Music for a virtual life

Orlando Gough at home in Brighton

Ask Orlando Gough to write for 500 musicians, including impromptu “rabble” choirs, as he did for his 2008 BBC Proms commission We Turned on the Light, and he knows how to deliver. Tell him you want a site-specific work to be performed on HMS Belfast, a second world war battleship, as the Thames Festival did last year, and Gough will find a way of making it work. But writing something as conventional as opera?

“It felt like climbing Everest,” he says when asked about Imago, his new community opera for Glyndebourne, to be premiered next month. At two hours with an interval, “it’s the longest piece I’ve ever written. I spent several months on my own in a room [composing it], and it was like trying to survive without oxygen. Writing an opera is the most difficult thing you can do, and that’s what makes it tempting. It’s a challenge.”

At first sight Gough, 59, is an unlikely candidate for a Glyndebourne commission. Self-taught as a composer, he has spent most of his professional life pursuing maverick impulses – co-founding minimalist music ensemble The Lost Jockey in his thirties, directing The Shout, a multi-cultured choir, in his forties and winning plaudits for his Proms and HMS Belfast extravaganzas in his fifties.

On the other hand he lives in Brighton, a stone’s throw from the privately funded Sussex opera house, and has the sort of widely cultured background that fits in with that rarefied world. But what really attracted him to Glyndebourne was his impression that, like several other supposedly conventional arts institutions, it was starting to embrace unconventional projects.

Citing the National Portrait Gallery, which has staged Gough-inspired choral spectacles, and the Royal Opera House, which premiered his 2010 monodrama A Ring a Lamp a Thing for soprano and live electronics, he says opera companies “are thinking in different ways now. They are more open-minded – it doesn’t have to be Carmen all the time. The fear for people like me is Tesco-isation, but my relationship with these institutions has been really helpful. They have not made unhelpful demands about what it has to be.”

His collaborators on Imago have been librettist Stephen Plaice and director Susannah Waters, and it was Waters who initially came up with the tale of “an ageing mother in a care home who fell in love with her carer. We were wondering what the implications would be. Supposing she could be a younger version of herself and have the love affair she couldn’t otherwise fulfil?”

The story was modified as the creative team explored its potential. Instead of having a love affair in real life, the woman in Imago creates a younger digital version of herself who falls in love with an avatar created by a teenage boy. “There are opportunities for humour and we follow that,” smiles Gough, “but then, what happens when the woman gets really ill? Presumably when she dies, her avatar dies too, so we have a classic operatic ending. I’m hoping the storyline is quite clear, so that people can find a way in [to opera]. But it’s also quite quirky.”

Part of that quirkiness stems from Gough letting his imagination run riot. He describes the music as “slippery and unpredictable. By the slip of a key you find yourself in a different place and time, so at one moment we are in the world of a boy band, who have crept into the piece by the back door and, at another, we’re in the late 1950s, a cappella-style at a doo-wop wedding. It has been a challenge for us all, within this shape-shifting world, to make it cohere and show we really care about the characters and what’s happening to them. We’re not just living in a plastic world – which is the danger of a digital piece.”

Until this point in the conversation Gough has seemed quite nonchalant, if not jolly. Now he looks pensive and serious. “We kept tripping up over the contradictions [of the digital world], so we had to make the rules incredibly clear. What does it mean to die in this digital life – are you really dead or does it just need a key-press to come back to life?”

Gough says the question is crucial to understanding what Imago is about. “The trouble is, there are other people out there in the digital world who can undermine you and everything you stand for, so it’s not the escape it seems when you start. That’s why these computer programmes in which people invent artificial versions of themselves have become less popular than they used to be, as people discover the inherent problems.”

The moral being what, I ask? “If you want to achieve anything in life, there are always things that get in the way.”

It is a lesson Gough has had to confront in his evolution as a creative spirit. He believes that whichever way a composer turns – playing the maverick or playing the establishment – “there’s always going to be a Faustian pact. In order to have the spectacular freedom to write what I wanted for The Shout, I had to find a way of making it work financially and so, like having a digital life, I discovered freedom wasn’t quite as “free” as I thought. The word has positive connotations, but it’s difficult to achieve, and is probably impossible.”

The upside for Gough in his new “conventional” career as opera composer – he has another community work on the go for Garsington Opera this summer – is the degree of institutional support it affords: all the financial, technical and organisational problems are out of his hands. He says the process of writing for amateurs as well as professionals has been a stimulus: much of his work for Imago over the past two months has involved making up learning tapes for chorus members who cannot read music and creating audio files “so that the designers can hear what it sounds like. I enjoy the sociability and mutual support. After spending so much time writing the manuscript, it’s really exciting to see it take shape.”

‘Imago’ is at Glyndebourne, East Sussex, UK, March 7-9

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