Doctor Ox's Experiment
Opera, libretto by Blake Morrison (after the novella by Jules Verne)
Duration: 2 hours
12 soloists (2 sopranos, 2 mezzos, 2 counter tenors, 2 tenors, 2 baritones, 2 bass baritones)
Orchestra: 2 (2), 2 (oboe d'amore, cor anglais),1 + bass-cl, 1 + contra; 4. flugelhorn.2 + bass.0; harp; electric keyboard, Percussion (3 players) (see Percussion for details); Strings: minimum 220.127.116.11.3 (1 amplified)
First performance: English National Opera, London, June 15th, 1998.
The Genesis of the opera
When Robert Wilson asked me to work with him on an operatic version of Euripides' Medea in 1981, I had written nothing for orchestra, nothing for the human voice and nothing for the stage. Although I knew some operas in an academic sense, it was a genre which did not impinge on composers from what was called "the experimental tradition". Indeed the only opera that I had seen live by that time was Gunther Schuller's The Visitation which I saw when I was working with John Cage in Illinois in 1968. I did, additionally, see a production of La Bohème at the Metropolitan Opera during a workshop period about halfway through the 10 months that it took me to write my first opera. Admittedly I looked to certain models during the course of the composition both for orchestra with voice and for dramatic music but essentially I learned about opera by writing one.
Although the planned first performance of Medea in 1982 at La Fenice was cancelled the period working on the opera in Lyon and Paris in 1984 when it was eventually produced was immensely stimulating and satisfying. As I was also one of the five composers for Bob Wilson's abortive CIVIL WarS operatic project, during this period I found myself working with some very fine singers - in Medea Yvonne Kenny sang the title role and a youthful François Le Roux was the Messenger; and in the sketch rehearsals for CIVIL WarS I was involved with people like Donald McIntyre, Hildegard Behrens and, briefly, Jessye Norman. It was a long way from the composer/performer ensembles of English experimental music.
Towards the end of the performances of Medea in France, which were very successful, I felt that I wanted to write more operas and immediately came up with three subjects. These were Flaubert's Bouvard et Pécuchet, Thomas de Quincey's The Last Days of Immanuel Kant, and Jules Verne's Doctor Ox's Experiment. Although I drafted an outline of the dramatic treatment for the Flaubert piece, the first music that I wrote in relation to these possible operas was a piece for solo jazz bass and chamber orchestra called By the Vaar, which was commissioned by the Camden Jazz Festival for the great American bassist Charlie Haden. The "Vaar" is the name of the river in the Verne story and, apart from the piece's autonomous existence, I saw this as a sketch - a kind of backdrop to future music - for the scene by the river where the two lovers Frantz and Suzel pass the day in an apparently innocuous fashion with the sort of non-activity which characterises the town's ethos. This scene comes from the chapter in the original story which had struck me first as crying out for some kind of dramatic treatment employing the sort of expanded time that I had encountered in the work of Bob Wilson. When the opportunity arose for an Arts Council tour with my ensemble in 1988 I planned to write the last scene of the Kant opera but the tenor - either Heinz Zednik or Kenneth Riegel - who I wanted to sing the piece, both of whom wanted to do it, were not available at that time. So instead I decided to move in a different direction and write a work for soprano and ensemble which would involve an overview of the Ox story but viewed from a point when the story had ended - effectively an epilogue to the whole narrative. I worked with Blake Morrison for the first time on this project and the resulting work, Doctor Ox's Experiment (Epilogue), was given 6 performances in this country and 2 in France by Sarah Leonard and my ensemble. Some elements from this epilogue and from By the Vaar appear in the opera itself.
