‘Think Opera? Think Again!’: Music Theatre Wales in Conversation

Music Theatre Wales is the UK’s leading contemporary opera company. Specialising in chamber opera and music theatre, the company has produced and toured thirty operas since its inception in 1988 – fourteen of which have been new commissions. MTW has won a TMA Award for Outstanding Achievement in Opera (2011), a South Bank Sky Award (2013) and been nominated for an Olivier Award (2013).

In a wide-ranging discussion, Co-Artistic Directors Michael McCartney (Director) and Michael Rafferty (Conductor) talked to Steph Power about MTW’s current production of The Killing Flower by Salvatore Sciarrino, and other projects past, present and future, as well as the company’s vision of opera and music theatre.

The Killing Flower is being performed at the Wales Millennium Centre tonight and touring.

This 25th anniversary year, MTW also tours their award-winning production of Greek by Mark-Anthony Turnage, Ping by Vasco Mendonça and Eight Songs for a Mad King by Peter Maxwell Davies.


Music Theatre Wales
The Killing Flower rehearsals –
Michael McCarthy (Director),
Amanda Forbes (Duchess)
photo by Toby Farrow


Steph Power – Sciarrino is recognised as one of the most significant composers working in Europe today. So it seems extraordinary that Music Theatre Wales’ production of the Killing Flower is not just the the first ever staging of that work in the UK, but it is the first full staging of any opera of his here!

Michael McCarthy – It’s certainly exciting for us to be the company bringing this important international work to the UK for the first time, and exposing audiences to a whole different palette; a different way of thinking, writing and performing opera. But Sciarrino’s written plenty of operas!

SP – Yes, and this piece has been recorded several times.

MM – And yet, most people go ‘Who? Never heard of that’! We just have to get the work out there because it’s a serious miss in the UK musical world, let alone the UK opera world.

SP – Absolutely.

Michael Rafferty – It’s difficult to understand because, if Killing Flower was a really off-the-wall piece and hadn’t gone down well in other countries, that would be different. But it’s an established work on the continent and Sciarrino is an established figure. Although the problem with people listening on CD is that you have to hear it live, to experience it. He forces you to really listen. And you certainly don’t get that from a minute of YouTube!

MM – You have to feel it – sound is a physical thing, there, in the space. It’s about the gesture of making sound and hearing and feeling it – that’s why Sciarrino’s work is so extraordinary as theatre music. It has that concentration, intensity and the power of the single gesture of sound. It’s just so strong.

SP – You’re reminding me of something that relates to Mauricio Kagel’s work; Kagel’s ideas about instrumental theatre, where he proposed a music in which the gestures of the musicians contribute as much as the sounds they make.

MM – Sciarrino’s not doing that deliberately, but that’s what I experience with his concert music and his opera – that physical aspect. Not just watching the musicians play or sing, but being in the space in which that sound is somehow being emitted and communicated. The liveness of Sciarrino’s sound is acute and special. There’s something extraordinary about how he makes you listen – like no other music I know.

SP – Yes I agree, it’s very singular.

MR There’s something very primal about it as well. The sounds go in on a quite subliminal level – they work on a level which is below or above what you might take as being accessible.

SP – I understand that you’ve arranged the set so that the audience is actually a part of it?

MM – Yes, the audience will sit inside the set with the singers and ensemble.

MR – This is in performances from now on; at Buxton Festival [where MTW performed the UK premiere], we had to have a pit and a more formal staging. We thought that you wouldn’t be able to hear the sounds – but you could hear everything. It was amazing! There is a conservatism in the UK – even about other new operas – that there has to be a big bold expression that speaks to a big opera house. But you can write something that’s incredibly soft, with three ppps as Sciarrino does, and with sounds which rarely use traditional techniques and it can communicate to an audience. In a way it’s a lack of imagination on the part of people who have been programming up until now.

MM – and knowledge.

MR – But when the audience is there listening, they get it and the number who’ve said, well it just worked, and who couldn’t believe that something that was so quiet for most of the time – and then sometimes three or four fffs! – could have that effect. But Sciarrino draws you into such an intimate world. He invites you into this extraordinary palette of sounds rather than ‘pushing’ his expression out.

