October 23, 1984

. . . The fact that the bulk of Bryars’ first opera is set in Greek automatically lends the work an air of detachment – in much the same way that Stravinsky’s use of Latin gives an objective quality to his sacred music for the opera Oedipus Rex.

In Medea, that intrinsic quality is emphasised by Bryars’ depiction of the wronged and betrayed eponymous ‘heroine’, not as a vengeful hysteric, but as supercool, almost dislocated from all around her. . . Crashing headlong into this detached objectivity was the music itself, hour after hour of sumptuous, tonally gorgeous music.

This music, despite the pulsing minimalistic nature of much of it, is saturated with a sensuous romanticism that derives directly from the most voluptuous music of Richard Strauss. The local lines, endlessly soaring, were of an unremitting lyrical and emotional intensity.

The collision between the two poles – absolute detachment and the most intimate subjectivity – produced a tension that was so intoxicating it was almost tangible. . .

— from Michael Tumelty’s review after the concert performance of Medea in Glasgow in 1995

Original version ( 1982, revised 1984).

Duration: c. 3 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 (see Percussion notes below for details); 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).

Revised version (1995).

Duration: c. 2 hours 45′

First (concert) performance of the final version: Tramway, Glasgow, 3 November 1995.


Gavin’s Notes:

  1. Medea by Gavin Bryars


    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 Schullerπs The Visitation in Illinois in 1968!

    Gavin Bryars and Robert Wilson (photo by G. Ansellem)

    He had got in touch with me in 1979 when I performed in the Festival dπAutomne 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 Euripidesπ 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 Medeaπs 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 åreligiousπ or the åantiqueπ. 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 Berliozπ 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 Euripides. For the Nurseπs 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 Euripidesπ 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 operaπs 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 workπs 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 dπAutomne. 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

    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

    Act 1

    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

    Act 2

    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 Creonπs daughter. The chorus judge him to be wrong.

    – interval –

    Act 3

    Scene A (Aegeus, Medea, Chorus) Aegeus is unable to produce children and has consulted the oracle. Medea tells him of Jasonπs 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.

    Act 4

    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 Medeaπs joy when he tells of the agony of the princessπs death, the veil which sticks to her skin and burns her, of Creonπs death when he tries to help his daughter.

    Scene D (full cast) Scene of the childrenπs murder. Break in the action, seated at a long table the cast speak directly to the audience.

    Act 5

    Scene A (Orchestra, Off-stage soprano) The death of Creonπs daughter, depicted by a puppet

    Scene By (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.

  2. Letter to Jane Quinn about a DAT recording of the dress rehearsal in Lyon.

    Billesdon March 18th 1994

    Dear Jane,

    Thanks for your call asking me for a tape of Medea. I enclose 2 DATs (I assume that DAT is suitable) being the two halves of Medea. This was recorded at the final dress rehearsal before the first performance at the Opéra de Lyon -this explains why there are many camera clicks at the moment where scene changes happen. I have put a track ID at the beginning of each act rather than for each scene.

    There are a few small differences between this and what was actually performed 3 days later. The choral scene which begins Act 4 was cut because the choreography of the dance which accompanied the scene was so banal (like a vernacular taverna dance), and the orchestral music for the opening of Act 5 was also cut. This was because the scene used a puppet falling from a cliff in flames and it simply looked ridiculous. I think the orchestral music is actually not bad (Richard Bernas, the conductor, thinks it is one of the best things in the opera!). In addition, I have taken out the whole Prologue from this tape. If ever Medea is done again I would re-write the Prologue. Bob Wilson had said that the Prologue was to be a series of visual pictures with only occasional musical fragments – and that was what I did. In the event, the pictures went on for so long (about 25 minutes) that the music assumed an importance disproportionate to its acoustic merits. I have left in, however, the lengthy spoken scene at the end of Act 4, where there is a sort of academic discussion about the piece by the cast (this was a particular theatrical device which Bob included, but which was under-rehearsed and, here, does not work very well at all). In the actual performance it was much tighter but I decided to leave it on the tape. Here, in fact, it was the first time that the spoken text and the music had been put together and Richard Bernas decided to play all of the music, even though the text was much shorter than the music. If you want to pass over it, fast-forward to the ID for Act 5…. The gaps between sections, where they happen, are due to temporary problems with scene changing and did not happen in performance. It was curious to listen to it again after all this time and I enjoyed quite a lot of it. The language moves between Greek and French – originally between Greek and English but I had to re-write several sections in French shortly before the first performance, and the first scene in Act 3 was completely new for that occasion. As you know, it was originally to be done for La Fenice in Venice in September 1982, but was cancelled at a late stage. For that production Medea was to have been sung by Wilhelminia Fernandez and the opening of Act 3 was to have been a relaxed pseudo jazz style piece with two black singers. When it was recast for Lyon and Yvonne Kenny (a white Australian) sang the part this scene did not work at all and so I wrote a new one, directly in French. Two of the cast are, in fact, Greek (the Nurse and the Tutor). Yvonne Kenny and the French singer (François Le Roux) who sang the part of the Messenger have now become quite famous. The full cast was: Yvonne Kenny (Medea), Louis Otey (Jason), Stephen Cole (Creon), Pierre Yves le Maigat (Aegeus), François Le Roux (Messenger), Maria Marketou (Nurse), Frangiscos Voliotis (Tutor), with the chorus and orchestra of the Opéra de Lyon conducted by Richard Bernas.

    Gavin Bryars.

