The writer is dead: long live the music!

Kate Smith and Katharine Armitage

Thousand Furs librettist, Katharine Armitage, writes about her experience of hearing her words brought to life in the first music rehearsal of her first ever opera.

A lot of the rehearsal room discussion is going over my head… It’s music day and so the language is very technical and still slightly alien to a writer’s ears. What I do get, completely, is the music itself. It fits so perfectly with the words, themes, characters and world I tried to write that it feels a bit magical. As if the words had music hiding inside them which is now being pulled out. I think composer Michael might be a magician… All of the music just feels right (even when it’s breaking convention rather deliciously). Now Will (musical director and sorcerer) and the cast are building intricate palaces out of it all. Two palaces to be precise, across which the story is set (it is after all, the great great grandmother of the Cinderella we know so well) and it’s fascinating to see how different these two settings feel now the music shapes them.

It’s always strange to hear words you wrote very privately be spoken and repeated so publicly in rehearsal. It’s even stranger to hear them sung. I have to keep reminding myself that I did write them: the power and skill with which the performers sing the libretto makes it feel so fixed and solid. How could I possibly have made that up? Perhaps it’s like the pain of labour: as soon as the writing is finished you forget what the process was like…. so you’ll be foolish enough to do it again.

At the moment the words are more vehicles for the music as the focus is on tuning, timing and all those intricate ’t’ words that make up a good musical performance. Next week it will switch as the characters are given space to move and expand. At the moment my job is to listen and flag up any words that might have got lost or altered in the transcribing process and to answer (or fail to answer) difficult questions Katherine the director asks me. I’m happy just to listen. Opera, for me, feels like watching an oak tree grow really really fast. One of those time lapse videos (not that a 100 year long time lapse video could exist). It starts incredibly tiny and then sprouts out into this immense and overwhelming sound. The selfish part of me wishes they would just keep singing and not stop to go over things. But I will let the experts do their job.

The writer is dead: long live the music!