Opera with attitude

Kevin Mandry

First thoughts on The tigers - Kevin Mandry ‘Expect The Unexpected’ advises The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy; only to be criticised for being a) paradoxical and b) smug. Nevertheless, it’s a useful precept to bear in mind when considering the life and works of William Havergal Brian. Just when you’ve begun to quietly pigeonhole him as the composer of a block of tough terse symphonies…. along comes a slap in the face with a wet fish called The Tigers, to remind you that he was also a composer of wild exuberance and gorgeous lyricism, of riotous colour and teeming off-beam invention!

When The Tigers was first broadcast, luck ensured I was between homes: I tried listening on the poky transistor which comprised my entire hi-fi kit at the time, but the reception was so poor and the sound so inadequate that I gave up, little realising that it would be another twelve years before the opportunity returned! It’s true that in that time the Forlane LP of the orchestral interludes appeared, but the rather dim sound and slightly cautious playing always left me, for one, feeling vaguely unconvinced of their quality. Thus, like many recent Society members, I effectively came to The Tigers with innocent ears…

A nd this time I was taking no chances. The receiver was moved into a new room, new cables fitted, and the cat swapped for a five-bar state-of-the-art aerial attached to a bloody great pole bolted to the side of the chimney. The result was as close to decent R3 reception as one is likely to get in central London, pending digital broadcast; with the additional benefit that I seem to be able to receive interplanetary transmissions emanating from somewhere near Saturn.

So - where to begin in appraising such an astonishing work? Logically, I suppose, with the sheer musical invention already mentioned. I’ve always been irritated by the lazy put-downs which criticise the symphonies for ‘unmemorable thematic material’ - the thematic material may be initially elusive, but once grasped proves so infuriatingly memorable that the thought of a few bars can trigger an involuntary mental replay of an entire work. (Really annoying when you’re trying to go to sleep.) But surely even the most hostile critic (and there are still plenty of them!) would be forced to admit Brian’s prodigality with his material in this opera; a rhythmic sense that never slackens, allied to a kaleidoscopic variety of textures and colours…

The second thing that struck me was the sheer fluency and naturalness of Brian’s word-setting. Remember, this opera was written at a time when there was no great native tradition (though much more of one than the ‘It all began with Peter Grimes’ school would allow). When one considers the incongruities of word-setting that Delius, say, could perpetrate - or even the lingering stiffness and gentility afflicting an intentionally ‘popular’ work like Hugh the drover - the contrast is dazzling. Indeed, within a few minutes I found myself involuntarily recalling two other, far more recent, settings of colloquial English - Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd and, most startlingly, Mark-Anthony Turnage’s (rather less transcendent) Greek!

Brian, at a stroke, seemingly solved the whole problem of operatic English before other generations had even got around to debating it. (Incidentally, am I the only person in the world who considers that Britten - generally exemplified as the sainted model of impeccable word-setting - had an absolutely terrible ear? And that his tortured manglings of the language often do such violence to its rhythm, poetry, and sense as to be almost unbearable? Apparently I am…) All the more surprising then, when in later works - especially in Wine of Summer - Brian goes against the grain of the words with such irritating effect…

What were Brian’s models? There were plenty of recent precedents: Parry, Elgar, Coleridge-Taylor et al had established a solid choral tradition, complemented by the more relaxed example of the operas of Stanford and Sullivan; but surely Brian’s ease with the demotic in this work owes at least as much to a less exalted source? It’s been suggested more than once that the famous xylophone passage from The Gothic may owe something to the Music Hall virtuosi of Brian’s day… it seems to me The Tigers is absolutely drenched in the uproarious, nose-thumbing ethos of Music-Hall. (Fred Karno’s Army being only the most obvious point of reference.) I would suggest that the whole area of Brian’s involvement with the Music-Hall - musically, socially, and dramatically - might bear a great deal of further investigation. (As is also true of his colleague Holbrooke.)

And on the subject of words, I find myself rather impressed with the libretto. Composers, it goes without saying, generally make a horrible mess of their own libretti, and my expectation of Brian was of something workmanlike at best. In the event, although the ‘book’ is a mess (more about this later) line by line the libretto is actually rather good. While not the work of a great writer, it is useful evidence of Brian’s extraordinary independence of mind. Compare the ghastly quality of the standard English libretto - such as the stilted archaisms that mar a work like George Lloyd’s Iernin, let alone the embarrassing farrago the cast of Ethel Smyth’s The wreckers have to plough through. (There’s an opera that would benefit enormously from being translated into, say, Bulgarian, and then left there.)

