Duration: c.2 hours 45’ Opera ( libretto after Euripides. Direction and design: Robert Wilson). Dedicated to Richard Bernas. 7 soloists (soprano, contralto, tenor, 3 baritones, bass). Chorus (SATB). Orchestra: 3 (piccolo, alto). 0. 3 (E flat, 2 bass clarinet). 2 (contrabassoon). 4.0.1 (bass).1. 2 saxophones (alto/soprano, alto/tenor) 2 harps, piano timpani + 5 percussion strings (no violins; 10 violas, 8 or 10 cello, 4 or 6 basses First performance: Opéra de Lyon, France, 23 October 1984. Subsequent performances at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées Paris (co-production: Opéra de Lyon, Opéra de Paris, Festival d’Automne). (1995 revision to be added)
Medea is my first opera and was first done in collaboration with the American director/ designer/ writer Robert Wilson. Medea was the first work in which he used something other than his own writing for the text. He told me that when he had once been asked what works other than his own he would be interested in directing he had replied Medea, Parsifal and King Lear. In due course he was to do all three, and had already started work on a production of Parsifal which did not come to fruition, but Medea was the first. The project was a leap in the dark for me given that I had written virtually nothing for the human voice, nothing for orchestra, nothing for the stage, and my sole experience of opera had been to attend a performance of Gunther Schuller’s The Visitation in Illinois in 1968!
He had got in touch with me in 1979 when I performed in the Festival d’Automne in Paris. In the event he was not able to come to the performance but I learned subsequently that he had asked Benedicte Pesle to let him know her view on the possibility of our working together. He eventually called me and we finally met in April 1981 when I spent a three days talking with him about his work and looking at video recordings. It was at that time that he asked me if I would be interested in writing the music for his production of Euripedes’ play, which he had already adapted and for which another composer, the late Arthur Russell, had written music for a workshop in Washington. He was not happy with this music and wanted to see what I might do. He said that, for the play, he would like to have the possibility of certain passages being sung rather than spoken – some of Medea’s own speeches, perhaps the chorus and so on. I recorded some draft ideas, which he liked, and then he asked me to look through the whole play and see what lines could be sung and what had to be spoken. By August of 1981 what had started out as a play with incidental music and some singing, had become an opera. However, the original planned date for the play production, for La Fenice in Venice, September 1982, still stood and so the music had to be written by June 1982….
Even before a note was written it was necessary, for reasons of budgets and planning, to decide questions of orchestration and the role of the choir. From some rapid research into what we know (or at least, knew then) about ancient Greek music I made a number of choices. In the first place I used few brass instruments (no trumpets or tenor trombones) and the references to rudimentary xylophones in the literature encouraged me to use a large body of tuned percussion (in the event 5 players, plus timpanist). Then I made the decision to have no violins and have strings only from violas downwards, a decision which has had consequences for subsequent works and for the ultimate formation of my ensemble. In addition I replaced the oboes, my least favourite instrument, with saxophones. Berlioz talks of ways of using the viola – the top string, for example, being associated with ‘religious’ or the ‘antique’. In Act 3 scene A (in the version rewritten for Lyon, see below) the long melody on the violas is entirely on the G and D strings, following Berlioz’ recommendation! Saxophones were chosen because of their division into vocal families corresponding to the ranges of the human voice and used in the first instance to support the chorus. My original idea for the chorus was to use only altos and tenors, in the registers where the voices overlap, but this proved impractical (from an administrative point of view…). The very low first aria of the Nurse for example, in the original version, draws on the hypothesis that, in the past, voices were accompanied from above rather than below.
The nature of the language used in the play affected the music of course. The greater part of the opera is in the original Greek of Euripedes. For the Nurse’s first aria the rhythm of the music was derived almost entirely from that of the spoken Greek. Later (for example in Act 2 scene A) the Greek language affects rhythm but chiefly within recitative. But there are other places where a metaphorical approach to language is introduced – in Act 3 scene B for example. In Euripedes’ original play at this point there is a hymn to Athens, which is in a poetic style quite different to the rest of the play. So I wrote this chorus in a quite different musical language from the rest of the opera, a language which is much more like the conventional operatic choral set-piece than the way the chorus is used elsewhere in Medea – to commentate, to interpret, to interject.
