When the Flame Dies. Writer R N Morris and Ed Hughes on Collaboration.
Not long ago, after reading RN Morris’ brief comment on his literary rejections, I was curious to know more and asked if I could interview him about them. Being a good sport, he agreed, even though dwelling on these past experiences might not have been the most positive experience for a successful crime novelist to dwell on. So when I saw he had written a libretto for a modern opera When A Flame Dies, I thought another interview might be a way of offering compensation.
It was certainly a new experience for me, as I wanted the composer’s side of the story as well. So started a three way conversation on a writer’s collaboration in the world of music. It is also a demonstration of an interesting area for a writer to become involved in, if the opportunity offers itself.
How did someone who is known as a novelist come to write a libretto?
Roger: I was lucky enough to be friends with a composer, in this case Ed Hughes. Ed used to work with my wife many years ago at a place called The Early Music Centre, in Hackney. He knew I was a writer. I knew he was a composer. There was a mutual interest in each other’s work, I suppose. He wanted to develop a music theatre piece and asked to see some short stories I’d written. He picked one, called The Devil’s Drum, and turned it into a one act music theatre piece, which was put on at the Purcell Room in the South Bank all of fourteen years ago. I know it was that long ago because my daughter, who is now fourteen, was a baby at the time. In the intervening years we talked about doing a full scale opera together some day. In the meantime, Ed wrote an opera called The Birds, to a libretto by Glyn Maxwell, and I started to get some books published. So when we first worked together I wasn’t at all known as a novelist, though Ed had read some of my unpublished manuscripts, and presumably liked them – enough to want to collaborate with me.
So Ed, what about Roger’s The Devil’s Drum, you turned into a one act music theatre piece? How did that work?
Ed: The piece existed first as a story (and has recently been published). I was very drawn to it when Roger showed it to me. It resonated with ideas about the power of music to transform, and also its sense of risk and transgression. I adapted the short story as a short libretto, and then set it to music. This was some time ago, around 1996 and was our first collaboration.
Roger, why Jean Cocteau?
Roger: Interestingly, we had both made our way to Cocteau independently. For me he was a fascinating figure because he was alive during a period of great creativity, living in the city where it was all happening, in Paris. He was a contemporary of artists like Marcel Duchamp and Picasso (who actually had a cameo in one of his films), as well as of composers such as Eric Satie and Poulenc. He was a poet, novelist, playwright, artist, and filmmaker. And an opium addict too. To some degree, he was looked down upon by his contemporaries, a little bit dismissed as a dilettante – not quite a serious artist. Nonetheless he was an incredibly creative person, who seemed to be very close to the centre of things. Diaghilev commissioned him to come up with scenarios for the Ballets Russes with the famous command: ‘Astonish me!’ It seems that there were few people better qualified to do that than Cocteau. But it’s one thing being interested in a historical figure, and something else deciding to write an opera about him, or inspired by him. For me, what made him a suitable basis for a character in an opera is his obsession with Orpheus. There have been many operas about Orpheus – some would argue the myth of Orpheus is central to the whole notion of opera. I was interested in exploring this fascination of Cocteau’s and of finding a way to dramatise it.
Roger, can you explain what a libretto is?
Roger: Libretto literally means ‘little book’ in Italian, and it basically means the text part of the opera, as distinct from the music. This includes the words that are sung but obviously you can’t have those words unless you’ve first worked out the story, or the drama. I worked on that aspect of the opera with Ed. We talked about ideas, developed potential storylines and structures. Ed obviously had an input into the shape of the piece, and he had musical ideas that affected the way I was going to write it. For instance he wanted a dramatic ensemble section towards the end, with everyone singing. A musical climax, that had to be worked up to dramatically. But after all the discussions there came the point where I had to go away and write something. What came out of that was the libretto.
And, yes, before you ask, I wrote the words first, then Ed took them and set them to music.
Ed, I’ve been told it’s better to have the words first than the music, because words are much more difficult to fit to music rather than the other way round, Have you ever tried doing this sort of venture with the music first?
Ed: No, I can’t recall ever having written music first, and then applying the words. The only example I can think of is the words of ‘Ave Maria’ being applied (by Gounod?) to the C major prelude from Book 1 of Bach’s 48 Preludes & Fugues.
Ed, when you were talking with Roger, were you able to hear how the composition might sound in your imagination, or did you wait until you had the whole libretto?
Ed: Yes I was imagining a dreamy, strange and lyrical musical landscape. And in fact back in 2008 or so I had already sketched a section to some words that Roger had drafted (pre-libretto) which I think he had called ‘Hymn to Opium’. (We were interested in Cocteau’s addiction and the awful time he had coming off the drug). That particular section stayed in the piece – Roger very cleverly found a way of weaving it into the final libretto.
When the actual libretto arrived it was very exciting because I could sense the drama. As a result, sections of the music started to be imagined in much more incisive and dynamic forms – the dreaminess and strangeness of the earlier idea were retained, but largely in the middle section of the final piece.
Ed, as words have a certain rhythm to them did that restrict or help with the composition?
Ed: For me the rhythm of words and phrases (language) is absolutely central to the way I develop the musical ideas and the piece as a whole. For example, Roger came up with the phrase ‘You are a killer’ at one point, I this translated instantly to a very pointed rhythm (quaver rest, quaver, quaver, quaver, quaver, quaver) with a heavy accent on the ‘ki’ of ‘killer’. This musical rhythm drives right through the whole of that fast ensemble section. I think the sounds of words are very important. ‘Beguiled’ is a wonderfully curious and seductive but melancholy ring to it, for example. That feeling shapes the harmonies and tempos of a particular song or section.
Roger, what was it like to hear your words put to music?
Roger: Wonderful! It’s a great privilege. Not just to hear what Ed has done, but to hear these amazingly talented singers, and musicians, working so hard to make it come together. It’s incredibly hard to get an opera put on. Everyone involved has been so committed to the project. There was a moment in the rehearsal process where I realised that it was nothing to do with me anymore. I mean there were one or two questions about the words, but nothing major. I just sat there and listened and was in awe. Not just of their talent, but of the focus and, as I say, commitment, that they brought to what they were doing.
Roger, did it change the way you had intended them to be used (for example was the emphasis different)?
Roger: That does happen, a slight shift in emphasis here and there. It happens when other people read out your work too. So it’s not just because it’s being sung. I try not to be too anal about these things. Different interpretations are interesting. I would only intervene if I’ve felt that the fundamental point of a line had been missed. And I don’t think that ever happened. The main change is that the words come to life, and that has got to be a good thing.
It’s always going to be startling to hear the music for the first time – for me as the librettist, I mean. But the whole point of collaboration is that together you end up creating something that neither one of you could have made on your own. I wanted to be startled. I wanted it to be completely different from what I’d expected. The fact is I was incapable of imagining what the music would be like. I wanted it to be startling for an audience too. Fundamentally, I trusted Ed. I was excited to discover what he would do with the text I’d provided. But I knew that he would engage with what I’d written and respond to it. And there was also the fact that we had worked on the development of the piece together. So, whatever the music ended up being, I knew that it would have come out of a common starting point.