MEIRION BOWEN - Articles & Publications


The Magic Net

SIR MICHAEL TIPPETT has more than once come close to writing a musical. Three of his completed operas and the one on which he is cunently working, called Nem Year, have veered in that direction. The exception is the heroic tragedy, King Priam (first produced by The Royal Opera in 1962), where the techniques of the musical - such as song-and-dance-routines would have been incongruous. Even so, the composer and director Sam Wanamaker, when preparing the original production of King Priam, visited shows such as Oliver! and decided that various advanced lighting techniques, common in musicals, could be of service: Sean Kenny's lighting contribution was thus of fundamental importance to the spectacle.

The Midsummer Marriage, The Knot Garden and The Ice Break (first produced at the Royal opera House Covent Garden in 1955, and 1977, respectively) all allow for choreography in varying degrees, enabling their fantasy-element to come fully into play and some producers have taken the cue. In the first of these operas, other episodes, apart from the Ritual Dances in Acts II and III, are enhanced by choreographic treatment: e.g. Jenifer's Act I aria, when she has a vision of the stars dancing: Welsh National Opera's 1976 production brought this off splendidly. Un-tramelled by operatic convention, the Stockholm Musikdramatiska Ensemble, in their 1981 presentation, sported a chorus on roller-skates, giving credulity at last to their final assertion in Act I, 'We are the laughing children...'

Likewise, the chorus of mainly young people whirling through The Ice Break can be organised convincingly into stylised dance-movements, either when they are alone or in relation to set-piece arias. With Nem Year (whose world premiere is scheduled for October 1989, at Houston Grand Opera, the same production reaching Glyndebourne and BBC TV the following year) Tippett moves closer than ever towards the musical. A chorus of dancers, as well as a singing chorus, is integrated into the action throughout; and the orchestral accompaniment resembles the band for a musical, featuring two electric guitars and percussion, saxophones and other wind instruments in homogeneous families, omitting the piano Tippett has found indispensable in his scores over the last thirty years, and requiring only a smallish body of strings.

Tippett's interest in the methods current in popular musicals is part of a general fascination with contemporary theatre, as a result of which his five operas each mark out different dramatie territory. The Knot Gurden which can be encountered with its original orchestration, for the first time in the UK in sixteen years, in a new production at Covent Garden (there have been two, meanwhile, with chamber ensemble accompaniment) - intermingles various theatrical genres in a strikingly idiosyncratic fashion. Its contents relate it immediately to Shaw's Heartbreak House, but its musical procedures are indebtd to Mozart's Cosi fan tutte, deploying its seven characters mainly in twos and threes rather than in separate arias. Tippett here has emulated TV and cinema too, in speeding up the transitions between scenes: his stage-direction is simply DISSOLVE and for that purpose he regularly provides a few bars of purely functional 'non-music'.

The overall concept, however, of The Knot Garden derives from Shakespeare's The Tempest. Not only does it follow the play in beginning with a storm, but some of its characters are modern re-creations of figures from The Tempest. Prospero is trans- lated into the present-day as Mangus, a psychiatrist manipulating the behaviour of the rest of the cast; Ferdinand becomes Faber, a civil engineer whose marriage to Thea has broken down; Miranda, becomes Flora, their adolescent ward; and Ariel and Caliban are imaginatively re-born as a homosexual couple, Dov (a white musician) and Mel (a black writer), whose relationship is also on the rocks. In Act II, the garden-setting of the opera turns into a maze or labyrinth in which the characters are whisked in and out of confrontations with each other at great speed. All their hang-ups, all their illusions about them- selves and each other are laid bare. In Act III, at Mangus's instigation, they play a series of charades in which they revert to their Shakesperean prototypes. Such games also relate the work to another con- temporary theatrical mode, as exemplified by Edward Albee's 8%o's Afraid of Virginia W'oolf? And at the end they achieve some kind of reconciliation: nothing glib or pie- in-the-sky, but a general self-acceptance and toleration, and - for Thea and Faber - 'emnity transcended in desire'.

As usual, Tippett wrote his own libretto for The Knot Garden. Although pared down to the minimum of words, the text is replete with allusions and references: at the same time it seems to imply a lot of fast- moving music. Indeed, the pacing of the opera is one of its strong points: its dazzling kaleidoscope of words and music always gives one time to assimilate and digest what is going on. The remaining character in the drama, not so far mentioned, Thea's sister Denise, a dedicated freedom-fighter, acts as a kind of catalyst to the action, especially in the interplay of Act II. But her extended aria, on her arrival in Act I, anchors the action in a context of social and political realities without which the personal neurosis of the other figures might have seemed something of a distortion.

If The Knot Garden intermingles dramatic genres quite freely, so is the music equally pluralistic. Looking back, it might seem incredible that it is by the same composer who had previously penned The Vision of St Augustine. Yet by the mid-sixties, when Tippett was writing these works, he was preparing to traverse entirely fresh ground, both artistically and in actuality. For it was then - in 1965, just when he reached the age of sixty - that he made his first visit to the USA. This decisively shaped the contents and style of his opera and expanded his own spiritual and intellectual horizons to such a degree that his music has never been the same since.

