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Goliath (2) - writing an opera

Wherein our heroine sings to herself a lot...

So.

It turns out writing an opera is quite an extended task, to be honest. I had an idea in my head of the narrative arc, the storyline, the characters and the kind of sound I was after, but when I submitted the proposal for Goliath to Strange Trace Opera, I'd not yet written a word of the libretto or a note of the score. I got to work through November and sent off a libretto, and it was a pleasure to have an online reading session with the cast, who seemed really pleased with the libretto - it worked as a play, at any rate...

Writing the libretto

I started with the last scene. I knew how I wanted the opera to end - it's Goliath's story, not David's, so it had to end with Goliath's end. I'm not sure about using spoilers for a story over 3,000 years old, but, (spoiler alert) Goliath dies! This is the only scene which directly quotes text from the biblical version of the story, and I wanted the singers who play The General and The Boy to sing David's speech to Goliath (before he kills him) from offstage. So the last scene kinda wrote itself backwards from this point.

 

I wanted to make sure each character got their moment - their solo aria, if you like - to establish their character, but also for the sake of the singers and the musical structure of the whole opera. With this in mind, I set Goliath with a significant opening solo in the first act, which establishes him as the main protagonist - it's a monologue about his current worries and problems as the quartermaster of the Philistine army - so it also sets the scene. The General gets two big moments - firstly in scene 1, where she almost seduces Goliath into the role of the army's champion (I always had this idea in my head that she found Goliath very attractive) and again in the third scene where she revels in the power of command. As for The Boy, their extended solo moment comes at the end of the second scene, with a bloodthirsty and excited rant about all the things Goliath will do to his enemies.

 

A lot of the writing for the libretto is quite "listy" - lists of stores and chores from Goliath, lists of Goliath's physical attributes and weapons from The General, lists of injuries and expectations from The Boy. There's also a recurring theme of Goliath's challenge to the enemy - at first hesitantly as he rehearses with The Boy, then confidently as he delivers it to the Israelites for the first time, then as time passes, repeated with diminished confidence and enthusiasm, until by the end of the opera, Goliath is only singing to himself. This use of lists and repetition gives the whole libretto an almost ritualistic feel.

Writing the score

With the libretto completed, and after the reading session, I wrote the music for the opera straight out in full score - a lot of opera composers like to write a piano + voices sketch first, but I decided very early on that the instrumental writing was such an important part of the "soundworld" I was creating that I needed to write them all in from the start. Besides, there's not a huge orchestra - a modest but flexible group of clarinet, percussion, piano, violin & 'cello forms the whole band. I was delighted to have a clarinet to work with - it's my own "first instrument" and is such a useful and adaptable part of the ensemble.

The libretto clearly breaks the opera into definable "chunks" and, although the music plays without a real break all the way through each scene, I did approach the composition as a series of connected short pieces rather than one enormous piece. As I worked through each part, I found myself singing, always singing as I wrote - it's really important to me that the vocal writing really fits the characters and fits the text. There was quite a lot of singing at the piano, and now, to be honest, I have a load of the music for the opera stuck in my head. I'm not sure this is a good thing!

Scene 1

Instrumental Introduction

I wrote a short stamping and aggressive introduction with hard accented percussion and piano, almost in a dancelike style with a strong influence of the traditional music of the Middle East

Goliath's Song

This is a very "bluesy" piece, based on crunchy 7(b9) harmonies set a semitone apart, and over a very wonky and uneven rhythmic alternation between groups of 5, 7 and 8. It looks complex, but sounds very tired and worn out, and almost improvised (it's not!)

Trio

With the entry of The Boy, and then The General shortly after, this is a sudden change of pace. The music is rapid-fire, punctuated with staccato chords, woodblocks and cowbells, with a quick back-and-forth between the characters. This sort of dialogue-music is enormous fun to write, and fitting the music to the speech-patterns of the libretto creates all kinds of irregular accents.

The General's Song

This starts slowly, but then accelerates into a kind of "sexy Middle-Eastern drum 'n 'bass" feel (I know that's hard to imagine) The General moves through a few different moods as the music intensifies.

Trio

This is the only place in the opera where we have all three characters on stage together, so they had to sing together now or they never would! The Boy and The General combine in a kind of mystical chant or chorale over an instrumental ostinato, and as they repeat their chant, Goliath sings against them in impassioned counterpoint, twisting the meaning and disagreeing, but ultimately overruled. It's a pretty intense musical moment.

Scene 2

Rehearsing the Challenge

Slowly, and hesitantly, with help from The Boy, Goliath goes over his challenge. The music is chromatic, suspended, hesitant and quite calm.

Goliath's Challenge

Accompanied by the clarinet in "trumpet mode", Goliath delivers his challenge to the audience with fierce dotted rhythms and triplets, almost in the style of a fanfare, punctuated with percussion and piano "thumps"

The Boy's Song

Excited by Goliath's challenge, a short duet leads into The Boy's ecstatic "trap-based" recitation of all the things Goliath will do to his enemies. The Boy's music reaches a climax of rapid-fire triplets over a skittering hi-hat pattern and syncopated bass.

Scene 3

The General's Song

Over a throbbing pedal, The General sings florid lines based on Syrian folk melodies

Duet

The Boy and The General exchange phrases over an excited, pulsating accompaniment built on repeated notes and intense harmonies, alternating Arabic maqams and lydian modal lines. The General becomes more and more ecstatic as she sings of blood and sacrifice, and eventually The Boy joins her in the climax of the scene.

Scene 4

Goliath's Challenge (recap)

The music for the opening of this scene is a distortion of the music for Scene 2, as first The Boy convinces Goliath to try his challenge again, and then, without the former martial enthusiasm, Goliath limps his way through a half-hearted challenge, fixated on death... with the rattle of vibraphone and tremolo strings, his challenge falters and ends...

Duet

And this duet is an adaptation of musical motifs from Scene 2 & 3, but with The Boy clearly now more under the influence of The General's military ardour and idealism, and Goliath questioning and hanging his head.

Finale

In stasis and despair, accompanied with wailing clarinet and thudding tom-toms, Goliath hangs his head and mumbles out his challenge one more time, while from the distance, set in warm, radiant tonal harmonies, The Boy and The General sing David's biblical words as he responds to Goliath. And so it ends.

What's next?

The score was sent off to the cast, as a document and also as a "virtual orchestra backing track" and vocal rehearsals began ready for a recording of a sing-through of the draft. I'm sure that I'll have a few revisions to make, once I've heard the actual singers rather than singing it all through myself... let's wait and see...

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