R ead the popular dramatists of Brian’s day, like Laurence Houseman, Clifford Bax, or Stephen Phillips, and you’ll see the extraordinary difficulty many had in saying anything simply or straightforwardly: you certainly won’t find any discussions about the durability of underwear! (And that extraordinary little tale about the duck and the frog - where did that come from?) When the young D H Lawrence tried to portray down-to-earth people using conversational language in his early plays he soon found he was beating his head against an unyielding wall, and abandoned the theatre for the novel. Brian cuts straight through the dramatic and operatic conventions of his time to produce a libretto in which characters say what they mean, in straightforward English - in itself a remarkable achievement, otherwise limited to a few giants such as Granville Barker and Bernard Shaw - through whose Heartbreak House the new Zeppelins loom as equally surreal and nightmarish portents…

Other impressions? Well, the most striking is that HB sure Had a Problem (to use the current charmless phrase) with Authority Figures! Policemen, the military, churchmen, are all held up to ridicule as a matter of course. No wonder Brian made such a bad soldier - he seems to have been instinctively antagonized by any suggestion of authority, to a degree that leaves one wondering just what kind of inner insecurity might lie behind such an extreme attitude? Yes, once again, HB the pioneer had Attitood decades before his time.

Nevertheless, the characterisation of Brian’s target figures is delicate rather than crudely satirical; surely it wasn’t just through the strength of this performance that the Bishop in particular came to life in an immediate, fully-rounded way? And Lady Stout’s tender concern for her husband’s well-being - both physical and moral - is drawn with a few deft, but very well-conceived strokes. In fact, the tenderness throughout The Tigers comes as a surprise; after all, it’s not a quality that springs readily to mind in connection with this composer, but the pastoral ‘haymaker’ scenes in particular exhibit a luxuriant, off-beat lyricism that’s extremely beguiling…

The performance? It seemed to me to be astonishingly fine - orchestral playing of a security and flair that’s rare in Brian even now, with the orchestral interludes brought to life far more vividly under Friend’s baton than Hager’s. Not a duff performance, either, among the large cast. Congratulations all round.

The downside? Well, as the introduction suggested (with stunning understatement) The Tigers is not strong on narrative thrust. In fact in terms of structure it almost makes Tippett’s home-grown plots look like masterpieces of construction, not a claim I ever thought I’d hear myself airing. And this is a problem. With apologies to Malcolm Macdonald and others, it’s not enough to characterise the piece as ‘dream-like’ - the ‘and then I woke up’ gambit has been the cop-out of bad writers throughout history; even good dramatists get into trouble with it. (cf Calderón, Strindberg, Priestley et al).

There doesn’t seem to be any particular reason why one scene follows another, and in the theatre this is going to be a handicap. (Think how ‘dream’ operas - like some of Janácek or Martinu - just about scrape by, and are never entirely satisfying.) Similarly, it won’t do to excuse The Tigers as Symbolist, Surreal, Absurdist etc - anyone who’s ever sat through an evening of Absurdist theatre will know the feeling of having been short-changed, and by Act Three I found myself having to draw on reserves of patience and goodwill which can’t be guaranteed in an audience.

How intentionally anti-climactic is the bulk of Act Three supposed to be? Or is it just plain unsuccessful? By the last act of any work it’s generally not a good idea to have one character elaborately explaining to another what has already happened, as is the case with the Sergeant’s tedious account of the bells and the Zeppelins. After all, at heart opera is drama - and at heart drama is conflict. (Conflict is tension, character is fate, and Clint Eastwocd is The Man With No Name, QED). And while it’s true some of the orchestral interludes - especially the first - contain wonderful music, their inclusion makes no dramatic sense whatever; badly damaging the flow of such story as there is.

It’s true that clever production could disguise some of these weaknesses, but weaknesses they remain, and always will, unless a producer as yet unborn finds a staggeringly ingenious way to coherently integrate the two worlds of the opera - the dream-like and the robustly real. By comparison the trivial matter of filling the stage with elephants, cathedrals, flaming gargoyles etc, is simplicity itself. (Dammit, if a jumbo jet can lad in Nixon in China, anything is possible.)

So - will we ever see The Tigers on stage? Its obvious home would be the stage of the English National Opera, but I have to say I’m not optimistic. Apart from the intrinsic staging problems, the opera world, even more than its orchestral counterpart, is hardly characterised by its intellectual curiosity or daring - generally contriving to be at once timid and reactionary: just look at the decades of struggle that have been necessary to get even Walton’s Troilus taken seriously. While I think it’s fair to say that Brian the symphonist is now beginning to receive at least a grudging respect, I fear it’ll be a very long time before the effete opera establishment is capable of responding to Brian with anything other than a snigger.

Though surprising things can happen. I recall with warm glow of superiority the Oxbridge/RCM/BBC apparatchik who loftily informed me, at the Covent Garden première of’ John Tavener’s Thérèse, that the composer was now critically and musically finished, and would never be heard of again! So there’s always hope. And in particular my hope would be of hearing again the broadcast of Agamemnon which I very very dimly recall from my teenage years: apart from anything else, it would be fascinating to hear a Brian opera with a plot. But then, of course that still leaves Turandot, The Cenci, and Faust.. - Will we ever hear these? [written 1995] I suspect that, if we do, our picture of Brian the sour symphonist will change beyond recognition; we might even come to think of him as primarily an opera composer, rather than as a symphonist. How long, oh Lord (Kenyon? 1) how long…?

Shame about the cat, though…

© Kevin Mandry 1994 / NL117

  1. Then Controller, BBC Radio 3 ↩︎

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