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Elspeth Brooke on the influence of poetry and film noir on her new opera

The Commission, based on a poem by Michael Donaghy, tracks the story of a man seeking revenge.

By Elizabeth Davis (Former Editorial Assistant)

13 March 2014 at 2.31pm | Comment on this article

The opera is based on a poem by Michael Donaghy about a craftsman seeking revenge for his brother’s murder. How did you settle on the text and how did the piece come about?

At the time, the librettist, Jack Underwood, was writing a PhD that examined Michael Donaghy's poetry. He actually suggested Donaghy's poem The Commission from the 'Errata' collection because he thought it had all the ingredients of a really compelling opera plot.

I met Jack on the Jerwood Opera Writing Programme at Aldeburgh Music in 2007, and during the workshops there we made a piece that was about twenty minutes long. We then won a Jerwood Fellowship to develop the work. So we brought in a new director, Annabel Arden, and a new creative team and we decided to make lots of changes. The past few months have been really intensive!

How did you work together once the text had been chosen and the creative team brought together?

Jack wrote a libretto that has gone through so many different stages I’ve lost count. Sometimes there have been sections that I’ve thought were too long or scenes that needed to change because of the structure of the opera – there’s been a lot of toing and froing. For example, most of the text doesn’t rhyme, but when I read the text for the Pope’s aria, it seemed like a nursery rhyme he might sing to a child, so I asked Jack if he could add some rhyming lines.

Tell us about the instrumentation you’ve chosen to use.
Michael Donaghy’s poem suggests a Renaissance setting but reads like a film noir voice-over, and it was the combination of those two different things that really appealed to Jack and me. So I thought about instrument combinations for quite a long time. Rather than go for period instruments and period tunings I went for a mandolin, which brings a sound similar to the lute, and a trombone, rather than, say, a sackbut. There’s also a cimbalom, which has been used a lot in film music, so that’s a nice connection.

What has been the most challenging thing about writing The Commission?
I suppose the most challenging thing has also been the most exciting thing – which is to try and get the music totally to embody the drama, to make a dramatic arc that makes sense and is also going to be powerful and affecting for the audience. I’ve particularly focussed on harmony and tried to find my own language that references the Renaissance – there’s a passacaglia basis to one of the arias, for example – and brings in some postwar elements.

How are you feeling about hearing your opera for the first time?
It’s a massive thrill. It’s just so exciting to be in the rehearsal room at the moment because I love devising and I’m surrounded by people who are full of brilliant ideas. It’s pretty amazing, really!

The Commission runs in the Linbury Studio Theatre 17–19 March 2014 in a double programme with Francisco Coll's Café Kafka. Tickets are still available.

The programme is a co-commission and co-production with Aldeburgh Music and Opera North supported by Arts Council England's Britten Centenary Fund.


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