Thousand Furs – The Compositional Process

Michael Betteridge

I am currently writing this en route to London to the second music call for my new (and first complete!) opera Thousand Furs. The first music call has just finished and I expect the cast will come with plenty of suggestions and thoughts to tomorrow’s rehearsal. Writing an opera is tricky at the best of times – there is so much more to consider in comparison to writing orchestral music or even other text based music – but Thousand Furs has the added element of the fact the band are always on stage. The cast is also the band. Welcome to actor-musician opera.

Having said that I made the decision early on in the process to not shy away from using the instrumentation available, eclectic as it is, as fully as possible therefore challenging the performers. I am lucky enough to be writing for not only really excellent young singers, but also great players, and I wanted to show off their skills in both areas. Our workshop in April was exceptionally useful in testing how far I could take the music and how challenging I could make the combination of singing and playing consecutively. We definitely reached our limit in that workshop, but it made for something really very exciting. But I also wanted to include some humorous elements of actor-musician performance. For example Cook when she first meets Maria/Thousand Furs is playing pizzicato open string notes on her cello. Hypothetically the performer could be singing, plucking (with one hand) and doing something else, like stirring a pot, with her other hand. Kate, who is playing Maria/Thousand Furs, is both a great accordionist and ukulele player. When she is Maria she plays the uke and when she is Thousand Furs (Maria in disguise) she plays the accordion. Little touches like that (this one was suggested by the Re:Sound team) really bring the whole concept to life.

Yet there are many areas in which I have utilized just voices, for example the opening and during the moments the Prince and Maria meet at the ball. The magic of having a cappella voices is captured in special scenes and really highlight some of the most heightened emotions in the work.

What has been particularly exciting is that is has been a truly collaborative process between myself, the librettist Katharine Armitage, the re:sound creative team and the cast. Our workshop in April, where we rehearsed 15 minutes of the score, illuminated some fascinating dilemmas to do with length, imagery, musical material, etc and every member of the team was invited into critique, adapt and explore the work in order to find solutions. Katharine has been one of the most dedicated librettists I have worked with and was adamant about getting the text right, whilst still being sympathetic to the needs of the music.

It’s been a fantastic process, but it’s still not over yet. I’m looking forward to fielding those questions that may await me tomorrow and continuing collaborating on making a new, challenging and exciting piece of music theatre. Wish us luck!