How to improve your opera - have it nicked then do it all again

Last year Michael Berkeley had his score stolen. Now he's rewritten it.

Thursday 15 August 2013 22:48

Composer Michael Berkeley is now in a race against time. Within the next three weeks, he must complete his new opera. Its premiÿre is due in June.

Any sympathetic observer will regard the result as a triumph, whatever the view of the critics. For this was the opera whose half-written score was stolen in May last year, leaving Berkeley, one of Britain's leading contemporary composers, devastated.

"I was shell-shocked when it happened," he says. The portfolio was snatched by an opportunistic thief as Berkeley unpacked the car outside his west London home.

For a fortnight, he was paralysed. The work, based on Charlotte Brontë's novel Jane Eyre, had been commissioned for the opening of this year's Cheltenham International Festival of Music. The libretto was by the respected Australian writer David Malouf, a friend of Berkeley's since they were introduced by the Virago founder and publisher Carmen Callil.

Attempts were made to find the stolen score. A reward was offered. Family and friends distributed appeals for information. And Berkeley's wife, Deborah Rogers, a literary agent, consulted a psychic. A middle-man even began negotiations with the criminal underground over the music's whereabouts.

But the thought that it could be retrieved was, he says, "Chinese torture" and eventually Berkeley, the 51-year-old son of the composer Sir Lennox Berkeley and also artistic director of the Cheltenham festival, decided to ignore all these efforts as a distraction.

He ruled against the option of delaying for a further year - "I had a feeling that it would never happen if I decided to delay." And he embarked on what he calls a "psychological game" with himself. Instead of returning to the beginning, he started from the point he had reached at the time of the theft. "I picked it up from where I had dramatic momentum. The theft sort of galvanised me. Once I got going, a kind of fury overtook me."

Inevitably, there were sections he could not recall, however hard he tried. "I can remember the top line. It's the complexity underneath that eludes one," he says. "But everybody who has heard it now thinks it's very taut. You eschew all the fat."

As he spoke last week, he was on the penultimate page of the libretto, a point which sounds perilously close to a finish for music outsiders, but means up to eight minutes of music left to write - a not inconsiderable way to go. But he is now confident he will finish. Music Theatre Wales, the touring company who will first perform the completed opera, has been rehearsing as the score has arrived in sections.

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Around 20 performances are already on the cards after its premiÿre in Cheltenham, where it is one of more than 25 débuts during the two-week festival, including new works by Judith Weir and James MacMillan.

And Berkeley is now tentatively optimistic that the final opera will overcome its ill-starred beginnings. "It was everyone's worst nightmare when it happened. It can't compare with losing a child or something like that, but, for an artist, to lose something you've spent a year creating is the worst thing that can happen." But he has become transfixed by the re-writing. "The question everyone asks is 'Is it better?'" he says. "I'm cautious of making any claims at this stage, but the answer is I think it is more concentrated. I think it is."

'Jane Eyre': Cheltenham Festival (01242 227979), 30 June

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