February 23, 2002 (premiere)
The other 2002 dates were:
March 8, 15, 25, 29
April 2, 24, 25
May 7, 12
Gavin Bryars on writing the opera
G is an opera based on the life of Johannes Gutenberg. It was commissioned by the opera house in Mainz for the year of the 600th anniversary of Gutenberg’s birth, 2000, although due to delays in the rebuilding of the opera house it has been postponed to 2002.
The libretto is by Blake Morrison, with whom I wrote Doctor Ox’s Experiment and who wrote the text for Doctor Ox’s Experiment (Epilogue) the concert piece, written in 1988, which was a draft for the opera proper. We have also worked together and continue to do so, most recently on my First Book of Madrigals for the Hilliard Ensemble. In the course of conducting research for the libretto Blake wrote an entire novel on the subject, The Justification of Gutenberg, which was published in August 2000.
There is little reliable information about Gutenberg and no likeness from the period. The only images of him date from more than 100 years after his death, and show him with the well-known forked beard. In reality he was almost certainly clean-shaven! During the greater part of his life he was called Johannes Gensfleisch and only used the name Gutenberg in his last years. For that reason, or at least partly for that reason, we have called the opera ≥G≤, but have given it a lengthy subtitle, in the manner of an 18th century English novel:
Being the Confession and Last Testament of Johannes Gensfleisch, also known as Gutenberg, Master Printer, formerly of Strasbourg and Mainz
This absence of hard information enabled Blake and myself to develop many facets of Gutenberg’s life and character in ways which are not precisiely given by historical records. We do use the facts that are to hand – his various court cases and documentary evidence where it exists, but we have felt able to be more inventive than might otherwsaie have been the case.
For example I decided to approach the characterisation of Gutenberg in a, perhaps, unusual way. In developing his character I thought that Gutenberg could be a very different person in Act 1 (in Strasbourg) than in Act 2 (back in Mainz). In Strasbourg I portray him as an opportunist, entrepreneurial, even quite shady, businessman, whereas he becomes more high-minded, serious and idealistic in the second act. A consequence of this is the idea to have a different singer for Gutenberg in Act 2. The two are of a similar vocal type, are be dressed and made up to look the same, but there would be a physical difference. The opera need not always be done this way and it is written in such a way that a single singer could sing the whole part, but it is my ideal and this is the way it will be done in Mainz.
One source for this idea came about when I was in discussion with Hans-Jurgen Syberberg about a possible collaboration in the mid-1980’s. In his film of Parsifal (which is mimed to playback of course) Syberberg uses two different people to play Parsifal – the first is a teenage boy who could not possibly have Parsifal’s tenor voice, the second is a girl. Both are present in the Epilogue, and I have them sing together, but not always in unison. We also see the moment when the second takes over from the first – in Act 2 scene 2 while the Good Angel sings.
At the end of the opera G – the more mature one – sings alone on stage (with the other G in the shadows) – acco,mpanied only by a group of baroque strings, on stage with him, rather as if he were singing a Bach cantata. This gives a progressive reduction in the forces, reinforced by occasional cadences played by the Wagner tubas, who remain in the pit.
In Mainz the opera will be staged by Georges Delnon ( intendant of the Mainz Opera House) and designed by Atelier Rosalie. Rosalie is one of the most interesting designers working in German opera and theatre, as well as exhibiting paintings. The conductor will be Gernot Sahler.
Gutenberg I (in Act 1, Act 2 scene 1 and part of scene 2 and Epilogue): bass baritone
Gutenberg II (in Prologue, Act 2 scene 2 and Epilogue): bass
Fust: character tenor
Schoeffer: counter tenor
Nicholas of Cusa: bass
Evil Angel: tenor (sung by Fust)
Good Angel: bass (sung by Nicholas of Cusa)
Ennelina: soprano – preferably with quite a pure, early music voice
Beilbeck: low mezzo soprano/ contralto
Christina, Schoeffer’s fiancée: soprano (similar to Enneline)
Elliwibel (Ennelina’s mother): coloratura mezzo soprano
Jorg Dritzehn: baritone
Andreas Dritzehn: baritone
Claus Dritzehn: bass baritone
Matthias Heilmann: baritone
Judge: bass baritone
(These singers all come from the Mainz company)
2 flutes (both doubling piccolo)
3 cor anglais (1 doubling oboe, 1 doubling oboe d’amore)
1 clarinet (doubling E flat)
5 horns (four doubling Wagner tubas)
2 trombones (both doubling alto)
celeste/ harpsichord (one player)
126.96.36.199.5 (the Mainz string strength)
The composition of the orchestra is intended to be relatively conventional, although the fact that 3 of the orchestra’s 4 oboes play the cor anglais gave me the opportunity to reduce the input of an instrument which I dislike and to vary the palette of double reeds (I have available 1 oboes, 1 oboe d’amore, 3 cor anglais, 2 bassoons and one contrabassoon in this department). In addition, of the orchestra’s 8 horn players 4 also play the Wagner tuba. As the first horn does not, I decided to write for 5 horns, four of whom double Wagner tubas, with the first horn being a soloist. In addition as both tenor trombonists also play alto trombone I include this slightly old-fashioned instrument too. These factors of instrumentation also give the piece a somewhat historical character.
The opera was completed the piece in June 2001 ready for the February 2002 premiere.
Review by Della Couling
Mainz is the logical place for an opera on its most famous son, Johannes Gutenberg, inventor of the printing process in the late fifteenth century. The English composer Gavin Bryars and English poet Blake Morrison as librettist are a less logical choice to be commissioned for an opera to celebrate the reopening of the renovated Staatstheater – particularly so, as the libretto was translated into German anyway. (An English spinoff has been Morrison’s novel, The Justification of Johann Gutenberg.)
This is the second opera collaboration between Bryars and Morrison, the first being Dr Ox’s Experiment. In spite of its hybrid origins, ‘G’ is largely successful, thanks too to director Georges Delnon and set and costume designer rosalie (sic), who created a late medieval/modern style and some clever visual inventions: the clerks whose livelihood is threatened by Gutenberg’s invention protest carrying huge pens like spears.
There are a lot of long monologues, beginning with Gutenberg (Elmar Andree) suspended high up, at first alone. Little is known of Gutenberg’s life, so Morrison in novel and libretto used his imagination to flesh out the characters. In the opera there are also a good and a bad angel, who speak to Gutenberg, and heighten the drama, as they underline Gutenberg’s personal dilemma of choosing between God and Mammon, and cleverly indicate the inconceivable and uncontrollable revolution unleashed by his invention. It also raises the opera above the level of just another dramadoc with music, a present fashion largely to be deplored.
Given that this is a remote and unfamiliar world, the characters are dressed as bizarrely as creatures from another planet: bald, with white masks (with the exception of the two singers – Elmar Andree and Hans-Otto Weiss – who play Gutenberg). The music is in those long, languid lines those familiar with Bryars’ work will recognize. There are allusions to the musical styles of Gutenberg’s time, at times discretely underpinned by minimalism. There is one perfect moment, musically and dramatically, when Ennelina (Kerrie Sheppard), Gutenberg’s jilted fiancée, now a nun, returns. She is slowly drawn across the stage on a ‘paper’ boat. Her vocal line dominates; the orchestra supports it, so that the voice is always clearly audible. Those composers who spent their years in the galleys did this automatically. Today, the poor voice, which should be king in the opera house, is left mostly to fend for itself, in spite of what the orchestra is doing. You’ve proved you can do it once, Mr Bryars; in your next opera, please do it all the time. But all in all, this is a work that, like Gutenberg’s, deserves to travel well beyond Mainz.