I owe a great deal to Dennis Marks who expressed interest in a film version of the work when he was at the BBC and who, when he moved to English National Opera, had the courage to commission the work. I cannot forget too that it was he who suggested that I might consider contacting Atom Egoyan about directing it. I had seen Atom's film 'Exotica' and I had been struck by many aspects of the film which made believe that he would be ideal as director of the opera, aspects which were reinforced by his most recent film 'The Sweet Hereafter'. I enjoyed his very subtle awareness of the relationship between music and sound design and of the use of music itself. I was struck by the very clever way in which the narrative was slowly revealed and how the viewer's early assumptions were undermined by new possibilities in the story. I was aware that he had successfully directed his first opera in Canada but it struck me too that his way of working in film - with his own ensemble in the manner of, say, the early Orson Welles - is my own preferred way of working in music and is also similar to the way that an opera company like ENO operates.
That the opera now exists is thanks to Dennis's encouragement and vision, to the tenacity of my manager Jane Quinn and to the careful supervision of my editor Sandy Brown.
For many years I have been interested in the work of Jules Verne.
I have used texts from Verne for vocal works and taken inspiration from his imagery for other pieces over the last few years. For example I have used three different texts from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea for quite different vocal works: for a section of Effarene (for mezzo-soprano, 2 pianos and 6 percussion) in 1984, for The Black River (for soprano and organ) in 1990 and for The White Lodge (for mezzo-soprano and electronics) in 1991. Similarly his story The Green Ray, especially certain key visual elements, was the inspiration for my saxophone concerto written in 1991, and entitled The Green Ray.
It is easy to be complacent about Verne and about his position in literature. He is often, for example, thought of as merely the father of science fiction, just as Poe was the 'father' of the detective story. But his work is elusive and can be viewed from many perspectives. Certainly French writers, such as Roussel and Queneau, revere his work for the resonance of its word play, but also for its ambiguity and for the existence of many levels of significance. In the recent past a number of English authors, such as Andrew Martin and William Butcher, have written about Verne in a similar spirit. His work has always been important too for those associated with the Collège de 'Pataphysique and there are several remarkable discussions of Verne's Voyages Imaginaires from a highly original perspective in the publications of the Collège. There is one stunning analysis of his Voyages Extraordinaires which demonstrates that each one deals with an obsession for a single direction: travelling north, travelling up a meridian, travelling from the earth's surface downwards, travelling upwards into space and so on.
In addition to the obvious "scientific" aspect of Verne there are many other aspects which are fascinating. For example, as a person Verne was a solidly bourgeois, conservative middle class town counsellor yet in his works we find him supporting other, quite extreme, political positions - anti-colonialism, a sympathy for anarchism. Similarly there is his love of wordplay which appears not only as decoration or wit but rather as a key element in the narrative, something which Roussel was to take to extraordinary limits in his writing where wordplay becomes the generative force for the whole work. At times, in fact, Verne's science could be incredibly factual simply moving one or two steps forward in time, or sideways in geographical location by drawing out the implications of what was already present, or at least latent.
Doctor Ox's Experiment (musical treatment)
I had come across the novella Dr Ox's Experiment in the library of Lord Berners in the late 1970's when I was working on his biography, a project which I had to give up once work started on Medea and which has recently been completed by Mark Amery. Berners' copy was an English first edition that he had been given while at prep school towards the end of the last century. Doctor Ox's Experiment is an apparently straightforward narrative which could be seen to have the concept of 'tempo', relative pace and the play between musical time and chronological time as a structuring device. Its chief protagonist, Ox, is in the anarchist tradition of Verne's heroes like Captain Nemo or Robur the Conqueror, but at the same time displays the single-mindedness of, say, Captain Hatteras (the explorer trying to reach the North Pole who, even in his terminal madness, sought only to walk to the North). In the book Ox himself is a rather shadowy figure and we have chosen to develop his character more substantially with these considerations in mind.
In transforming the story into material for an opera there were many things which needed developing, especially in terms of the characters in the story. Verne is chiefly interested in the town and the ensemble of people within it, who are strikingly uniform. He tells us very little about Ox and his assistant Ygène and both Blake and I felt that they needed to become real characters - Ox is, after all, the title role. There were others who are background figures in the story, Aunt Hermance for example, who we also wanted to give more substance and even to give her some key material.