Acts 1 and 2, plus Act 4 scene C (written in New York) and Act 5 scene C (the ending) were performed, with two piano accompaniment at the end of February 1982 following rehearsals at City College, New York with a mixture of students, semi-professional singers and singers, notably Wilhelmina Fernandez, who was originally cast as Medea. This gave us the opportunity to see how the piece worked, and to give guidelines for the opera’s completion. Although I left New York prior to the public performance, but at the end of the rehearsal process, I had learned a great deal about the practicalities of writing for the human voice and about how to approach opera. I also managed to see only my second live opera – a production of La Bohème at the New York Met. I had the chance to work in detail with individual singers, like Wilhelmina and others – the virtuoso scene for the Messenger (Act 4 scene C) which uses a very wide range (two and a half octaves, including substantial falsetto) was made possible by being able to work directly with the baritone singer in New York. The other substantial bonus was the opportunity to spend a good deal of time with the conductor Richard Bernas, who was my choice for the opera, who eventually was to conduct all the performances in Paris and Lyon, and who is the work’s dedicatee. His knowledge about opera is encyclopaedic and ultimately I owed learned more about opera from him than from any other single person.
Following this I returned to England and completed the writing of the opera by the end of June 1982. At the beginning of July there was a very long meeting in Venice at which we analysed precisely the state of the opera and its readiness for production. It was concluded, after a very difficult and occasionally stormy meeting that the production was not ready (we did not get round to talking about the music) and so the performances were cancelled…….
Jean Pierre Brossman at the Opéra de Lyon committed himself to producing the opera, in partnership with the Opéra de Paris and the Festival d’Automne. In the course of rehearsing the opera, however, a number of things were changed. In the first place Act 3 scene A, where Medea has a friendly exchange with Aegeus – the only scene in the whole opera where she is relaxed, had originally been done in a semi-jazz idiom (Aegeus was to have been played by a black American baritone, to partner Wilhelmina Fernandez). In Lyon, however, Medea was played by Yvonne Kenny (white and Australian) and so the jazz idiom was slightly ridiculous. I therefore re-wrote this entire scene during the rehearsal period. Further, those parts of the opera which still used the spoken word were in English and the view was expressed that, with an opera directed by an American, composed by an Englishman, conducted by an American, with performances only in France, surely this should be put in French. I agreed, but this also meant that those lines which were sung in English had to be sung in French, and the vocal line re-written…
Shortly before the dress rehearsal it was realised that, scenes having been rehearsed individually rather than in sequence, there was both a scene change and costume change before the final scene, and so extra music had to be written an hour or so before the dress rehearsal, copied and put in the players parts before the second half started. Given the extreme length of the opera I held a meeting with the orchestra, in the first instance to apologise but also to discover who would not object to playing extra music. All four horns, the saxophones, the tuba, the bass trombone and percussionists put up their hands. This 90 second interlude remains in the final version and is a testament to their fortitude!! I spoke with the principal horn, Pascal Pongy, after writing the music at speed (all of it involving transposing instruments!) and said that I hoped the music “was playable”. His words, which I treasure, were “Gavin, le moment où elle est écrite, la musique est toujours jouable”.
Two scenes were cut from the opera before the first performance 3 days later, one for orchestra alone, the other for chorus, due to problems with staging. The lengthy prologue, which was essentially a series of tableaux for with Bob had said he needed little music, proved to need more material and so he collaged texts by the East German writer Heiner Müller on top of the music. This entire prologue was cut when I revised the opera in 1995 and the cut scenes reinstated.
The opera was in 5 Acts, each one with four scenes (except Act 5 which had 3) preceded by a four scene prologue. In the event Act 4 lost one scene (with chorus) and Act 5 lost one (with orchestra).
