How you write an opera? Aldeburgh has the answer

A pioneering project is helping young – and not-so-young – composers get to grips with the challenges of writing an opera. Rule number one: collaborate, collaborate, collaborate

David Toop has a spring in his step. "What a day," he says, looking out over a sea of billowing reeds sweeping out to the Suffolk horizon. "I feel I've achieved more in these past three days than in the last three months. Today is perhaps the most productive day I've ever had."

It's only lunchtime, too. Toop, a pioneering figure in the field of sound art and the author of two critical surveys of hip-hop and experimental music, is working on an opera. "Well," he says, "a kind of opera – but if you'd asked me a few years ago whether I thought I would ever be writing an opera, I would have said no. More than no, in fact."

The kind-of-opera in question is provisionally entitled Star-shaped Biscuit, a work for three singers, a handful of instrumentalists and computer loosely based on the story of Dora Maar. Maar, a painter and photographer as well as Picasso's lover for much of the 1930s, possessed a star-shaped biscuit box that – together with a fragment of the original contents – became something of a fetish object in surrealist circles. The opera relates her efforts to reconcile her sense of identity with the manipulation of it by others, the star shape symbolising the web of relations and Maar's efforts to draw them to a coherent centre.

Toop's enthusiasm for the project is partly thanks to his participation in the Jerwood Opera Writing programme, which is hosted by Aldeburgh Music. The organisation works year-round to promote music-making, education and performance in this area of coastal Suffolk – best known for the Aldeburgh festival, which for three weeks each June attracts the great and the good of the international classical music world. The festival was founded by Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears in 1948; their intention was partly to foster a renaissance in English opera.

Now, their dream seems finally to be coming true. "The programme is unique," says Jonathan Reekie, Aldeburgh Music's director and the controlling mind behind the buzzing "creative campus" at Aldeburgh, a cluster of rehearsal spaces and performance venues that now run through the former Victorian maltings at Snape. "There are other places where you can go and workshop classical music, but with opera it's exceedingly rare. What's unique about our programme is the opportunity it affords for the fellows to workshop intensively as well as sample the experiences of others. They are really being provoked into thinking about what opera is, why it's needed."

Getting the shows on the road
Reekie developed the Jerwood Opera Writing Fellowships in response to the difficulty most young – and not-so-young – composers face in trying to write for the form, and the consequent dearth of new works in the UK. Only a handful of new operas make it to the stage each year, and even then new work is usually consigned to the smaller auditoriums, such as the Royal Opera's Linbury Studio or Glyndebourne's Jerwood Studio. It doesn't take long to figure out why. It's hard enough for playwrights to come up with a text and get it on stage, even in a homemade production, and infinitely harder if your project involves live music and trained singers.

"The economics of opera production are really not geared towards the financial risks involved in commissioning new work, training the cast, setting up the production, staging what could well be only a handful of shows," says Reekie. Even well-established composers find that commissions are extremely scarce.

Which is where the Aldeburgh scheme comes in. It offers composers the opportunity to see and hear their pieces while they are still in development. Composers, librettists and others selected for the fellowship receive year-round support in developing their projects, and are invited to Snape for a number of week-long residencies during which they receive both formal and informal guidance. They're able to try out sections of the work with a team of players, singers and technical staff assembled for the purpose.

Elspeth Brooke, a young composer, says she has been wanting to write an opera for years, but couldn't have done it without something like this. "The idea of working on something for a whole year without really knowing whether it fits together, and what it's really going to look like, is a terrifying leap of faith," she says.

In Brooke's case, the question of what the finished work is going to look like is particularly crucial: her project is a collaboration with video artist Ellie Rees and poet Jack Underwood. Underwood's libretto, based on a poem by Michael Donaghy called The Commission, is about a Florentine Renaissance artist who decides he must cut off the head of the man who murdered his brother.

"I wasn't really au fait with the world of opera when we started to discuss the project," says Underwood, "but I wanted to shock Elspeth with a big, stomping murder thriller. The first-person narrative also gives it a very film noir-ish, Robert Mitchum flavour, which is a bit of a dream for a video artist."

Video projection has increasingly become standard for many opera directors, but The Commission is different: the video is completely integral. Much of the action will take place on screen, or behind it, using shadow projections. The visual and musical styles are strongly reminiscent of film noir. And, strikingly, the entire set will be portable – meaning the show can be staged practically anywhere.

Reekie sees it as one of his many missions to free opera from the constraints of the traditional opera house. He has invited the Italian composer Giorgio Battistelli to lead the Jerwood programme. A former student of Stockhausen and Kagel, Battistelli has written nearly 20 operas on subjects ranging from Diderot and d'Alembert's Encyclopaedia to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. His latest project, based on Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, is due to open at La Scala in 2013.

Besides offering practical advice, Battistelli's role is to make sure everyone involved is certain that what they really want to write is an opera – which, in his understanding means sowing doubt, teasing out problems in the work. "Opera is the enemy of certainty. It should be all about impurity," Battistelli says. "It's one thing to know how you might go about setting a drama to music, but quite another to know why the drama you want to set should be an opera."

The importance of impurity
Impurity – or at least compromise – has always been essential to opera. Its history has been marked by power struggles between composers, librettists, directors, singers and impresarios – who, in the 17th and 18th centuries, were very much in charge. Mozart's famous complaint to his father in 1781 that "music should reign supreme" in opera was born of frustration with the status quo. Only in the 19th century would composers begin to assert themselves as being in charge of the whole process.

Certainly, Brooke, Rees and Underwood all see themselves as equal partners, whose separate spheres of knowledge and experience intersect in a collaborative project. "It's absurd when composers insist on writing their own libretti," says Brooke. "I mean, I wouldn't expect Jack Underwood to write the music." Underwood, who admits he scraped a pass at Grade One trumpet, seems relieved. "I do worry that at any given moment my ignorance will expose me," he says. "But I feel I perhaps have a more objective view of the piece – of what the musical setting can do for our story as a whole."

Rees, too, has been involved right from the start, even to the extent that one of the characters will have an exclusively pre-recorded video presence. Does that mean it's still an opera? "It is an opera," says Rees, "but one that we hope will bridge some of the gaps between opera, traditional theatre and film."

Battistelli, for one, seems impressed. I ask him if he doesn't think the idea is artistically compromised. "Not at all," he says. A grin spreads as he rises slowly to his feet. "This is a very strong piece. Full … of impurities."

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