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Towards a new model of opera: Lord Byron, a summer without summer

To write an opera today is probably the most fascinating challenge that can face a composer. And it is not just for what the magnitude of such a project represents –something which without doubt should not be underestimated– but for the responsibility one faces in one of the genres where there is a magnificent repertoire and because reaching a level of excellence similar to that of some past composers seems an extremely difficult thing to do. The creative models of contemporary composers have changed singularly in the course of the 20th and 21st Century, not to mention in comparison to that of composers of the 19th Century. The challenges faced by Mozart, Verdi, Puccini, Wagner or Strauss, to cite only some of the most outstanding composers, are different from those composers face today, not to mention the challenge of contemporary opera to today’s opera-goers, who, like those of the past, continue to want to discover a production which interests, entertains, and above all, seduces them. I am speaking as another member of the public here, of course, as I don’t think that I am so different just because I am also a composer: in the end I am also just another opera lover.

Before writing Lord Byron, I had already written a chamber opera, La Cuzzoni, also with a libretto by Marc Rosich.  Here I took my first steps in the genre and learnt something that has been fundamental in my way of conceiving a musical drama: opera, like no other genre needs and demands communication with the listener, the person who needs so much to be surprised and seduced. Pleasing the listener is really nothing more than the sum of these two things. That is why it is not something that worries me when I come to do my work: I know that as another member of the listening public, what seduces me could also seduce others. The intellectual project surrounding the work of conceiving and finally bringing an opera into existence is something totally personal, equivalent to what an architect has to do with the plans and the workers have to do in the construction of a building. This is part of the job, of my work as a composer. I am not so concerned that the listener should know how I do this, but rather should appreciate what is finally produced. I prefer that the listeners are carried away by the acoustic images that the subconscious generates, that they discover the work step by step and that, in the end, they connect with it. The indescribable element that all musical works have in the end is something that can’t be controlled, because it depends on many variables: the type of public, their readiness to participate and let themselves be carried away, the suitability of the work to its time, etc. There are a great many elements that, although one might try to measure them, are in the end uncontrollable: while we all agree that Tristan and Isolde is a work of art we can’t argue this with concrete and irrefutable words. I try to seduce the public with sounds that describe the protagonists and their stories. The listeners must decide if I achieve this or not. This is the risk, my risk, one I accept without fear so that what I am about to explain is nothing more than an attempt to make myself understood in as way that is probably impossible: by explaining the world of sound with words.

Lord Byron, un estiu sense estiu/un verano sin verano, develops from two essential parameters that at the same time are in the synthesis of the storyline in the text: the real and the unreal. The real is made up of the worldly concerns of the protagonists, the joys and misfortunes of a fascinating and marvelous encounter, which for them turns into something cruel and uncontrollable. The unreal is part of an idea that stems from their real situation, and like much in life, leads them finally to the limits of the existential, where the unreal overtakes the real.

At the beginning of the opera we find ourselves in a place some of our protagonists are passing through: the battlefield of Waterloo, whose desolation and stillness reaches into one’s depths. It is a place where death lives hidden below the surface like a ghostly punishment for the obstinacy of man. Throughout the opera death is represented by a male voice, the voice of soldiers fallen in the field of battle, which is at the same time the cry that surges up from the  earth’s interior, its roar. When Polidoro writes his first letter sitting in the midst of the battlefield, what emanates from his pen is the death that despite the time that has passed since the battle, lives on in the field around him. Death –the male chorus– and life –the female chorus- make up the reality of the man, both are his tenacity. The explosion of the volcano Tambora, around the time that our protagonists visit Lake Séchèron in Geneva, seems to be an omen of a not very promising denouement, a premonition.