There were 11 performances – 6 in Lyon and 5 in Paris, all of which played to full houses. Working with the orchestra in Lyon, which was very highly motivated and comprised mostly young players, was an immense pleasure. By contrast the orchestra in Paris was, with a few notable exceptions, aggressively negative and it was chiefly the fact that they were baffled by the extreme (New York) sarcasm of Richard Bernas that the battles were won……..
Nurse: Marie Marketou
Tutor: Frangiskos Voutsinos
Medea: Yvonne Kenny
Creon: Steven Cole
Jason: Louis Otey
Aegeus: Pierre-Yves le Maigat
Messenger: François Le Roux
Off-stage soprano: Liliane Mazeron
Conductor: Richard Bernas
Medea: Structure of Original version
Scene A (full cast) tableau of daily life in Colchis -mid morning, olive grove
Scene B (full cast, off stage chorus) tableau of travel through the Anatolian mountains – midnight, rocks
Scene C (full cast) tableau of death, Medea stabbing her brother – midday, dais
Scene D (Medea, Nurse, children, men) tableau of departure, Medea throws overboard pieces of the body to delay pursuit – – dawn, ship
Scene A (Nurse) aria in which she tells of the deplorable things that have taken place, and expresses her anxiety about what will happen now that Medea has been deceived and abandoned by Jason.
Scene B (Nurse, Tutor, children) The Tutor joins in and tells further the news that Creon has banished Medea.
Scene C (Nurse, Tutor, children, Medea off stage) Medea is heard
Scene D (Nurse, Medea off stage, Off-stage soprano) Medea sings of her suffering and of being torn between her love for her children and her anger against Jason
Scene A (Chorus, Nurse, Medea off stage) The chorus offer their support to the Nurse and to Medea
Scene B (Medea, chorus) Medea describes to the chorus the condition of women in marriage and demands that they be silent.
Scene C (Creon, Medea, Chorus) Creon orders Medea to leave Corinth. Medea persuades him to allow her a delay before leaving. To the chorus she speaks of her initial plans for vengeance.
Scene D (Medea, Jason, Chorus) Medea reminds Jason of what she has done for him, he defends his actions, offers material support, justifies his new liaison with Creon’s daughter. The chorus judge him to be wrong.
– interval –
Scene A (Aegeus, Medea, Chorus) Aegeus is unable to produce children and has consulted the oracle. Medea tells him of Jason’s treachery, her banishment and promises to cure him of his sterility if he gives her a safe haven in Athens. He agrees.
Scene B (Medea, chorus) Now assured of a safe refuge Medea sets out her plans for vengeance, not on Jason but on his new wife and her children. The chorus sing a hymn to Athens, implying their disapproval.
Scene C (Medea, Jason) Medea feigns submission and asks that her children might remain in Corinth rather than share her banishment. She gives a present for his bride.
Scene D (Jason, children – instrumental only) The children bear the gifts – the chorus know that they will lead to death.
Scene A (Chorus) The chorus sing of the impending disaster
Scene B (Tutor, Medea) The Tutor says that the gift has been accepted. Medea receives the news sadly. Knowing of the imminent death of her children she is torn between love and pride.
Scene C (Messenger, Medea, Chorus) The Messenger is shocked by Medea’s joy when he tells of the agony of the princess’s death, the veil which sticks to her skin and burns her, of Creon’s death when he tries to help his daughter.
Scene D (full cast) Scene of the children’s murder. Break in the action, seated at a long table the cast speak directly to the audience.
Scene A (Orchestra, Off-stage soprano) The death of Creon’s daughter, depicted by a puppet
Scene B (Jason, Medea, Chorus) Jason, seeking his children, learns of their death. Medea refuses even to let him bury them. She escapes in a chariot bearing them to the sanctuary of Hera.
Scene C (Jason, Chorus) Jason appeals to the gods. Corinth is in flames.
Act 4 Scene A and Act 5 Scene A were not in the 1984 performance, though included in the final dress rehearsal
The Prologue and Act 4 Scene D were omitted from the revised version in 1995, Act 4 Scene A and Act 5 Scene A were reinstated, and Act 1 Scene A was re-written.