Jacques Cohen interview: ‘If you’re an opera composer you’re a communicator, first and foremost’

Robert Simmons
Tuesday, January 30, 2024

Composer Jacques Cohen premiered his opera The Lady of Satis House in 2012. Now, over 10 years later, he reflects on the work and its themes as the premiere recording is released

Jacques Cohen [Lester Barnes]
Jacques Cohen [Lester Barnes]

I don’t like the term ‘‘opera’’! What’s the difference between opera and musical? I much prefer the term ‘‘music theatre’’. The paraphernalia around opera detracts from the essence of great composers and librettists writing amazing music dramas.’ Jacques Cohen is an ebullient and charismatic interviewee. An established but ever-youthful conductor and composer, Cohen has an easy relationship with time. Over a decade has elapsed between this month’s CD release of his short opera The Lady of Satis House on Meridian Records and its 2012 premiere for the Tête à Tête Opera Festival which marked the bicentenary of Dickens’ birth. A monodrama for soprano and string quartet, The Lady of Satis House tells the story of Great Expectations from Miss Havisham’s viewpoint.

‘Whenever one begins composing, the question must be, ‘‘Why make this into an opera?’’ And if you go to a great opera such as Othello, Götterdämmerung or Peter Grimes, you understand immediately,’ says Cohen. ‘Miss Havisham presented herself to me as the ideal subject. Has there ever been a literary character who seems more destined to sing? Here’s this broken, neurotic character in a wedding dress. That she’s singing is totally intrinsic to her.’

The Lady of Satis House

Marie Vassiliou as Miss Havisham in the stage production of The Lady of Satis House [Claire Shovelton]

Like Britten’s Turn of the Screw, the nine scenes of Cohen’s opera are constructed in variation form, building in intensity towards the tragic climax. Despite having no string playing background (Cohen was a trumpet player as a child) Cohen has a natural affinity as a composer for strings. His string orchestra arrangements, such as Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, have become staples of the repertoire. Cohen attributes this successful writing in part to some lessons and advice from his wife – violinist and arranger Michelle Taylor-Cohen. Although pieces for voice and string quartet are scarce, Cohen was excited by ‘the ability to evoke different periods in a way that no other medium can do better.’ The quartet evokes the 19th century, and references to Mendelssohn, Handel and folk tunes pepper the score. Cohen credits the opera’s original director, Joe Austin, for the quartet being onstage and integral to the unfolding drama. ‘Like they are the quartet that turns up to play for the original wedding and somehow got stuck there!’

The Lady of Satis House builds towards a reflective Strauss-like interlude in stark contrast to the preceding variation in which Miss Havisham finally contemplates ‘the sham my life has been’. It is testament to Cohen’s skilful writing that, in spite of the small forces, the opera exudes such power and palpable tension, using spoken word, percussive elements, humming and chanting (from the string quartet players) to portray different characters in the drama.

Despite the passing of time, for the CD release Cohen resisted the urge to make alterations to his work. He again enlisted the soprano and long-term collaborator Marie Vassiliou, an established interpreter of contemporary music, and the Tippett Quartet provided the instrumental accompaniment on this occasion. Cohen praises Vassiliou’s interpretation and her commitment to the role, finding her dramatic performance to be even more impressive upon revisiting the score. Back in 2012, Vassiliou learned her role scene by scene as Cohen wrote the opera in a frenzied six-week period, passing each part across to her as the ink was drying. Such was the speed of this writing, there was little back and forth between the pair, but Cohen wrote with Marie Vassiliou’s voice in mind from the outset and recalls a long G sharp high note he included in the final scene, upon her suggestion that it was a ‘really good note’ for her range.

As a composer Cohen has an inclination to revise and revisit but this is not a luxury he affords himself when writing for opera. ‘With music theatre it is clear what you’re trying to communicate. The singer needs to convey a feeling and a narrative. So there’s a focused energy to it. If it takes forever to write a really dramatic scene it’s unlikely to have dramatic flow. Verdi, Mozart – they were both really fast composers. I divide composers between communicators and perfectionists and I think if you’re an opera composer you’re a communicator, first and foremost.’

Cohen’s own approach is informed by his experience as an educator. A teacher of composition at The Purcell School and conductor of the RCM Junior Department Symphony Orchestra, he encourages his composition students to look for solutions and ‘believe in a weird irrational faith that things will come together!’ Cohen speaks with great warmth about the generosity of the late composer Anthony Gilbert (to whom this disc is dedicated) who provided wise counsel to Cohen throughout his career. As a conductor, Cohen guests with orchestras including the BBC Concert Orchestra, Kremerata Baltica and Bucharest Philharmonic. When conducting his own compositions, such as the opera, Cohen takes a pragmatic approach to what could be conflicting roles. ‘My fundamental rule is to run a piece through so the musicians know exactly where the problems lie and give them a chance to sort out those problems themselves. As the composer you want to stop immediately if something’s not right, but you need to put those feelings aside. Once you know it works, it feels just like conducting anyone else’s piece!’

What opportunity does the recording studio offer a composer, in an age of streaming? ‘I enjoy recording, but prefer the intensity of a concert with a live audience.’ Cohen is, however, invested in preserving the recorded legacy of his compositions, despite often negligible financial returns. He is an advocate of the Natural Sound Recordings of Richard Hughes’ Meridian Records, which aims to reproduce the concert-hall experience as closely as possible.

At ease with both familiar colleagues and new faces, Cohen relishes the experience of working as music director for the Lloyds Choir and Cohen Ensemble, roles that have also afforded him the opportunity to compose to specific musicians’ strengths. In addition to his work with Marie Vassiliou, Cohen wrote his large-scale-choral work Creation (2023) with the alto soloist Mae Heydorn firmly in mind – a voice he knew well. The setting also includes the Finchley Children’s Music Group, a choir Jacques Cohen grew up singing with. Equally, Cohen describes working abroad, knowing nobody in an ensemble, seeing how they respond to him, as ‘an exciting opportunity.’

So what next? Cohen is enigmatic, but confirms that he has works in development and that vocal music, setting words and music theatre will be central to those plans. 

The Lady of Satis House by Jacques Cohen is released on 23 February 2024 on Meridian Records

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2024 issue of Opera Now. Join our community of opera lovers – subscribe to Opera Now today

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