opera barnes

Singing at the gates of Hell

Singing at the gates of Hell 

Former T&L Surrey editor Christopher Wood has focused on composition and creative writing since moving on. Here he talks about his love of opera and the creation of his trilogy of chamber operas, No Way Out!  

I recall being blown away on first hearing opera as a way of telling a story. Solo singers could shine, choruses could add their own clout with some big, boisterous back-up tunes and comedy and tragedy could be played out to a vast array of musical styles and sounds. 

What I wasn’t so keen on was the convention surrounding the mainstream operatic repertoire – the arias designed to show off the soloists’ technical prowess; the static staging and the tongue-in-cheek assumption that ‘it ain’t over until the fat lady sings,’ a phrase left over from the days of Richard Wagner’s monumental ‘Ring’ of four operas and the buxom soprano Brünnhilde’s twenty-minute farewell, after a mind-numbing fifteen hours of unrelenting sturm und drang.  

I wanted to blow away some of these tired traits and replace them with something more ‘natural’ and flowing, in much the same way that life itself is lived.  

I was fascinated by the concept of creating an opera for one performer only. Making a story not about one character’s relationship with others, but about the one character’s reaction to a situation, while quite alone. I knew it could be done. I had seen a performance of Francis Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine. 

In this way Carter in Crisis was born. It was written for Paddy Cockshutt, an experienced singer who had already delivered a characterful Judge in my rock opera Chains! His challenge, as the well-to-do Carter – was to encounter the bust of a beautiful young Adonis as we walked home through a park on a cold winter’s night.   

He finds himself confronted with timeless beauty set in stone. He becomes both enthralled and enraged by the boy, a compulsive and erotic attraction which contorts into jealousy and hate, finally ending in wanton and pathetic destruction for both of them. 

Images left to right: Sofia Kirwan-Baez, Credit: Giacomo Giannelli; Helsa Townsend, Credit: Asadour Guzelian; No Way Out
Top image: La Voix Humaine – Pictured: Sofia Kirwan-Baez, Credit: Giacomo Giannelli

The success of the piece encouraged me to think of a similar concept for a soprano which would, of course, broaden the audience appeal if the two pieces could be performed together. This led to the creation of The Tart and the Princess. A natural two-hander, surely? But no – these were two characters lurking uncomfortably alongside each other in the psyche of one very vulnerable woman. 

But the two solo operas needed something to bring the two soloists together. It was then that I began to take a closer look at Jean Paul Sartre’s play Huis Clos (No Exit) which expounds the theory that ‘Hell is other people.’ Three incompatible, emotionally flawed people find themselves thrust together in an anguished situation that none of them is able – or willing – to leave. Only tragedy, it seems, can pull them apart. The concept proved ideally suited to the linking piece that I had been looking for. It became The Dinner Party. 

The trilogy of chamber operas – in effect a single chamber opera in three acts, called No Way Out! – was trialled at a number of small venues in Surrey around ten years ago. Now Jonny Danciger, artistic director at the OSO Theatre in Barnes has re-discovered it and is committed to presenting a new production, alongside other contemporary works (including La Voix Humaine!) and Jonathan Dove’s Songs of Ariel, which are interspersed with Jonny’s own settings. 

Jonny’s affinity to contemporary opera is revered by the OSO faithful in west London and he has found new breadth and vision, not only in No Way Out! but also in the upcoming project which he is calling The Opera Studio, two days of intimate and innovative chamber opera events which are exciting me and all involved with the new productions. 

OSO Arts Centre, Barnes: Fri 23 – Sat 24 Sept, Opera Studio: Chamber Works. Tickets: £10-20, or £50 for all events. 

  • Christopher Wood is the in-house composer and founder of Surrey-based Guest House Opera. For more on the breadth of his musical activity and his availability for commissions visit: