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)

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?