I also made decisions about orchestration, vocal types, choral disposition in order to clarify what could become otherwise a confusing ensemble piece. I decided that I would associate vocal types with types of characters so that the adult townsfolk, most of whom are male, generally have low voices to reflect their inherent gravity and slowness of demeanour. The lovers, on the other hand are high voices (2 counter-tenors and two high sopranos - we decided to add mirror images of Verne's solitary pair of lovers) reflecting both their youth and innocence. As Ox is clearly from another place and even dimension I wanted his voice to be unlike any of those in the town and at one stage, before I started writing the music, I discussed with Tom Waits the idea of his taking this part. In the event I made Ox a high, agile lyric tenor and Ygène the baritone equivalent and neither of these would be found, in normal circumstances, among the inhabitants of Quiquendone.
Two examples may serve to show how this may be used to clarify the dramatic situation. In the second scene of the opera, after Ox's arrival in the town, to show 3 family groups in their everyday life I let the chorus dissolve into an ensemble of 13 solo voices showing the 3 different levels of tessitura as the voices move from fathers to mothers to youthful offspring. For the chorus in scene 6 where we have workers singing quickly and the townsfolk moving at their usual pace I give the slow music to the female voices and the fast music to the men, the inversion of what would have been the case earlier but showing that the transformation is underway.
I also made decisions about orchestration which would clarify further these distinctions. The orchestra as a whole is not a large one and, apart from the electric keyboard and extensive percussion, is no bigger than an orchestra from the early classical period. There are, however, some instruments which are chosen for very specific reasons. In the case of the oboe, an instrument which I normally dislike, both players double on other instruments: one on the cor anglais the other on the oboe d'amore. As I wanted the scenes with the lovers to have something of the purity of early music they tend to be accompanied with relatively light orchestral textures and so an Ćold' instrument, the oboe d'amore, can be used for obligato material. The amplified jazz bass is an obligato instrument too, for the love scene, and perhaps an unlikely one but, given the nature of the town, quite apt. This part involves a certain amount of improvisation during the lovers' scene, but when it returns in the epilogue although still amplified it no longer improvises. In addition I use a flugelhorn rather than the trumpet in the brass section for its mellower, less assertive character. There is also a major part for the solo bass clarinet.
This comes about for a number of reasons. In the first place I have a very fine bass clarinettist in my ensemble and I had included this as a solo instrument in the concert Epilogue and to double the solo bass in By the Vaar, adding resonance and sustaining qualities to the legato singing pizzicato of Charlie Haden's bass (and mine in the Epilogue). However, there are both musical and Vernian reasons for the instrument's prominence in the opera. The major incident which demonstrates the extent of the disruption to the town's life, at the end of the first act, comes at a performance of Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots and the section which Verne refers to in his narrative is in Act 4 of that opera. At the beginning of Meyerbeer's next act he writes an extended and quite famous solo for the bass clarinet, which then accompanies the ensuing aria. Meyerbeer was only able to compose this solo because Adolphe Sax had developed the instrument's mechanism beyond its earlier rudimentary state. Sax, of course, came from Belgium, the country where Verne had located with extraordinary geographical precision, although now appearing on no map, the town of Quiquendone.
The climactic disorder towards the end of the first act which occurs with the accelerated and dislocated performance of Les Huguenots, where the townsfolk are drawn into the opera itself, leads to the fastest tempo in the whole work. This is mirrored in the second act where an explosion resulting from Ox's inattention and his struggle with Ygène leads to the loudest dynamics. As part of the explosion, as the sound decays the strings emerge as 24 solo instruments, like debris fluttering to the ground in the aftermath. In each act the climax is followed by an aria for Aunt Hermance, a shadowy figure who, as chaperone for the lovers is the personification of the town's character, but who can also be transformed, like litmus paper in a chemical experiment, to signal the move to a new state. At the end, however, her previous charge Suzel at least has achieved something close to self-knowledge and even enlightenment. In her epilogue she is supported by both the jazz bass playing in the low and middle register and by the bass clarinet playing altissimo.
Doctor Ox's Experiment is dedicated to my mother, who was also present at the last performance of Medea in Paris.