Based on an obscure novella by Jules Verne, Doctor Ox's Experiment is a quirky black comedy about the manipulation of time. Doctor Ox conducts an experiment on the inhabitants of a sleepy French town, injecting oxygen into the atmosphere to see what effect it will have on their normally stultifying pace of life. The consequences turn out to be far-reaching.
Yet, the entire zany and somewhat offbeat premise of Doctor Ox seems ideally suited to Gavin Bryars's own personality and career, in which the composer has never stuck to the mainstream - or any stream at all, for that matter, except his own.
"Doctor Ox goes back to the mid-Eighties," says the composer. "Via Verne's tale, I became interested in matters such as the passage and freezing of time in music, especially over an evening in the theatre in the synthesis of this curious form we call opera. Doctor Ox is, maybe, one of Verne's lesser-known works, but none the less interesting for it, full of clever devices. It's an ingenious fable and Blake Morrison (above left) provided me with a very clear and atmospheric libretto to retell the story in musical terms."
For Doctor Ox, Gavin Bryars, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, employs the standard ENO orchestra though, as he is eager to point out, "with some minor modifications and additions of my own - so there's an electronic keyboard, and the oboe also doubles on oboe d'amore, suggestive of the timbres of early music. Then, there's an amplified jazz double-bass solo at one point. It's a big orchestra, but I use it sparingly; and, often, in terms of breaking it down into family groups. There is one huge climax in the opera, but, mainly, the full forces are out for the sheer range of colour they allow me to elicit."
And just as delicate and transparent seems to be Bryars's vocal writing, which matches his instrumentation throughout. "ENO is a great ensemble company, and I've written an ensemble opera with a range of voices and textures... and no histrionics for divas. I think the process which brought that about takes the piece away from what might commonly be perceived as 'grand opera'. So, for me, there are no big gestures simply there for their own sake: the text and music are equally important, both contributing together to an overall clarity of expression."
Verne has frequently been adapted for cinema, and, it seems, Bryars's own thinking has also been "cinematic, so who better to direct than an innovative film-maker like Atom?" And, without giving too much away about the look of Doctor Ox's Experiment, Bryars seems to be getting what he wants: "Gothic, mock-Gothic, atmospheric, enticing, very beautiful and subtle. A lot of it is played behind gauze and the costumes are dazzling, too."
A modern - perhaps even post-modern - opera for the 1990s: that's certainly what should be in store at the Coliseum this week when Gavin Bryars's fantastical vision of Verne finally hits the stage.
'Doctor Ox's Experiment' premiers at the Coliseum, St Martin's Lane, WC2 (0171-632 8300) 7.30pm, 15 Jun