Classical cockneys

CLASSICAL & OPERA
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"Fractured Lives", the South Bank's extensive festival devoted to the music of Mark-Anthony Turnage (right), should come to an appropriately dramatic conclusion next weekend with a London Sinfonietta staging of his opera, Greek. Directed by Clare Venables and conducted by Diego Masson, it was this work, more than anything else, which made the composer's name. Indeed, Greek has been called perhaps the single most successful opera of recent times and catapulted Turnage to overnight fame. Born in 1960, Turnage is still a relatively young man, so it does seem somewhat of a surprise to recall that his seminal operatic debut is now already a decade old. Greek was first performed at the Munich Biennale, winning prizes for both best opera and best libretto. The acclaimed Ensemble Modern production then successfully transferred to the Edinburgh Festival and was subsequently presented by the ENO. But how did the piece come about?

"It came about because I got a telephone call from my teacher, Hans Werner Henze, asking if I'd like to write an opera," recalls the composer. "Naturally, I was absolutely flabbergasted - an opera! I said 'yes' without really knowing what I'd let myself in for. And, even with the commission in hand and a strict deadline to work towards, it took me a long while to locate the right subject matter and then to find the correct compositional idiom with which to treat it."

Turnage eventually alighted on Steven Berkoff's celebrated play of the same name, where he homed in on the work's universal themes - although these had acquired a very topical status in the Thatcher years of the late 1980s. Berkoff's play tells a ruthless version of the Oedipus myth, set in the Turnage territory of East London, in which racism, violence and mass unemployment act as timely metaphors for a plague or malaise infecting the whole city. "Berkoff's play is already intensely rhythmical and inherently musical," says Turnage, "which obviously appealed to me. Then I was also attracted to the mythic element. And it also has a small cast. Here was the chance to write a really intense chamber piece which constantly seems to want to explode from out of the domestic walls which enclose it."

Indeed, and though Greek is composed for just a quartet of singing voices, a gamut of musical colour comes from the largish instrumental ensemble. What's more, all the musicians double throughout on an eclectic battery of exotic percussion instruments. Turnage's score brilliantly parallels and supports the fast-moving events on stage with a flexible and post-modern style which veers between episodes of lyrical tenderness and hard-hitting football chants. Described at the time as "a heady cocktail of Cockney and Shakespeare", it's a recipe which definitely seems to have worked.

"I didn't set out to be deliber-ately controversial," says Turnage. "Maybe just to bring up a few issues which concerned me and, along the way, to ruffle a few feathers." He certainly did, coming up with a revelatory work of music theatre in the process, which, justly, can already be endowed with that rare accolade of a modern classic.

The London Sinfonietta production of Mark-Anthony Turnage's 'Greek' is at Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank, SE1 (0171-960 4242) 17 & 18 Apr, 7.45pm

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