Jules Verne, Gavin Bryars and me.
An English translation of Jules Verne's novella Dr Ox's Experiment was first published in London in 1888. In France, the book had appeared over a decade earlier, in 1874, immediately after the most famous of all his novels, Around the World in Eighty Days. Verne's work-rate being prodigious, and the text of Dr Ox running to only a little over 100 pages, it's likely he bashed it out
Certainly I'd never heard of the book when, in May 1988, exactly a hundred years after its publication here, Gavin Bryars wrote to me with the idea of turning it into an opera. At that point, not being well up in contemporary classical music, I hadn't heard of Gavin Bryars either, but I liked the sound of him - and when I heard his music I liked the sound of that, too. We met in a restaurant near Chelsea Bridge, close to the new Observer building where I worked as a literary editor. I'd recently published a book of poems, The Ballad of the Yorkshire Ripper, and it was that which had prompted Gavin to propose a collaboration. Over lunch we discovered we had things in common - Yorkshire childhoods, bibliomania, an interest in sport - and could get along. By the time coffee was served, we had shaken hands on the project.
I had never written a libretto, but I could see at once why Gavin believed Dr Ox could work as an opera. The plot is devastatingly simple: the mysterious Ox, along with his assistant Ygene (Ox + Ygene), offers to instal gas lighting in the sleepy Flanders town of Quiquendone, while secretly planning to pump the gas about the town and to observe its effect on the inert inhabitants; chaos ensues.
The neatness of the storyline; the potential for fast and slow tempo; the presence of an opera within an opera (Ox’s great breakthrough with his experiment comes during a performance of Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots at the town theatre); the play of wit and whimsy on the surface, while deeper themes (morality and scientific progress) lurk below; and, most important, the sense of fantasy and magic - all this naturally seemed to lend itself to opera.
(Indeed, we later discovered that Dr Ox’s Experiment
Gavin's agent had warned that it was "unlikely that the opera would be produced before 1990", something of an under-estimate as it turned out. And the summer of 1988 was a busy one for me, since as well as a day job at the Observer I had a two-month old baby in the house and 120 novels to read for the Booker Prize. I was eager to make a start, nevertheless, and by the autumn we had produced a concert-piece, in effect an "epilogue" to the novella, for one of the principal females, Suzel.
In November 1988, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the soprano Sarah Leonard sang the part, and Gavin played the piece with his Ensemble. The reviews were good, and one critic even suggested, as we’d hoped, that someone should have the courage to commission a full-scale opera.
A long silence followed. Gavin was busy with other works - including a new version (with Tom Waits) of his piece Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet, a besteller in 1993. I too had other things to work on, including an abortive musical version, with the composer Howard Goodall, of Wuthering Heights (there was some interest, at first, but once Cliff Richard announced his intention to play Heathcliff, in a rival version, the phone stopped ringing).
Years passed. The Eighties became the Nineties. But Dr Ox didn't fizzle out. Dennis Marks had shown some interest in the project while working at the BBC. And when he arrived at the ENO, he duly commissioned us to produce the opera for the Coliseum.
If there's a simple rule for how librettists and composers should collaborate, we didn't discover it. Gavin's home is in the country near Leicester, mine is in London, and though we met many times during the ten years of Dr Ox's evolution, most of the communing was done by fax and phone.
We advanced by trial and error, with Gavin sometimes chucking out words of mine he knew wouldn't fit and sometimes asking me to write new ones for scenes that proved dramatically or musically richer than we'd anticipated.
David Pountney gave us much useful advice, especially with the dramatic structure of the piece, and Dennis Marks lent steadfast support. But it was never easy to predict what would or wouldn't work musically. For Gavin, the lyrical high point of one section came with the phrase "with the gasworks".
It was chastening for me to discover that banal words can sometimes inspire beautiful music. Not that I set out to create banality, but some of Verne's scenes - a long, nitpicking council meeting, for example - are unavoidably prosaic, and that's part of their comedy.
Other scenes, notably that in which the young lovers, Frantz and Suzel, pursue their slow courtship by the River Vaar, required a more elevated diction, with an erotic subtext.