SP – How did you find working with the performers, both singers and instrumentalists, to introduce them to Sciarrino’s particular sound-world?

MR – I think what’s really interesting is that, although it’s ‘different’, it’s not alien – the music is immediately understandable. It’s so much about the sound and the expression. The notation looks relatively complicated on the page but the sounds are immediate and once you’ve absorbed how to do it, for the singers it’s actually very vocal so there is an instinctive understanding. The singers know where it’s coming from, even though it may be hard to learn from one juncture to the next. It’s so much about the fleeting feeling.

MM – The musicians have talked about the different techniques, the different sounds the instrumentalists have to make. From the singers’ point of view, it’s not this verismo stuff, it’s not heart on sleeve, and so they have to think slightly differently. It’s actually incredibly hard to memorise because of the level of detail involved; almost every note has its instructions and you have to follow them because that’s how Sciarrino communicates how it should be. Every note has to be thought about with dynamics and expression, and then in its context, and then in its dramatic import. It’s very demanding – but we like it like that!

Music Theatre Wales
Michael Rafferty
Photo by Clive Barda

SP – Jane Manning has said that the term ‘extended vocal techniques’ is a misnomer in a way because vocal techniques are vocal techniques – whether sung or otherwise! I think that’s true of instrumental techniques also.

MR – Yes! With the Flower ensemble, they’re lapping up the different techniques and interesting new sounds. And again there aren’t so many techniques that are way-out – there’s a lot of harmonics and playing behind the bridge for the strings, breath sounds, it’s not so different. The saxes have got slap-tonguing and so on.

SP – So, not unfamiliar really, for anyone who’s heard or played different kinds of contemporary music. Is there any heightened sense in which those musical sounds form part of the theatrical performance?

MM – I would say that, in many ways, for all pieces you try to work from the musical score outwards, but I think perhaps more so here. For me, the music suggests very strongly the dramatic approach – it says so much about the atmosphere within which the characters think and feel. The actual story of the drama is quite slight in a way; I mean it’s about powerful things, but it’s not a ‘big’ story and it’s not about narrative and the consequences of events. It’s about what happens to these people in the interplay between them and in particular within their own individual thoughts and feelings. You have to sustain an extraordinary level of tension for over seventy minutes and there’s a defined ‘band’ within which a great deal happens, so the music inevitably for me suggests ways of behaving for the performers. Yes, absolutely.

MR – Sometimes Sciarrino works in a way you don’t even notice. There’s a scene in which the violins are playing a note that’s so high that some other ensembles have thought it must be a mistake and have put it down an octave. But it’s there and it’s so high that it’s just about beyond hearing range for some people and almost sounds like a bow noise. In the theatre you maybe think that there’s just singing at that point, that there’s no other sound. But this note from the violins has been going on for twenty, thirty seconds, then it stops. And then you notice that there’s been something there before.

SP – What a completely different world from Turnage’s Greek – from chalk to cheese!

MM – A million miles away from Greek, yes! With Greek – you know everything is absolutely there!

MR – The Turnage is strong and overt and in-your-face!

MM – But no less sincere, or powerful or intense. We took our time to come to Greek. We needed a space between the first performances that it had in the UK and a couple of revivals to appraise it and look at it fresh. I personally was slightly concerned whether this is an opera only of its time because it was so 1980s. Great then, but what now we’re twenty-five years on? Where does that leave the piece musically, theatrically and of course in it’s political message? So what was exciting for us when we first did this production two years ago, was that the piece came up smelling of roses. It’s just incredibly vibrant and if you play it with sincerity it’s all there. I think that’s what Mark responded to when he came into the rehearsal and he could see that the whole company were committed and were doing our best to find this blazing energy that’s there. And in fact he just changed the text for the riot scene – putting in the text that he wanted originally, which wasn’t deemed ‘suitable’ by the BBC at the time. And it captivates, it conveys the energy that that scene should have. But it’s also a fabulously well crafted piece of work. Finding that text [by Steven Berkoff] my God that was so right for him, it just worked! But a lot of the music is instinctive and I think all the better for it in a way.

