The opera remake of Sarah Kane’s radical play 4.48 Psychosis

Composer Philip Venables writes for IAM ahead of the world premiere of his new opera 4.48 Psychosis on his search for writers, building relationships with his mentors, and adaptation.

Contrary to expectations, the play itself is actually quite jolly in places. There’s lots of black humour, lots of reflections on the absurdity and banality of everyday life. Yes, it’s about depression and death, but it’s also about the protagonist’s search for a deep, intense love.

On 24 May Royal Opera House (ROH) presents the world premiere of my new opera 4.48 Psychosis, a co-commission with London’s Guildhall School in association with The Lyric Hammersmith. It is based on the final work of radical British playwright Sarah Kane and is the culmination of my work as the inaugural doctoral composer-in-residence, a joint initiative run by the Guildhall School and ROH. I have been thoroughly impressed by the programme: both institutions have been incredibly open and generous and the whole experience has felt tailor-made.

Philip Venables © Bryan Watson

Philip Venables © Bryan Watson

Over the last year I have spent a great deal of time with the programme supervisor Dr Julian Philips, Guildhall School’s head of composition, and John Fulljames, associate director of opera at the ROH. The support offered during the programme has included one-to-one development sessions, building relationships with writers and performers, running workshops and rehearsal sessions with Guildhall School musicians and actors.

For this I spent a week at the Guildhall School in January doing a full read-through with the band and cast of singers. It was an invaluable opportunity to have those resources and that range of talent at my disposal. In all honesty, it was flattering but also quite daunting to see so many people come together to work on my project.

There wasn’t a quick or obvious starting point for the project. Initially I wanted to work with a completely new text and so Julian, John and I spent a whole year building relationships with writers.

However, nothing felt quite right, and I decided to turn to an adaptation instead. The residency gave me complete freedom with my creative direction during this process and I recall John saying right at the beginning ‘Whatever it is you want, ask for it, and we’ll try to make it happen’. It is to the credit of the Guildhall School and ROH that they were willing to be so open minded.

Once I had settled on an adaptation the pieces really started to fall into place. Much of my previous works have dark and visceral qualities so it seemed only natural that I was drawn to the works of the late playwright Sarah Kane, and the lyrical quality of 4.48 Pyschosis. In particular I love the formalised, avant-garde nature of Kane’s writing and I have a long-standing interest in the spoken word and in representations of violence in the arts, so this perfectly fits my aesthetic.

4.48 Psychosis chronicles Kane’s struggles with depression, and the accompanying world of medical treatment, therapy and drugs. The title refers to the hour when Kane would wake haunted by desperate thoughts, and the play resonates with disjointed voices and thoughts. Tragically, the play came to represent the author’s suicide note, with Kane taking her own life months after it was complete.

It’s a dark and unconventional play to adapt for opera and this will be the first operatic adaptation of a work by Kane. I knew I wanted to set a play to music but I didn’t want to take conventional dialogue and turn it into song. 4.48 Psychosis is more like a poem than a play, with its use of stream of consciousness and its polyphony of inner voices. It’s incredibly lucid. It’s also very flexible. The play itself doesn’t specify the setting or the number of characters – you could have anything from one to 60. The original production had a cast of three, and we’re using six female singers to capture the polyphonic atmosphere.

The biggest challenge with this piece is that there is a lot of text for an opera libretto – we have to make time and space for the music around all that. The tableaux combines a great variety of styles, from dark and raucous band music to colourful rhythmic sounds and heartfelt arias.

Contrary to expectations, the play itself is actually quite jolly in places. There’s lots of black humour, lots of reflections on the absurdity and banality of everyday life. Yes, it’s about depression and death, but it’s also about the protagonist’s search for a deep, intense love.

I’m intensely excited about the show but this has also been a huge learning process for me into how opera gets made. It’s been an eye-opening experience and one that will stay with me for the rest of my career.

Applications and enquiries for doctoral composer-in-residence programme starting in September 2017, open in July 2016. 

gsmd.ac.uk
4.48 Psychosis runs from 24-28 May at The Lyric Hammersmith, a co-commission with ROH and the Guildhall School.
Full cast and performance details can be found at gsmd.ac.uk and roh.org.uk. Tickets available from the ROH Box Office: 020 7304 4000.

 

 

 

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