CW: death, grief, abuse.
Back in December, when I was once again scrolling through the Oxford side of Facebook, I stumbled across Opera for One. They were looking for composers and librettists to produce new songs for a production. Intrigued by this unusual writing opportunity, I filled out a Google form and promptly forgot all about it. Two months later, I’ve written the libretto for a new opera piece and our performance is being recorded.
Opera for One is a recorded musical performance consisting of five original songs, commissioned for the piece and all written by students. While able to function as individual pieces, the songs each focus on one of the five stages of grief, meaning the performance as a whole acts as an exploration of the grieving process. I spoke to some of the composers and librettists involved to get a look into how this narrative of grief progresses in this exciting new performance.
The first piece explores the theme of Denial, and is composed by Toby Stanford with lyrics by Cyrus Larcombe-Moore. It is followed by a composition on the theme of Anger, composed by Lauren Marshall, with lyrics by Oliver Banks. They took inspiration from a range of sources, with Oliver mentioning Russian novels and free verse sound poetry, but focussed on personal experiences. Many of the compositions walk this line between the specific and the universal: Oliver said his lyrics ended up being ‘quite archetypal’, but were written with the feeling of satisfaction of taking revenge upon a former abuser in mind.
This composition is followed up by a song on the theme of Bargaining by Dan Gilchrist with lyrics by Tamsyn Chandler. In the fourth piece of the performance, Georgina Lloyd-Owen and Joshua Ballance then explore the theme of depression. In light of a concept that could become dreary and flat, they said that it was very important to them not to ‘over-simplify what can be a varied and complex experience for individuals’. This is a strength of the performance: with a range of experiences of grief explored by a variety of composers and librettists, no one singular experience is presented, but instead the performance looks at the nuances of the emotions of grieving. Not wanting their it to feel lifeless, Georgina and Joshua felt their piece was characterised by ‘the feeling of immobility, and inertia’. They also wanted to contrast the lethargy of depression with ‘the fight of the individual’, doing so with ‘more impassioned moments of piano and vocal writing’.
One of the most unique aspects of this project was the way in which composers and librettists worked together, most of whom having never met each other in real life. Writers signed up via Google form, and were then paired together and allocated one of the five stages. Georgina found that she really enjoyed the process, saying ‘it really has been wonderful to be able to create something, and to connect and bond over shared experiences through this process too’. It’s comforting in these times of turmoil to see how the arts can bring people together, providing inspiration and enjoyment even when dealing with difficult themes.
I felt similarly about the process: working with composer Adam Possener, we were commissioned to pen the final piece in the show, on the theme of Acceptance. After bonding over our shared love of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s ‘Crashing’, we created a Google doc of ideas that ranged from YouTube short films from 2016 to books about LGBTQ+ psychology. Acceptance felt slightly different from the other stages in that it looks to the future, and finds an element of hope; we were keen to have this in our piece.
Our composition was originally not specific: words of my libretto include ideas about memory and imagery of fading into the sky, but never specify any names of genders. The lightly hopeful lyrics are set to a score that repeatedly switches focus to reflect the different images in the libretto. Adam said that ‘the vocal part draws out the consonance and harmony that is hidden within the dissonances of the piano based on the constructed chords’. This conflict between hopeful lyrics and a score full of dissonance echoes the experiences of accepting grief. As Adam said, ‘the final stanza explores a tension between the two parts, with the piano eventually bowing down to the tonality articulated by the singer’ – we were keen to present a piece that feels resolved, while still leaving open the possibility of moving on and life continuing. Our piece took on a new specificity when Adam’s grandmother passed away: we titled it ‘May her memory be a blessing’ as it’s a Jewish honorific for the dead, and dedicated the piece to her. Ironically, though, Adam noted ‘my grandma would not have enjoyed the music one bit, but hopefully would have appreciated the sentiment!’
It is this that makes the way Opera for One deals with grief so interesting: with so many voices approaching the theme from so many different angles, both imagined and personal, the performance as a whole encompasses the full range of experiences.
Opera for One is available on YouTube from 6pm on Tuesday 16th March.