Music Theatre Wales
Sally Silver (Mum)
Marcus Farnsworth (Eddy)
and Louise Winter (wife)
Greek by Music Theatre Wales
photo by Clive Barda

SP – As a company, you’re now celebrating your 25th anniversary. Do you see yourselves as having emerged from any tradition or traditions?

MM – We’ve established our own tradition! But I think we do, yes, in terms of the model of the company – but not necessarily in terms of the artistic output, because I think the work is very broad. We started out with Maxwell Davies, we’ve gone to Harrison Birtwistle, to Michael Nyman and Philip Glass, we go to Sciarrino and Turnage and that’s fantastic. The people we’ve commissioned have been equally diverse: Eleanor Alberga – John Hardy, indeed, in those early days – Huw Watkins and Stuart MacCrae. But I think the model of the company comes actually from Benjamin Britten – in this year of years [Britten’s centenary]!

SP – I was about to ask whether Britten was an influence?!

MM – Yes, through the English Opera Group, that’s the starting point.

MR – Well that’s one of the influences. The other one of course is the Pierrot Players.

SP – Which then became the Fires of London.

MM – and looking to Europe most definitely, so there’s a dual track which does come into one really. But in terms of the British root, English Opera Group commissioning small scale pieces that worked in a different operatic way. There’s no question that that had a very strong influence on what was going on operatically. And the English Opera Group commissioned Birtwistle’s Punch and Judy.

MR – We have a modern way of working – of touring and of size – but we don’t have any musical school and the core really is a kind of extreme expression I think. Eight Songs for a Mad King is obviously an overt form of that but then the Sciarrino is that too at the other end of the scale. The key isn’t that we’re about any sort of expression but that it’s an intense expression and an intense experience of theatre.

MM – It’s opera up close, that you experience right up inside. I think the intimacy is a very important aspect of that, so the scale is a great strength, it’s not just opera on the cheap! We often describe the company as being about the power and passion of opera on an intimate scale, but it’s also adventurous and demanding and can be provocative in its language and sometimes in its message. And that’s right because it’s a contemporary form that has emerged out of a really exciting art form that’s been going for hundreds of years.

Music Theatre Wales
George Humphreys (Duke)
and Amanda Forbes (Duchess)
The Killing Flower
photo by Clive Barda

SP – How do you go about balancing the more ‘Britten-esque’ operatic model – for want of a better term – alongside the more European, perhaps even ‘anti-operatic’ model of music theatre, if you like – I’m thinking in terms of the creative tension that exists between those two poles? – In any case, to do Greek and Killing Flower at the same time, and pairing Ping with Eight Songs, there are tremendously powerful contrasts right there!

MM – In the end, we spend a lot of time finding pieces that we are inspired by, that we feel we can communicate and do justice to – and feel that this is work that has to be seen and heard. It has to work. We can’t be stuck on any tracks in particular.

MR – No, we can’t be hung up on any model and we also need to explore. Not necessarily the edges, but everything that’s going on now as far as we can. In classical opera there’s a handful of works that are done by the major companies – it’s a sort of masterpiece culture. I suppose in a way we’ve focused on intensity of expression because each piece has to work theatrically.

MM – All the elements have to be in the right place. I think sticking a transcendental piece, say, into an inappropriate studio or theatre would be to shoot yourself in the foot. So you have to get those things right and all the time we’re thinking how do we best do this piece that we believe in? How do we make this work, how do we communicate it? Because we want to share the passion and inspiration that we get from these pieces and to deliver the same experience that we’ve had.

MR – We share the journey. Obviously we do the pieces that we think are fantastic but maybe not all of them will enter the long term repertoire. But just doing it now and letting everybody follow that with us, rather than saying this is ‘the masterpiece’ – we’re saying: this is exciting –

MM – Try this!

SP – So yours is an anti-museum culture?

MM Yes – it has to be!

