touring Panel, is 'addressing the needs of audiences in the catchment areas of theatres like the Civic in Darlington', then you have to shrink operas and productions to fit unsuitable spaces. The economics of touring to such smaller theatres rule out the enterprise, integrity and quality of the kind offered by GTO's staging of Matthus's Song of Love and Death. Audiences should be warned: go and see GTO now, while it's still there, even if it means travelling outside your catchment area.

Sadler's Wells, London (071-278 8916) Mon, then 7, 9 Oct; Norwich Theatre Royal (0603 630000) 13 Oct; Plymouth Theatre Royal (0752 267222) 20 Oct; Manchester Palace (061-242 2503) 28 Oct; Oxford Apollo (0865 244544) 4 Nov; Southampton Mayflower (0703 229771) 12 Nov. Opera at 8.15 (exc London 8.30) preceded an hour before by 'Exploring Love and Death', an illustrated introduction by Antony Peattie, free to ticket-holders

(Photograph omitted)

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