Opera, libretto by Blake Morrison (after the novella by Jules Verne)
Duration: c. 2 hours 10′
12 soloists (2 sopranos, 2 mezzos, 2 counter tenors, 2 tenors, 2 baritones, 2 bass baritones)
2 (2), 2 (oboe d’amore, cor anglais),1 + bass-cl, 1 + contra;
4. flugelhorn.2 + bass.0
percussion (3 players)
strings: minimum 22.214.171.124.3 (1 amplified)
Doctor Ox’s Experiment (Epilogue) (1988)
After the final performances of my opera Medea in December 1984 I was interested in the possibility of writing further operas. One was based on Jules Verne’s novella Doctor Ox’s Experiment (“Une Fantaisie du Docteur Ox”) and I wrote two concert works as pilots for this project. The first work was By the Vaar, an adagio for jazz bass, strings, bass clarinet and percussion written for Charlie Haden and performed by him at the 1987 Camden Jazz Festival. The other was an extended concert aria for high soprano and ensemble for an Arts Council Contemporary Music Network tour in the autumn of 1988. The full opera has been commissioned by English National Opera for performance in 1996.
The action takes place in the Flemish town of Quiquendone, a town that appears on no map, although its geographical location is precisely fixed. It is a town where everything happens very slowly; where an engagement of 10 years is the norm; where the council never reaches a decision; that is, until Doctor Ox and his assistant arrive to install gas lighting, which has a devastating side effect. At the end of the opera, Doctor Ox disappears as mysteriously as he has come, leaving the town to revert to its former existence. At the end, one innocent victim of the doctor, Suzel, recalls at a later date the events that have taken place, and realises that things can never be the same again. The coda from By the Vaar, where the bass is, effectively, Frantz, Suzel’s betrothed, appears transformed in this last scene after Suzel has faced the future nervously. The text is by Blake Morrison, librettist for the opera proper, and the vocal part was specially written for the remarkable soprano Sarah Leonard, for whom I have since written a number of other pieces (The Black River, for voice and organ, and The War in Heaven, for soprano, counter tenor – David James – chorus and orchestra).
This piece is dedicated to Ruby, a typhoon which confined me to my hotel room in Hong Kong, and without whose timely intervention the piece would not have been ready in time for the first performance.
Text of Doctor Ox’s Experiment (Epilogue) 1988
Dear Frantz, how good to sit with you again beside the banks of the idling Vaar – you with your fishing rod, me with my embroidery, the two of us with needles plying the evening’s gentle light. We have found our pulse again – the throb of Quiquendone, a town where nothing changed in seven centuries till the doctor came along. Now Ox has gone and we can live once more like sponges do, or coral: not walking but gliding, not talking but murmuring, calm in the temples of our homes. We are deep and measured as those church bells tolling now for evensong – the bells that will one day ring for us, my love, for Frantz and his Suzel.
How nearly we lost each other – and ourselves. What was it made that happen? What trick did Doctor Ox play with his oxygen? He said he’d light the town up, that each flame would burn like fifteen hundred candles and we need never live in darkness again. But when the streets were dug with gas pipes it wasn’t lights that burned – but us. That first night at the theatre when his gas came on, I could feel my cheeks flush, I saw your eyes glow like a tiger’s, it was as if we were performers, not the audience, an opera of longing with the heroes and heroines ourselves. Next day it seemed a dream but with these signs to show that it had happened – lost shoes, torn collars, a dent in the middle of a hat.
I blush to think of all that followed. The squabbles, the quarrels. The dancing, the drinking. The revels, the rebellions. The whole town an asylum. The people mad to fight and make love to one another. The dogs turned rabid, the sheep angry as bullocks, the horses snapping at their bits. Fruit rioting in our gardens – melons like belfries, twelve-foot cabbages, strawberries so big you could serve four people from each one. And you Frantz – the way your hair grew and your moustache turned up fiercely at the ends. You were pledged to fight a duel with the banker’s son, a duel for my hand after all our years together, and I loved it and egged you both on. We were like nomads, tearing up our roots, losing our tempers and our hymens, wearing out our bodies and our souls.
God knows what would have come of us – our troops were at the gate massing for war against our neighbours when – whoomph – the gasworks blew its crown off, and all of us were thrown to the ground. We lay there in the streets, stunned as these carp are in the river, then slowly rose to upright and shook out the brick-dust from our eyes. Back in the deserts of our drawing rooms, we have found the old pulse again, lazy as the Vaar I with its fishbeds, hurrying no decisions, reaching no conclusions, in a daze of traditions and rites. It’s good to be ourselves again, good that Doctor Ox has gone, good that we can go back to our maplessness. Yet I feel that I shall never be the same again, that a new age was born which hasn’t been extinguished with the gasworks and I want to be sure, yes our marriage hangs on it, that you, Frantz, have that feeling too.