Gramophone guest blog

How I turned the Profumo scandal into a one-singer opera

Thomas HydeMon 31st July 2017

The composer Thomas Hyde introduces his new opera

I remember the moment I told George Vass that my opera would require only one singer. A large smile appeared on his face and his pen scribbled something down on the proposed budget. My decision to use one voice to play all the ‘characters’ was motivated by a desire to find the most convincing theatrical presentation for my protagonist, Dr Stephen Ward, the osteopath at the centre of the Profumo Scandal in the 1960s. But, of course, opera is as much about money as music, and my small cast of one meant we would be able to afford an extra bit of scenery or another day of rehearsal for the ensemble. Maybe the after-show party could go ahead after all.

I had first come across the story of Ward in 1996 when I saw the film Scandal. I did some reading about the man, and was fascinated by his suicide note in which he left his car to his best friend, reminding him that it ‘needs oil in the gear-box’. It seemed touching, silly but also profoundly sad. Ward was mentor to Christine Keeler, a dancer who had affairs with both a Russian spy and the Minister for War, John Profumo. Was there a security breach? Profumo resigned after lying, the Russian went back to Russia and Ward’s friends dropped him. Where he landed was on trial at the Old Baily for living on ‘immoral earnings’: a sacrificial lamb. The trial was a travesty. Several lawyers continue to this day to try to get his name cleared.

Ward was a victim, but also a fantasist. He loved parties, girls and doing ‘favours for my friends’. My librettist, David Norris brilliantly captured the comedy of his life. For example, during the Cuban Missile crisis Ward was convinced that by introducing Profumo to the Russian spy he would help the world situation. This was international diplomacy as an extension of the cocktail party scene, and then only a small jump in Ward’s mind for him to being no longer a London osteopath, but … James Bond!

My opera introduces all the characters but in Ward’s own words. We see and hear everything through him. A contemporary composer writing an opera has to ask the simple question, ‘why should there be music?’. The least interesting new operas, to my mind, are those that are essentially plays set to music. I am fascinated by pieces in which the music is not simply illustrative but an enabler of the narrative: the music tells you things beyond the words and actions. The duet, the trio, the quartet, are opera’s supreme forms – places where opera can take you that spoken drama cannot. Here, characters talking over each other cease to be confusion and are remade, through music’s melodic balance and rhythms, as a new drama of multiple perspectives. Being cheap meant I had only one singer, but I still tried to produce the riches of a duet!

A new Resonus recording of the work captures Damian Thantrey’s outstanding portrayal of Ward. He has done what all great singers do: reveal new things about the role that even the composer did not realise were there. The fake bonhomie adds to the artificiality, and he has wonderful comic timing. Joseph Kerman famously dismissed Tosca as ‘a shabby little shocker’. I suppose mine is a shabby little shockerette. But even in the sordid moments, Thantrey’s portrayal finds a passionate integrity, notably at the end where Ward’s suicide means the disintegration of his music too.

To find out more about the recording of Thomas Hyde's opera That Man Stephen Ward, please visit the Resonus Classics website.

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