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The sound of “Summertime”, one of Gershwin’s most famous tunes, wafts through the air from a piano in the hotel lounge. It’s hardly a conversation stopper, least of all when a classical composer is present, but Julian Anderson – hitherto in full flood – breaks off. “I get a very special feeling when I hear that,” he says, as if the outside world has suddenly interrupted his high-minded train of thought. “I get as emotional about a good sound as some people do about cooking or plants or politics. But being emotional [in music] is not enough – it’s flabby – just as music that is all technique is boring. I try my best [to combine the two].”
Which is exactly the situation Anderson finds himself in as the world premiere of his first opera approaches. Commissioned by English National Opera, Thebans receives its first performance on May 3 at the London Coliseum. Anderson looks demob-happy. He admits to having enjoyed composing his version of Sophocles’ Oedipus trilogy, even though, at an hour and 50 minutes, it lasts nearly double the length of any previous work in his output.
With the opera now in rehearsal, Anderson has moved on. He is putting the finishing touches to his second string quartet, to be unveiled by the Arditti Quartet at Wigmore Hall on May 15, and he has a violin concerto to write for Carolin Widmann, who will give the premiere with the London Philharmonic Orchestra next March.
Until recently the achievements of the 46-year-old London-born composer created less noise than those of his English contemporaries Thomas Adès and Mark-Anthony Turnage. But a string of impressive new works – Fantasias and The Discovery of Heaven for orchestra, and his ballet The Comedy of Change – have seen Anderson at a point where he now need not fear comparison.
He is impossible to pin down to any style or school except his own. While unashamed to acknowledge debts to the past, his music operates within a fresh and piquant harmonic framework, engaging the senses as much as the intellect – the opposite of what you might imagine when you first meet him, for Anderson has a studious exterior that gradually reveals a hearty core.
It has taken until mid-career for Anderson to write his first opera but it seems as if Thebans has been in gestation for decades. He remembers how, as a 16-year old studying Greek, he spent a summer holiday “slaving away” at translating Oedipus the King into English. Oedipus’s words to the blind prophet Tiresias – “you would provoke a stone to anger” – must have lodged in his psyche, for he repeats them when I ask why he chose to base a contemporary opera on an ancient Greek tragedy.
“The fact that Sophocles’ tales are ancient and in Greek had nothing to do with it,” he responds, admitting that he has always been a “reluctant” classicist. “The reason I chose them is that I was dramatically gripped – it was something I wanted to set to music. That line about provoking a stone to anger could have been said this morning – it’s the immediacy of it – but it was written 2,500 years ago. I didn’t want a complicated tale, and these are simple stories: they gave me clear situations to set to music.
“I’ve composed [Thebans] on the principle that people already know something about the tale, if not the details, and could have a good evening out.”
That sounds reassuring. But the Theban plays are hardly light-hearted entertainment. Murder, suicide, incest, self-mutilation, ruthless ambition: they read like a guide to flawed humanity. Sophocles may be unsparing, says Anderson, but he also understands that “people are neither wholly good nor wholly bad. They are a mix, a dirty shade, ambiguous. I like writing music about characters like that – not black-and-white.”
Anderson’s librettist is Irish playwright Frank McGuinness, whose stage adaptation of Oedipus the King was produced by the National Theatre in 2008. McGuinness once summarised Sophocles’ Theban plots on the lines of “families are terrifying”. Anderson concurs – “I didn’t want to write an opera about heroes” – while adding a line of his own. “It’s what happens when you mingle personal and political: they don’t mix.”
After a first act in which Oedipus learns the terrible truth of his past and a short second act in which his daughter Antigone is brutally sacrificed to political expediency, the third act of Thebans finds Oedipus called offstage by the chorus – the voice of God – to a spiritual haven that has hitherto eluded everyone.
“He goes out in a blaze of light, and the orchestra explodes,” Anderson says with relish. “Is it Oedipus’s death? Is it Antigone’s anguish? Is it some kind of rage against the destructiveness Oedipus has vented on the rest of the family? I leave the audience to decide. Antigone, singing ‘Father’, is left stranded on a high B.”
Just a minute – hasn’t Anderson got the order wrong? In Sophocles’ chronology, Oedipus’s demise comes before Antigone’s. What’s up? Anderson sees the blinding of Oedipus as the past and the death of Antigone as the future. His Act Three is the present, “and you begin to see retrospectively why the previous acts were as they were, and where the drama is heading. You see this poignant, passionate woman, and you know her fate is sealed. I like that time twist: it gives the tale a bit of zing and mystery.”
That may well be but the general thrust of Thebans suggests Anderson has cast aside any avant-garde pretensions and bought into the traditional idea of opera. He agrees.
“ENO asked for an opera that would use the resources of the house to the full, and I hope I’ve done that. I never felt I was setting a myth. The way Frank has written it, it’s just about people, very direct and uncomplicated, and a pleasure to set to music. That allowed me to buy into the traditional operatic genre and pull it about a bit.
“There’s music [in Thebans] I didn’t anticipate having to write but that has always been my aim – to write music I didn’t know I could write, and to find I actually liked it. If I don’t enjoy my own music, who the hell will?”
‘Thebans’, English National Opera, London, May 3-June 3 eno.org