MR – Yes, definitely a living culture. Being able to talk to the composers rather than wondering, what was that composer thinking in the 16th Century?! We decided very early on that we wouldn’t do reductions. We did a Mozart opera early on but after that we said no – it’s always going to be the full experience, not like a string section reduced to only four string players. Our composers know that they’ve only got four strings so they have to write in a way that sounds right to make it a total experience with those forces. So you’re never thinking, oh I wish the rest of the orchestra was there! Because that is the orchestra!

MM – It’s about protecting the integrity of the work.

SP – Kent Devereaux said in 1991: ‘To assess contemporary opera, is to confront the institution of opera. Opera is arguably the art form most dependent on the institution for its lifeblood … To reclaim opera has become in many ways a task of redefining the term.’ What do you make of that?

MM – That’s good. I think we’ve been doing that since the start. All of the repertoire we have chosen both simultaneously respects the form but challenges it and sets out to provoke and refresh. The physical model we work on, the belief in the intimacy, is something that flies in the face of most operatic experience – and the baggage of opera. We are constantly fighting expectations and preconceptions. There are so many preconceptions about what opera is.

MR – The scale is an interesting one because many people say, well one day you’ll graduate to produce a big opera! Some of the pieces really only work in small venues but, as you get more successful, people say, well there’s a bigger theatre! But we have to reply, well this piece only needs a scale of 200 seats or whatever. In a way, doing the Turnage and Killing Flower in such venues is ideal for these works. Fifteen instruments in a venue that size can have a huge impact – and you can hear the tiny sounds as well.

MM – You see, the choice to stage the Sciarrino in the Donald Gordon Theatre [main stage at the Millennium Centre] and bring the audience onto the stage and into the set itself – which is what we’re doing in Llandudno and in Swansea Grand – the three number one venues, the three opera houses of Wales! – what we’re saying is very deliberate; that this is opera too, but God it’s different! But it is real opera – music makes the theatre work and vice versa.

SP – ‘Opera’ is very associated with ‘grand opera’ in the popular imagination. But opera’s not necessarily about ‘scale’ on any level is it?

MM – No it isn’t – and Kent is right there in terms of the institution sometimes, the houses. This is the Boulez thing you know [Boulez once famously said that ‘the most elegant solution of the problem of opera was to blow up the opera-houses’]. Sometimes the houses themselves dictate the form. But nothing could be worse than saying you have to write in a certain style because that’s the building we’ve got.

MR – And an orchestra on salary.

MM – It boxes the form in and it’s crazy.

SP – Do you find that there’s a different attitude on the Continent from here in Britain?

MR – You do find that there’s a greater variety and openness amongst certain circles.

MM – You have to find those places really. Obviously there are many countries and many different houses with different artistic policies – and we sit here in the UK and go, ‘Europe can do it’. But the truth of the matter is that there are more institutions in Europe who are performing contemporary, challenging work, you know, really taking that step forward, than there are in the UK.

SP – You have to seek them out?

MR – Yes. There are one or two festivals that are very open like Strasbourg and Aix en Provence and Munich Biennale. But certainly, I think when we played in France we felt some of the greatest sympathy with the work. We did Punch and Judy in Paris and even in Strasbourg – that was a project we did along with the main opera house – you got the impression that the audience were just more interested to see what was going on. It felt like an openness.

But certainly some of the music you hear on the Continent, you think that might be hard to introduce in the UK – but I also do think that will be our future.

SP – Right – that’s fascinating!

MM – We have to do that.

MR – We’ve tended to do a lot of British and occasionally American works – you know Philip Glass and Philippe Boesmans – but I think going to the future we’re looking more towards Europe and further afield. So we can bring those experiences to this country.

MM – And so our own repertoire is ever wider. I think that’s important too.

SP – I look forward to hearing more about that! In terms of ‘classical’ composers, very few these days only write opera or music theatre works. So I wonder whether there’s potentially a different kind of dialogue today – or fluidity perhaps – between dramatic writing for the stage and instrumental writing for the concert platform, which might be influencing the development of both?

