Composer Julian Anderson about his opera 'Thebans'

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[May 01, 2014]  By Michael Roddy

LONDON (Reuters) Everyone knows what happened to Oedipus, the ancient king who angered the Fates by killing his father and marrying his mother. But Julian Anderson's opera "Thebans", based on Sophocles's versions of those ancient stories, still packs some surprises.

Anderson, 47, who is often ranked among the top flight of British composers, has been writing music since he was 12. "Thebans", which will have its premiere at the English National Opera on Saturday, is his first opera — and is more than double the length of anything he has written before.

Mozart, of course, wrote more than a dozen operas before he died at age 35. But Anderson, who spent three years composing his opera based on a libretto by Irish playwright Frank McGuinness, says producing one today is a much bigger deal than it was in Mozart's time.

"It's a totally different animal," Anderson told Reuters in an interview in a day packed with rehearsals before a premiere for which the ENO has pulled out all the stops, including enlisting French-Lebanese star director Pierre Audi.

"It's much bigger, it's much more complicated, it's much more ambiguous a venture. There aren't any conventions in opera like there aren't in the rest of life. Everything has changed so it's a much more ambitious undertaking," Anderson said.

If Anderson is biting his nails, he isn't letting on. He couldn't be more pleased about the choice of McGuinness, whom he calls "an amazing wordsmith", to boil down three of Sophocles's plays into one.

He also thinks his own innovation, switching the chronology so Oedipus dies in the second act but remains a haunting presence in the third, works better. He says it shouldn't trouble audiences inured to time-shifting plots by constant exposure to them in soap operas and films.

"This is effectively a flashback, but it's a little more atmospheric and complicated than that term implies," he said.

Here's what else he had to say about working with McGuinness, why he decided to lump all three plays together and his musical influences:

Q: McGuinness is known for adaptations, including his "Oedipus the King" with Ralph Fiennes at the National Theatre. But his poems have been sung by pop singer Marianne Faithfull and he admits coming late to opera. How did that work?

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A: I didn't think initially of approaching Frank because (I thought) I'd be dealing with somebody who had too many preconceptions. I'm delighted to say he was very open, modest and cooperative and so we looked at the play he'd done and the first thing he had to do is reduce it without losing the dramatic intensity. Librettos have to be short because it takes a much longer time to sing them than speak them, but without losing the dramatic power. Frank's very skillful with words and he could do that and the result was a very beautiful text.

Q: Some composers have been content with operas based on just one of the Sophocles plays. Why attempt all three at once?

A: The idea of putting the plays together into a single evening was my idea but it's not at all an original idea in terms of theatre, they're often done that way ... but there's no opera that I know of where these three works were combined. It was interesting to be on the one hand working with quite traditional and quite well known subject matter but on the other hand to be adopting something for the first time. It was unusual and powerful and the combination was very attractive to me.

Q: You studied with the French composer Tristan Murail, one of the founders of the spectral school where, to drastically oversimplify, sound is everything. Is this piece spectral?

A: I certainly was affected by the so-called spectral technique ... but I don't write spectral music because those techniques, although they're very fascinating, are a little too rigid for what I do ... I'm not a fundamentalist in any way and the music that I write and, especially in this opera, to fit each of these acts the music has to change a lot and that's a delight for a composer. That's a pleasure to change your music to alter the sound it makes and see how much you can push things about and vary your voice without being incoherent."

(Editing by Andrew Heavens)

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