An opera composer asks: who am I writing for?

Will Todd
Tuesday, August 8, 2023

Composer Will Todd talks about writing the opera Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, ahead of a performance at If Opera

When I’m composing there’s definitely ‘an audience’ who live in my studio with me, in my head, and I’m kind of running ideas past them as I work. It’s not that I’m just trying to ‘please them’ but more that I want to sense their potential excitement or joy or concentration as the music progresses. I also try to imagine I’m in the space where the piece will be performed, feeling the atmosphere of where the music will be happening in real life.

When I was working on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland for Opera Holland Park it helped that I’d spent time in the beautiful Yukka Garden where it was going to be presented so that I could imagine the energy of the space as I worked on ideas. It’s definitely true that as composers we worry about what people think. After all, we always want the music we create to be a success, as much for our own sake as for those of the performers and the people who have put the effort and expense into commissioning and producing the piece in the first place.

Alice was conceived as a ‘family’ opera and commissioned by Sarah Crabtree and James Clutton at Opera Holland Park in 2013 with a libretto by Maggie Gottlieb. The idea was that the opera would be performed outside in Holland Park and that children of any age would come with parents/guardians to enjoy a taste of opera.

One of the powerful elements of operatic singing is that (in the main) it is not amplified and thus we get to hear the excitement and power of acoustic voices. This is something that children seem to love – I suspect it’s because, regardless of age, they are captivated by the sheer energy of the acoustic sound. We get a huge choice of music to absorb these days and there’s so much wonderful music children can access from Disney and Pixar films, through streamed music and YouTube but all that music is highly compressed. Compression is a cleverly engineered manipulation which helps recorded music retain good impact in a variety of different playing conditions – and is not the same as hearing the live waveforms in an actual physical acoustic – it’s not a ‘better or worse’, just very different. When we hear voices live there is a particular dimension of communication and it’s very engaging. The whole human body focusing on producing notes, and words and feelings live in front of you – the waves moving through the same air that you are breathing. Around the UK there’s lots of great work by opera companies large and small taking opera singing into schools and community contexts and introducing the power and joy of live singing. More of that please!

Things we had to think carefully about when working on Alice included overall length of piece (we judged about an hour and ten minutes to be about right), engagement in the story, and engagement in the action. With the latter in mind the producers had the excellent idea to move sets around the park so that every 10 to 15 minutes or so everybody got to move space (accompanied by some mad ‘moving music’ and some characters whose role it was to do the moving). In terms of story, although we had the Alice in Wonderland books to work from there is a) a lot of different segments to choose from and b) being an episodic style book, there is something of a static narrative in which Alice moves from sequence to sequence but do we quite know (or care) why? We all, and younger audiences especially, love the sense of a narrative moving forward so we imposed some narrative discipline on our piece. I had several things that were important to me - we had to love Alice and we had to believe she was brave. With this in mind we went for ‘Alice has to save Wonderland’ through a ‘quest’ which ultimately has a happy conclusion. We also swapped the picnic at the start of the original for an unexpected trip to a pet shop where Alice first meets the Rabbit. But in general, many of the iconic moments of the books are retained and so the imposition of the added narrative is hardly noticed.

And Alice gets to sing a powerful solo number called ‘I flew High in My Dreams’. In fact, it was the first bit of the show that I wrote, sat at my piano, imagining the trees swaying in the Yukka Garden and the audience sat on the grass at Alice’s feet. With that image in my mind, I put my hands to the keyboard and began…

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland will be staged at If Opera, Belcombe Court, Bradford on Avon on August 27: details here

You can hear extracts and Will Todd talking about writing Alice in this film:

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