OPERA / Once more from the top: Harrison Birtwistle did not cut 15 minutes from his opera Gawain to save on orchestra overtime or to appease critics. Like scores of composers before him, he simply thought better of it

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It's a complicated business, writing operas. All those conflicting demands of music and text to reconcile. Small wonder so few composers get it right first time. Check out the so-called standard repertoire and you'll find it strewn with rewrites, revisions and rethinks.

Many a 'timeless' masterpiece - La traviata, Madama Butterfly, Fidelio - that failed on first hearing gained from the extra time its composer was given to entertain his second thoughts. Indeed, there is hardly one of Verdi's 20-plus operas that didn't undergo some degree of textual tampering - from the odd alternative aria to the full-scale refashionings of Forza del destino and Don Carlos. (And thanks to Edward Downes, that indefatigable defender of lost scores, we'll soon get to hear every possible permutation in the course of Covent Garden's up- and-coming 'Verdi 2001' series.)

Until this century, the idea of a definitive version of an opera was unthinkable to composers who were used to trim their works, willy- nilly, to appease the censor, to assuage public and critical opinion, or to meet the demands of particular singers, stagings or national tastes. And although few composers have been known to admit it, many such changes have been for the better.

Yet today, with ever fewer opportunities to gain experience of working in the theatre, most composers are only ever given one shot at operatic success. Questions of quality aside, the resistance of our museum-culture to absorb new additions to the repertoire means that most modern operas are no sooner seen than forgotten.

Or, in the case of Sir Harrison Birtwistle's mammoth, multi-layered recasting of Greek myth, The Mask of Orpheus - hitherto given only a single run of performances at ENO in 1986 - once seen, never forgotten. Birtwistle (who admits that Orpheus is, in many ways, unrealisable - 'and that, for me, is its fascination') has been better served at Covent Garden, which next week revives his 1991 Evening Standard Award-winner, Gawain. And the composer has seized the opportunity of the revival to indulge some of his own second thoughts.

Given his instinctively 'Cubist' approach to composition, constantly circling his musical 'objects' from ever-changing angles and perspectives, one might think Birtwistle a born reviser. Yet, despite his flair for ringing the changes from endless repetition and his preoccupation with manipulating the musical clockwork of time, Birtwistle has never been one to repeat himself. He knows - as Gawain, his operatic hero manque, discovers in his soul-stripping encounter in the Green Chapel - that there's no going back. Even when composing repeats, he insists, he never turns back a finished page, preferring to proceed on the basis of memory (with all its imperfections).

So the idea of revising a finished piece is quite alien to his nature. Not that second thoughts have never crossed his mind. As he says: 'In concert pieces, I always think that there's a lot of things I would like to revise. But it's always more interesting to do another piece . . . And also, you see, the things that you would want to revise, if you just leave them, they get better. You know, like a wound . . .'

He's also learnt that, if ever he is tempted to pick up, and pick at, a piece he hasn't heard for ages, the experience of rehearing it invariably reveals that the things that worried him before now sound fine, while it's other things that start to sound wrong. 'So there's no answer to it,' he shrugs. 'But I think of my pieces like children - you do your best as a parent and then, in a sense, they're on their own.'

So why has he suddenly become paternalistic about Gawain? Isn't it a bit like going up to one of your children and saying, 'I'm sorry we sent you to that school'? 'Well, it is, yes. 'We should have done it another way.' But there is something about that that you . . .' He sighs. 'I don't know . . . They change . . . You know, music changes.'

And anyway, as he is quick to point out, he has only revised a single section of the score, albeit a rather significant one - the masque of the 'Turning of the Seasons' that originally ended Act 1 and depicts the year-long vigil during which Sir Gawain is washed and armed before journeying North in quest of the Green Knight.

So when did he know it needed revising? 'Immediately. Absolutely immediately.' But is that immediately on writing it, immediately on seeing it on stage, or immediately on reading the reviews? 'Yeah. Well, no . . . I . . .' he blusters, in a brief burst of that bear-like belligerence for which he is, unfairly, famed. But it's quickly past. 'I think the thing is,' he continues in more confessional mood, 'it's a sort of mistake . . . Gawain is about story-telling and, in some aspects, it's quite nave . . . And that simplicity, for what I wanted at that point . . . I just thought there was a better way of doing it. And it's simply that. And also I thought that the main thrust of the narrative was, to a degree, held up too much, you know . . . So it's as simple as that. There is nothing more to it than that . . .' And he lets his thoughts trail off, before going back on the defensive. 'But did you see it before?' Reassured that I did, he proceeds to outline the gist of the changes. Now, instead of the five- fold passage of the seasons - from winter to autumn, with a reprise back to winter to cover the year- and-a-day required to prepare Gawain for his quest - there is a simple division of the action into day and night, with the seasons passing during the day and Gawain's arming taking place by night. As he says, the new version scores by underlining the dualities that underpin the piece - between inside and outside, man and nature, Christian and pagan. 'I just think it's better, that's all - simpler, clearer, tells the story, and helps the rest of it . . . I haven't heard it in context yet; I haven't heard that it does work. But I suspect that it might be more interesting in a way.'

It's also some 15 or 20 minutes shorter, which prompted the Evening Standard to run a story last month alleging that the composer had been forced to cut his 300- minute score to save on orchestral overtime. Birtwistle claims not to have seen the piece, but can barely conceal his exasperation. 'Oh, they told me about it. It's nonsense. I can't deal with things like that.'

He doesn't have much time for critics either. 'Well, there are none,' he chuckles with dark Accrington humour. 'They're all journalists now,' he adds, slewing the word with deep contempt. 'They never address music, they only address performance. There's nobody got any ears any more . . . Well, I never read them anyway.'

So it can only be coincidence that he's cut the very section of the score that the majority of reviewers felt most in need of pruning. The suggestion meets with horrified incomprehension. 'You can't prune anything - that's a terrible idea. You know what Schoenberg said, don't you? He said that when anything's too long, even the first note's too long. So, no. I rewrote it. But it's nothing to do with the critics.'

And how will he feel if, in 100 years' time, some bright young spark of a conductor comes along, opens up the 'cuts' and announces the 21st-century premiere of 'the composer's original version'? 'Well, it'll give 'em something to do,' he chortles. 'Justify their existence] But there are two originals - that's my feeling about it. I mean, now you can do it two ways.' So you won't be turning in your grave? 'No. The only thing I'd be upset with would be if, when I saw it, they didn't make it work. The answer in the end is always: does it work? And how you do it, or what you do, doesn't really matter.'

'Gawain' opens Thurs 7pm ROH, Covent Gdn, WC2 (071-240 1066)

(Photograph omitted)