In his initial conception of The Knot Garden, the garden setting was all important - even more or so than in The Vision (originally called Fenestra: for one of Augustine's two visions had occurred when he and his mother stood together at a window in Ostia looking into an inner garden or hortus conclusus). guite easily, thus, The Knot Gurden could have turned into a cosily Bloomsbury-ish liberal-humanist stage-charade. But America changed all that. Tippett's first encounters with its geographical extremes - ancient canyons and mesas on the one hand, gleaming, sky- scraper cities on the other - and its intermingling of diverse races and their cultures had the effect of wrenching him into new creative dimensions. Jazz and blues exerted a hold on him since the early 1930s: and he had begun to take note of the latest American writers, such as James Baldwin, Charles Wright, John Updike etc. Tippett's defence of human values in a strife-torn, technology-dominated epoch is more acute, more fervent and hard-hitting in works like The Knot Garden, Symphony - matter - and ultimately, they are linked Firstly, Tippett's thematic ideas tend have dance-like profiles, and move natu ally towards a stylisation in song-and dance terms whenever the stage actic requires it. The opening prelude, conceived as an awkward, angular dance th keeps breaking down, the dancers no long joining hands, indicates that it is a psychi logical storm, not an actual one. Tl storm-motif is of key relevance to tl action, and is thus present throughout tl opera in various guises notably in rhythmically contracted version that coi nects the speedy character-confrontatio: of Act II. Twice, however, it is telescopi harmonically, to underlie a lyrical expai sion of the motif - where Denise and M (in Act II) briefly find comrnon groui (while they sing, 'We shall overcome' su faces in the accompaniment): but mc notably at the end of the opera, where, its twelve notes are gathered together in sweeping crescendo-ing gesture symbo'. of the new-found harmony between wi and husband.

Other dance-motifs help identify the characters, such as the grotesquely lurc ing trumpet-tune for Faber, implicit sexual frustration, contrasting with t gently undulating motif (on three hon but rounded off by high violins) for Thea cocooned in the serenity of her garde Short song-and-dance routines encapsuli the mental states of other characters - e.g. the immature Flora, regressing into her nursery rhyme, Eeeny meeny miney mo; Dov and Mel, deliberately parodying the Ariel and Caliban roles as a way of intr ducing themselves on stage.

The duets and ensembles tend to be son dance-numbers, too: the final collective expression of anguish in Act I moves fron slow blues into an up-tempo cathar boogie; Dov and Mel, meeting together t moving apart as they face the break-up their relationship in Act II. But dance in the opera is more than mannerism, or just a modus operandi. It stems from the metaphor most central to the work, uncovered at the point in Act III where Tippett suddenly allows us to see the whole picture. This kind of insight is generally supplied in Tippettīs operas by a Messenger-figure, who halts the action and muses on the situation. The mysterious Madame Sosostris in the Midsummer Marriage, Hermes the Divine-Go-Between in King Priam, the adrogynous Astron-Astra in The Ice Break - all offer such an epiphanic vision. But The Knot Garden contains no such role. instead, near the end of the opera, Magnus-Prospero disowns his magic powers and manipulative control, everyone stops feuding and steps forward to the footlights and join hands in an act of reconciliation:

'If for a timid moment,
We submit to love,
Exit from the inner cage,
Turn each to each to all.'

Tippet then quotes from the world-visic of a Goethe poem, 'Das magische Net (The Magic Net), which depicts the comings and goings of a group of peop dancing with a net:

'We sense the magic net
That holds us veined,
each to each to all.'

Following it is Ariel's invitation to the island and to dance in The Tempest (adapted from Tippett's own setting of the song for production of the play at the Old V Theatre in 1961):

'Come unto these yellow sands...'

The magic net which we hold and the dance we enact when we are able to con municate with each other is the metaph most basic to the work.

If, at the start of the opera, one is plungi into the tensions and conflicts of the extremely intense figures on stage, it worth bearing in mind that there will con a turning-point in the action where tl possibility of resolution seems lil ely. Tl occurs near the end of Act II. Dov ai Flora are the last to be flung together in t. magical labyrinth. Dov comforts the di tressed Flora, persuading her to sing: b she is so immature, so unaware of her ide tity, she sings a boy's song (the Schubert mentioned earlier). Dov responds with a song of his own, telling of his boyhood in the city and dreams of the warm Californian West. He too may be immature emotionally on the edge of a precipice ('Stop the world, I want to get off!'), but his love-song is authentically of today, as it causes the knot-garden to flower for abrief while into a rose-garden. This is, course, a fantasy: and there are harsh realities to be faced, both in Act III and after the end of the opera, centred on seven sharply defined personalities, is clearly concerned with a network of larger issues. Thus it belongs as much in a big house like Covent Garden, where the composer's original score is essential, as it does in smaller theatres, where the chamber version (prepared by myself), involving 22 players, is apposite. In both contexts it emerges as one of the most riveting and endlessly rewarding of post-war operas.