Guest article by Joanna Wyld
In anticipation of the premiere of our new opera, The Gardeners, on 18 June at Conway Hall, Robert Hugill has written about the genesis of the work
The story of how I came to write the libretto, and the significance of that experience, starts a little further back. When I was studying music at university, I loved writing about it, but I also loved writing it – under the guidance of Robert Saxton – to the extent that I went on to take a Masters in Composition, taught by George Benjamin, Rob Keeley and Jonathan Cole. But I also had to make a living, and composing is a notoriously precarious profession, so I channelled my creative instincts into writing about music. Soon, I felt pretty confident that I’m a better writer than composer, and have loved writing every programme note, every CD liner note, since. Yet alongside that experience there has always been the urge to produce something original for its own sake, so when a friend asked if I might be interested in writing a libretto for Robert Hugill, not only did I jump at the chance, I also felt rather stupid that the idea hadn’t occurred to me before. ‘Librettist’ seemed the perfect fusion of my interests, my loves – but was I up to it?
I met Robert Hugill at his house and he welcomed me with tea in his sunny kitchen. Absurdly, this is the only time we’ve met in person, but there’s a long history of composers and librettists working together remotely and through correspondence, so we’re in good company. Robert’s vision for The Gardeners was clear from the outset. He had read an article about a family of gardeners tending war graves and felt that this subject was ripe for operatic treatment, exploring issues of radicalisation as well as family dynamics. The Dead themselves were to feature, audible only to the Old Gardener – at first. The written style was to be pithy, using short phrases, and adapting lines from poetry by A.E. Housman and Rabindranath Tagore.
Before starting to write, I ordered myself a volume of Tagore’s texts and started to get to know them, as well as re-reading the article. I’d originally envisaged poring over other libretti – I’m a bit suspicious when I encounter writers who don’t also read extensively in order to learn from others – but Robert’s ideas were so clear that the first scene came naturally, and it felt right not to muddy the waters with too many other voices. I wanted Robert’s voice to come through, as well as my own and those of Housman and Tagore. That seemed enough.
However, I did have an idea of what I was aiming to avoid. Ronald Duncan’s libretto to Britten’s chamber opera, The Rape of Lucretia (in which I’d played the flute years before in a production directed by Ryan Wigglesworth), has come in for some criticism for its rather trite sewing up of a complex and sensitive subject. My aim was to dodge where possible the same pitfalls, by allowing tensions to surface and ambiguities to breathe without neatly resolving them. As a result, The Gardeners asks more questions than it answers, but with issues such as radicalisation this seems appropriate; this is a contemporary problem with no easy solution.
For the choice of language, my experiences as a composer came into play. I love setting words to music (I still occasionally write songs for my band), and it helped me to remember that process whilst writing this libretto. Words which, when combined, sit well together and possess a musicality, a distinct rhythm, inevitably lend themselves to musical treatment. I also remembered reading letters between Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath discussing the weight and density of words, and how the energy of two paired words needs to be complimentary rather than overly similar. Hughes wrote to Plath about her poem, Touch-and-Go: ‘… there is a traffic confusion I think in “Fierce flaming game of Quick child” – do you think “Quick flaring game Of child, leaf or cloud” because the “Fierce flaring” are two consecutive likenesses, and have been too often the double tap of the hammer… Well in verse the tendency is to follow an adjective that’s working with an idle timing one, so that adjectives tend to go in pairs. Well in “fierce flaring” an old couple has come up…’ Plath changed “fierce flaring” to “quick flaring” and the difference is palpable. I bore this in mind and tried to avoid ‘traffic confusion’ or ‘the double tap of the hammer’.
As for characterisation, I hoped to give a clear sense of each personality without resorting to types, allowing room for each of our artists to bring their own interpretation to their character. The Angry Young Man’s frustration can be damaging, but we also understand why he resents the invaders of his country, and he grows during the course of the opera. The Old Gardener casts a long shadow over his family, and the Gardener is caught between these two strong figures, trying to keep the peace. The Mother and Grandmother offer insight and wry observations in their attempts to mend relationships; both do their share of peace-making and eye-rolling, but neither is spared the sardonic wit of the other.
I sent each scene to Robert at regular intervals. He would tweak the text as needed, and in turn would send back his composition as it unfolded – and I would enjoy listening as The Gardeners grew. At each stage we discussed the direction of the plot, and although the whole process took some time – we’re both busy people with other commitments – it felt remarkably straightforward. I hope to have the chance to write more libretti in future, but in the meantime, I loved working with Robert Hugill, I’m really proud of The Gardeners, and I look forward to its premiere. See you there.
The Gardeners by Robert Hugill with libretto by Joanna Wyld receives its world premiere at Conway Hall, London, on Tuesday 18 June 2019, conducted by William Vann
© Joanna Wyld, April 2019
Joanna Wyld was born and educated in London before reading Music at New College, Oxford, where she was an Instrumental Scholar. She was listed as one of the Women of Distinction in 25 Years of Women at New College.
Joanna established Notes upon Notes in 2004 and has been writing liner notes, programme notes and other copy for a wide range of artists and record labels ever since. She also worked on Stop The Traffik for Steve Chalke and Cherie Blair, a book used as a resource by the UN.
Joanna won the 2014 OUP spoof Grove Dictionary article competition, as well as both second and third runner-up slots.
She curates playlists for classical streaming service IDAGIO, and recently appeared in a Southbank Centre video introducing a concert at the new Queen Elizabeth Hall. Joanna is Editor at Odradek Records, and has written her first libretto for an opera by Robert Hugill.