I used a good deal of rhyme, both with the gentler, more romantic scenes and for the farcical ones. I also tried to contrast two kinds of belief system, tradition on the one hand, science on the other: each has a sweet logic which, in extremis, turns into nonsense. Just as there are two tempos in Doctor Ox, so there are several linguistic registers.
Poets are used to working alone, their only struggle with themselves. A librettist has responsibilities to others - composer, director, choreographer, orchestra, cast - and this means being willing to make cuts and changes to the text, for the greater good of the whole. Far from feeling compromised by this process, I loved the companionship (a welcome break from the isolation of my basement) and the discipline which collaboration imposed.
I'd thought of the libretto as a dramatic poem, but it isn't: it may exist on the page, but it only comes into being when sung. However clear the singing, some words will usually be lost, a reality the librettist doesn't relish but has to accept. Even when every word is heard, the attention of the audience may be elswhere, with the gestures of the performers, or the scenery, or the orchestra. It’s in the nature of opera for words to count for less than they do in poetry. But that doesn't mean working any less hard at them.
In the case of Dr Ox's Experiment, dialogue had to be written that doesn't exist in Verne's text. The descriptive passages of Quiquendone had to be replaced by a chorus of townsfolk. Instead of being psychologically analysed by their novelist-creator, the characters had to be seen (and heard) to interact. Debates became duets. Introspection became song. Above all, the personalities of Ox and Ygene - and the dynamics of a master-slave relationship - were fleshed out.
Gavin and I didn't agree in every detail about the tone and shape of the opera, but there were no serious rifts, let alone slanging matches. One principle uniting us was a wish to honour the spirit of Verne's novella and the questions it raises about scientific and political advance.
At the heart of the story is a battle between the impetuous Ox, who hates the traditionalism and stupor of Quiquendone, and the sceptical Ygene, who comes to believe the townsfolk are better off as they are, without the benefits of his master’s invention.
Ox sees himself as a benefactor. The gift he brings isn't just gas but light, speed, music, democracy, modernity,
"Are virtue, courage, talent, wit, imagination - are all these qualities or faculties only a question of oxygen?" Ox believes they are; Ygene disagrees. Theirs is a debate which goes on to this day: are we masters of our own personalities and destinies, or are they determined by factors (genes, chemicals) beyond our control?
Operas are more famous for exploring passions than ideas, but much of the passion of Dr Ox comes from its ideas and we wanted the piece to reflect this.
Though the story of Ox's gas experiment is a fantasy, at least one American expert, Hubertus Strughold of the USAF Aerospace Medical Center, has assessed its scientific plausibility. He suggests that Verne may well have been familar with the pioneer studies of the French physiologist Paul Bert, who observed the behaviour of animals when exposed to pure oxygen under a barometric pressure of several atmospheres (a state of extreme excitation was followed by convulsions, then death). He also makes comparisons with high-altitude sickness, and notes that ozone, rather than oxygen, does induce some of the effects Verne attributes to his oxygen-like gas. That a twentieth-century scientist should give serious attention to Verne's science fiction is a mark of how far ahead he was of his time.
Politically, too, the story of Dr Ox seems pertinent, and even prophetic: when the Quiquendonians, "liberated" by Ox, become warlike and nationalistic it's hard not to be reminded what has happened in Eastern Europe since 1989.
Verne was interested in music as well as science and politics, and it's no coincidence that Ox's gas experiment takes place at the town opera-house.
(No doubt Verne would have known that the first gaslights on stage in Britain were introduced at the English Opera House, at the Lyceum on the Strand, in 1817.) Having written songs and several libretti early in his career, he was regular opera-goer both when visiting Paris and at home in Amiens, and he thought of music as a wonderful stimulant (just like oxygen). Among his favourite composers were Wagner, Mozart, Gounod, Berlioz, Rossini, Verdi, Beethoven and Haydn. Several of his fictions have plots involving music, including the novel Propellor Island and the extraordinary short story "Mr Ray Sharp and Miss Me Flat". All in all, turning one of his books into an opera seems a natural step.
In Quiquendone, where young couples are engaged at least 10 years before marriage, nothing happens quickly. So perhaps it is appropriate that it has taken a decade for the opera of Dr Ox's Experiment to reach the stage. Verne would have seen the justice of that. And being a man who liked to pun, he would have loved the idea of Ox and Ygene being directed by someone called Atom.