  3. Note about the revisions made for the 1995 concert performance.


    For the concert performance of Medea by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra the following modifications were be made. With these changes I feel that the final state of the work has been reached. It was altered several times up to the first performance in Lyon in October 1984, some of these were for the good others not so but following the Lyon and Paris performances I have reflected at length and the Scottish performance gave the opportunity to allow the piece to find its best shape.

    1. The entire Prologue is cut.

    The opera starts, therefore, with Act 1 scene A. The raison d’être of the original prologue was to give a sequence of visual tableaux telling the story of Medea up to the beginning of Euripides’ play. However, as Bob Wilson realised afterwards (sic) the opening aria of the Nurse in 1A tells exactly the same story – admittedly using words! The way Bob had spoken with me about this prologue originally was to say that the visual pictures were everything and therefore no music was necessary, or at best only the most unassertive background music should be used. In the event more was needed, the music (composed to be incidental) was thrust into a foreground space it was ill-equipped to occupy. Bobπs solution was to superimpose texts by Heiner Müller, all of which has now gone leaving only the original Euripides material as far as libretto is concerned. Now the opera begins with the spoken Greek monologue of the Nurse with a few bars of music preceding her newly written aria, a female chorus is superimposed on her singing and the orchestration is modified.

    2. Act 4 Scene D is cut except for the opening chorus (vocal score P104-5)

    This is the scene where Medea murders her children. In Lyon and Paris it was done in such a way that the murders happen off stage and the scene comprises a spoken “play” with all the singers in the opera appearing in everyday dress seated at a long table reading fragments from news reports about things like child abuse and so on. This scene was created very hurriedly in Lyon and, for the music, again I was to provide a quiet background (which ironically the conductor Richard Bernas liked very much!). Its pace is that of Ives The Unanswered Question, using very slow quotations from many different operatic versions of Medea.

    In the revised version the music now goes from the end of the chorus at the beginning of 4D directly to the “kneeplay” before 5A leading into 5A itself, an orchestral interlude, which would serve exactly the same function as the cut 4D i.e. an intimation that events were happening off-stage.

    3. Act 5 Scene A is reinstated.

    This orchestral interlude, although played in the final dress rehearsal (October 20th 1984) and therefore on the tape recording of the rehearsal, was cut. This scene had not been rehearsed until then and a puppet, used to show a figure – Creonπs daughter – falling in flames from a cliff, did not work.

    4. Act 4 Scene A is reinstated.

    This scene was cut from the production because the dance which accompanied the choral singing was not interesting, though again not looked at fully until the final dress rehearsal. It is a scene for divided male chorus and was given extensive music rehearsals. This, again, is present on the 1984 dress rehearsal tape.

    5. At the beginning of Act 3 there was a spoken text preceding the music which begins the act. This has been cut. There was also spoken text during an orchestral fermata in Act 3 Scene A interrupting the duet between Medea and Aegeus. This text (which is not in the score) is cut.

    This produces the following structure:

    Part One

    Act 1

    Scene A Nurse, Chorus

    Scene B Nurse, Tutor

    Scene C Nurse, Tutor (Medea off stage)

    Scene D Nurse, Tutor (Medea off stage)

    Act 2

    Scene A Chorus, Nurse (Medea offstage)

    Scene B Medea, Chorus

    Scene C Medea, Creon, Chorus

    Scene D Jason, Medea, Chorus


    Part Two

    Act 3

    Scene A Aegeus, Medea, Chorus

    Scene B Medea, Chorus

    Scene C Jason, Medea, Chorus

    Scene D

    Act 4

    Scene A Chorus

    Scene B Tutor, Medea

    Scene C Messenger, Medea, Chorus

    Scene D Chorus

    Act 5

    Scene A Orchestra

    Scene B Jason, Medea, Chorus

    Scene C Jason, Chorus

    This alters the running time as follows

    Part One 1 hour 10 minutes

    Part Two 1 hour 25 minutes.

    (total about 2 hours 35 minutes)

    It is possible to break up Part Two into Act 3 (about 35 minutes) and Act 4/5 (about 50 minutes) making a three part opera – particularly if two intervals were needed.

    Gavin Bryars.


  4. Programme note by Sarah Walker.


    First performance of the final version: Tramway, Glasgow, November 1995.

    Nurse: Patricia Bardon contralto
    Tutor: Gidon Saks bass
    Medea: Majella Cullagh soprano
    Off-Stage soprano: Eileen Hulse soprano
    Creon: Iain Paton tenor
    Jason: Richard Halton bariton
    Aegeus: Nicholas Folwell bariton
    Messenger: David Barrell baritone

    Conductor: Martyn Brabbins

    The enormous success of Gavin Bryars’ five-act opera Medea, produced in 1984 by Robert Wilson at the Opera de Lyon, was the cause of consternation to certain factions. . .

  5. Instruments needed in percussion section

    Medea (1982, rev. 1984)

    Xylophone, marimba, vibraphone, glockenspiel, tubular bells, bass marimba, 4 tuned gongs (B a 9th below middle C, C sharp below middle C, D below middle C, E above middle C), crotales, 7-12 roto-toms, tam-tam, orchestral bass drum, tambourine, 5 temple blocks, 4 woodblocks (Japanese preferred), 4 suspended cymbals ( ride, 14″ Turkish, Chinese, sizzle with good sustain on rivets), cabaça, chocolo, 2 triangles, 2 maracas, 2 flexatones.

    (5 players, in addition to timpanist)

Gavin Bryars