MM – I think there’s been a tremendous effort, quite possibly post-Darmstadt, for composers to have a greater influence over the nature of the theatre and of the event itself and there is a fluidity there, which pushes what we understand opera to be. Where that takes us I don’t know because part of the mission for us at MTW is to have equally good dramatists working in opera as we’ve got composers. And composers have to understand that, so it’s always going to be a challenge both ways. Not all composers can write opera. Good opera composers have very powerful, perhaps instinctive, dramaturgical sensibilities.

MR – One thing that’s quite interesting is that some composers who write in a particular way instrumentally, when they get to write an opera, they have a different way of writing. Pastiche is always the danger area! The most successful composers operatically are the ones that find the subject matter that suits their music.

MM – But also those who don’t try to bend what they do because they think an opera has to go like that. As soon as a composer think like that, they’re on the wrong track. George Benjamin’s a fantastic example here. His first operatic sketch was The Little Hill, a fascinating kind of vignette trying things out – then the next thing that happens is this passionate, extraordinary outburst which is pure Benjamin and yet a whole new language. Now he just wants to write opera because he’s discovered it! It’s fantastic.

SP – Yes I think he’s produced something very exciting in Written on Skin.

MM – And Max did that with those chamber operas. The Martyrdom of St Magnus [1976] in its own way is quite a radical work, a real step forward. The Lighthouse [1979] is more straightforward but still pushes at the boundaries of what opera was at that point and it’s proved to be an important launch-pad for us.

MR – Yes you know, focused on madness and extremes! Whereas Sciarrino seems to focus on intimacy  – and Philip Glass something else.

MM – Glass has this mood, this dramatic power as well, amazing control of mood and expectation.

SP – I believe Glass is setting Kafka again for you – following your performances of In the Penal Colony? [MTW produced the UK premiere in 2010.]

MM – He is indeed. He’s offered to write us a new piece and he’s recruited Christopher Hunt to write the libretto so, yes, another Kafka. And it suits him – he’s quite amused by that. He says, oh you guys seem to like these dark pieces!

MR – Yes, that really worked in his Fall of the House of Usher [Glass’s opera after Edgar Allan Poe of 1987] and there’s a natural progression. The Kafka seems to sit alongside that.

MM – And with the Trial you know, that’s been in his head since he was a teenager. He’s been wanting to write this piece for a very long time and so this is really nice.

SP – You’ve commissioned many works over the years.

MM – Yes fourteen operas now.

SP – And you’re working with young composers through your ‘Make an Aria’ project?

MM – Yes, that’s become a really interesting programme for us because it’s absolutely about what we do, which is to ask: what is it like to write new opera? What is new opera? How do you bring text and composition together to create a moment of drama that couldn’t exist in any other form? So we just took the idea of: solo performer, a moment of opera, an aria. Which might be a very old fashioned idea but it still works.

MR – Also it’s too big a thing to write a whole piece. A lot of composers have maybe written five-minute pieces, so to be confronted with that time scale, there are just too many things. So crystallizing a moment of maybe five operatic minutes allows an experience to happen. In a way it’s good for any composer to remind them this moment has got to work rather than thinking how am I going to fill out the space of the opera!

MM – We’ve discovered that it’s great for the composers and actually the audiences really like it because they also get an insight into the process of writing opera and the huge challenges involved. We’ve done one at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama and are just about to start one with Oxford University, partially in collaboration with the Oxford Playhouse. We like it because we’re meeting composers along the way and we learn with every experience as well, it’s great.

Each of the ‘Make an Aria’ projects concludes with a public masterclass where we invite seriously experienced opera composers to join us. We’ve had Birtwistle and Judith Weir and Nigel Osborne and we’ve had Turnage – and we’ll carry on. It’s also really good for us to have that ongoing dialogue at the point of creation.

SP – In our own discussion today, we’ve considered many aspects of MTW’s work and how you think about opera and music theatre. Is there a pithy way of describing what Music Theatre Wales is all about?

MM – Well, yes, a kind of catch phrase for Music Theatre Wales would be ‘Think opera? Think again’!

MR – Yes, that’s about it!


Banner illustration by Dean Lewis