In the opera then, there exists the objective of situating the listeners in the scene so that they feel the sounds in their own skin the sounds and recognize their sensations these produce. Using a language almost of cinema, sound and image transport the listeners to the centre of a kaleidoscope of sound in which the essence of the story is perceived as an eventual individual reality. To achieve this, the entire scene acts as an enormous instrument where the acoustic dimension traps listeners and takes them to the places where the drama will be played out.  Sound and movement seem to be one single thing, and both try to bring listeners to a drama, almost reminiscent of a Wagnerian one, where all the elements taking part, chorus, orchestra, as well as the musicians that are on stage and the set in which the sounds of nature are echoing, serve to back up the soloists, who little by little present a story where the real and the unreal seem indivisible. From the sarcasm of Byron to the existentially weak Polidoro, the childish Clair, the discreet but impressive Mary, the imaginative but impetuous Shelley and the conspiratorial servant Fletcher, each person is his or her voice. The words and the sounds that come from the voice of each one of them is a reflection of how they think and how they act, so that the music shows us, apart from what they seem to be like, what they really are:  something that one way or another it is impossible to describe with words and gestures, but which the abstraction of music allows us to recognize in a subliminal manner.

The opera begins then with the wailing of the dead in the field of battle, which, as I have mentioned earlier, is represented by the male voices in the chorus, who from beyond the grave ask to be allowed to speak. The female voices represent the very opposite-rest, the impossible ideal-so that it is not until well advanced in the opera that both groups, male and female, come together. The grand chorus of voices will be the connection between the real and the unreal, the tangible and the intangible, represented in music by the two extremes that are in essence the sound by itself and the word. The chorus tries to construct in the course of the opera an impossible language, while in its continuous attempt to do this, ends up by underlining the dialogues of the soloists adding a dramatic/musical game that places the soloists in the centre of each scene. These, in contrast to the chorus, appear to us to be diaphanous, with a transparent and tremendously real language, portraying each character with a musical expression that underlines their character and allows us to glimpse the intangible: their virtues and weaknesses.

The description of each moment moves away, then, from the mere musical representation of the romantic melodrama, distancing itself from the idea of the “leitmotiv” to come nearer to a microscopic and hyperrealist description of each scene and its content. There is no room for superficiality in a story in which the personages describe themselves, baring their innermost selves, transformed only by those who accompany them. The exterior of each changes depending on who is observing, from what each  one believes he or she really is,  to how each one believes he/she is seen in the eyes of the observer. In this way the superimposition of the two realities in the penultimate scene of the second act reflects at the same time who each one is and who each one would become –or perhaps has already become: the disturbed and fevered self-description.  This is a moment in which the music gives way to the cacophonic noise of an impossible reality, where finally the genius of its creators leads to a tense reality, full of contradictions, and in the end to a disturbing simplicity.

I wish, however, to stress the importance that nature and its relationship with man has in this opera, as it is nature that one way or another transforms the protagonists, and which provokes in each one the dream of who they think they are. In this way, the representation of the eruption of the Tambora volcano, the Great Storm which opens the second act and the imposing presentation of the Mont Blanc, are three moments in the opera by means of which the orchestra and the chorus come to us as extraordinary columns of sound that stretch out to the infinite, where a sea of sounds finally builds up to a fabric of sound of great dimensions which dissolves and reappears constantly  forming a fabric of sound which almost seems to swirl around the listeners and accompany them  from one scene to another. The counterpoint to this flowing sound is found in the scenes where Lord Byron and Mary Shelley -the former with Turkish songs in Act I and the latter with the game of draughts in Act II –respectively give shape to fast-paced fragments where what life and death is and what it represents for each of them are woven in stories and discussions. These ideas little by little make up part of the drama that gradually takes us to the very heart of the opera:  the storytelling challenge Lord Byron issues.

The music written here is a musical narration that, together with the text, amount to an attempt to reach the listener by an unexplored path, or at less that is how I see it as a composer. There is a use of tone/pitch and sounds in this work that shows us something that can’t be seen with a conventional gaze and more than recount a drama, goes into an abstract description of minute detail with an almost infinite reality: a hyper-reality. Perhaps to attempt this is impossible, a utopia. But isn´t the emotion that music produces in us already in itself perhaps a utopia? Isn’t this something unpredictable and intangible?

Listen, watch and then decide.

Agustí Charles

Translation: Louise Higham