Monday, 28 October 2013

Highland River

Highland River is Neil Gunn’s famous 1937 novel about Kenn who makes a pilgrimage to the source of Dunbeath Water, the river that shaped his childhood, and, in a way, to the sourse of himself and his cultural heritage. For my level three composition course with the Open College of the Arts, I have developed this novel into a site-specific chamber opera for baritone, clarinet, violin and cello. The composition of this opera has been an exciting process that involved a iterative rounds of interpretation of the original novel.

Along Dunbeath Water
Composers of opera have diverging ideas on whether or not to write their own librettos, Benjamin Britten, for example, insisted on collaborating with librettists. Wagner, on the other hand, wrote his own librettos as he felt that the development of a libretto goes hand in hand with the composition of the music and decisions about staging. Whatever stance is taken, the libretto for an opera  necessarily is a simplification of the original text, and therefore highly subjective. That is, developing an existing work into a libretto for an opera involves interpretation.

For reasons similar to those of Wagner, I have written the libretto for my chamber opera Highland River myself. The guidance from OCA stipulated that the opera was to last around twenty minutes. As a result, I would only be able to include a limited number of passages from the novel. For me, Kenn’s intimate relationship with place, time and community is central in Gunn’s book. I thus selected passages from the novel that expressed this theme convincingly and that, together, would present a coherent storyline. The coherence of the storyline was enhanced by choosing only a small number of dramatic themes that would recur in different scenes and were given distinctive thematic material. One of these is the fear for the gamekeeper, a fear embodying a sense of community based on a fear for the laird and his gamekeeper in the wake of the Clearances. When in the first act the young boy Kenn catches a sizeable salmon, the heroic act had to be kept quiet for the community for fear of repercussions from the gamekeeper. In the second act this fear is made explicit in the story of Lachie-the-Fish, the older brother of Kenn’s friend Beel who only narrowly escaped being caught poaching red-handed, a story shared by Kenn and his older brother Angus when they themselves are on a poaching trip.   
'Kenn and the Salmon' in the harbour of Dunbeath

Yet, the selection of passages from the novel to include in the libretto represents but one level of interpretation in the composition of an opera. Equally important are the musical ideas and staging considerations that necessitate the inclusion of certain passages of the book to the exclusion of others. The part of the novel that moved me most is when the young boy Kenn, annoyed that his mother has woken him up to fetch water, arrives at the river and spots a large salmon. After a lengthy struggle he manages to land and kill the fish. In the opera this scene features prominently in the first act and is regularly referred to in subsequent acts. Though this scene is treated at length in Gunn’s novel, it does not recur as emphatically later on in the novel. Compositional considerations thus altered the relative importance of scenes in the opera.

Perhaps surprisingly, writing the synopsis and programme notes – and this blog – involved yet another cycle of interpretation, this time involving reflections on my interpretation of Gunn’s novel. Without giving too much away the programme notes had to capture the essence of the opera in just a few lines. The development of the libretto and score seemed to involve the divergence of ideas, which had to be made convergent in the synopsis and programme notes. Ultimately, the synopsis and programme notes helped to tie up loose ends and re-assemble the jigsaw.  

From the above it would not come as a surprise that my opera, though based on Neil Gunn’s novel, tells a distinctly different story. At times verging into an arts-led inquiry on Gunn's treatment of the idea of embeddedness in place, time and community, the process of interpreting the novel has been an exciting, iterative process of creating narrative and meaning. Naturally, the question arises whether it is legitimate to interpret the novel in such a way – a question quite similar to whether a performer is allowed to interpret the work of a composer freely. For The Turn of the Screw, Britten and his librettist Myfanwy Piper tried to recreate rather than interpret the novel by Henry James, yet they did decide to write a new prologue for the opera to make it work on stage. I reject the idea that it is possible to stay true to the original novel. In reworking a novel for the stage one necessarily engages in a subjective process. What I’ve tried to do is make explicit how this process of interpretation unfolds and what the interpretation consists of. When writing an opera based on an existing novel interpretation is inevitable. Whether such interpretation is legitimate is not a valid question. A more valid question, however, is whether such interpretation, and the degree to which the original novel and opera deviate, is justified by conceptual and creative decisions.

Copyright text and images Petra Vergunst

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