Writing for opera: following four young composers

Hattie Butterworth
Wednesday, June 12, 2024

The first of three blogs following JAM on the Marsh's composer residency in which four composers write operas based on the life of queer artist and activist, Derek Jarman

I’ve often wondered how it is that the sparse expanse of Romney Marsh on the coast of Kent can attract so many creatives. I visited Dungeness in May 2022, struck by the unique emotions that engulfed me. The power station dominating the skyline, then that huge expanse of shingle with little signs of life beyond tiny purple flowers peeking through - houses that felt stuck in time and a heritage steam railway. 

It’s here that JAM on the Marsh is based, the multi-arts festival that each year takes over the mediaeval churches of Romney Marsh for the first two weeks of July. The area has been used for decates by Art Directors for fashion shoots and music videos, and has been featured in several films. Often known as the UK's only 'desert', this headland provides a habitat for a third of Britain’s plant species and has long attracted those looking for creativity in the emptiness of the atmosphere. 

JAM on the Marsh has a distinct focus on championing new music and emerging composers. Last year saw the festival’s first composers residency, centered around writing string quartets. This year it returns, but with a distinction: creating 15-minute operas inspired by the life and work of local film maker and gay rights activist, Derek Jarman.

It’s 30 years since Jarman’s death from AIDS in 1994. Known for being outspoken about AIDS and for creating one of the first British films to feature positive images of gay sexuality. This was the era of section 28 of the 1988 Local Government Act, which banned local authorities from ‘promoting’ homosexuality. In the early 1990s, Jarman was often in the papers or on the radio. He was one of the few well known people in Britain to make his HIV status public, saying ‘I’ve always hated secrets, the canker that destroys.’

Prospect Cottage, home of Derek Jarman | Credit: Mark C O'Flaherty

The diagnosis of Jarman’s illness prompted him to move to Prospect Cottage on Dungeness Estate in 1987 (originally a Victorian fisherman's hut). It has become a pilgrimage spot for the LGBTQ community, artists, nature lovers and garden enthusiasts, who come to admire the santolina, valerian and crambe plants in the cottage garden which could endure the unforgiving coastal environment.

Each of the four composers will spend a day working on their operas in Prospect Cottage, providing a unique closeness to the man that many of them say has been a great inspiration. ‘Jarman never shied away from the inherent queerness of his stories and films, and I have wanted to explore my own identity through my music for some time,’ composer Sam Buttler told me. ‘The narratives he tells are complex but feel completely human.’

Working with Welsh poet Grahame Davies to create their libretto, the process has long since begun, with two workshops anchoring the composers' collaboration throughout the year. But it's hoped that each composer will spend the two weeks at the Festival developing their work on the marsh and soaking in the environment before having it performed on the penultimate day by students from the Royal College of Music.

‘Having the opportunity to be tutored by Jonathon Dove changed my perspective on how to approach the creation of new work at the very beginning,’ composer Roseanna said when I asked about the process so far. Tutors on the course include composer Gods of the opera world: Jonathan Dove, Paul Mealor and Shirley Thompson. ‘I’m letting go of how I normally compose,’ Jago Thornton added.

Derek Jarman's set and costume design for Ashton's Jazz Calendar | Photo: Edmee Wood 

It feels radical to centre an opera scheme around a man with his queer identity so upfront. Though we're in a new era for gay rights and celebrating queer experience, it doesn’t remove the complexity of processing your sexuality, especially within a traditional classical music industry.

But opera has always been a place of expression, retreat and celebration of difference. Even for Jarman himself, whose first artistic foray was as a painter and set/costume designer, first for Frederick Ashton’s ballet Jazz Calendar at the Royal Opera House and then Don Giovanni at the Coliseum, both in 1968.

I asked each of the composers if they felt a connection to Jarman’s moving life and story.

‘I think it would be incredibly hard not to feel a connection to Jarman's story as a creative: a true artistic trailblazer who spent his whole life standing bravely for his beliefs,’ Roseanna Dunn told me. ‘As Grahame and I have been working on refining the concept of my opera, based on Jarman's film War Requiem, we've both been passionate about encouraging audience empathy with the distinctly human side of Jarman, in opposition with the dichotomy of idolisation and demonisation which the media often encourages of such figures.’

‘As a queer artist, his work has been hugely important to my sense of identity within the compositional world,’ Toby Anderson answered. ‘It constantly reminds me of the necessity and value of queer art. His work makes me feel fearless, shows me to not shy away from being provocative, and helps me to remember to trust my instincts.’

Four Short Operas, 15-minute operas by emerging composers on JAM’s Composers’ Residency; Writing for Opera will be performed at St Nicholas Church, New Romney at 3pm on Saturday 13 July. JAM on the Marsh (4-14 July) features outstanding music, theatre, opera, poetry and art. jamconcert.org

JAM on the Marsh opera writing composers

Jago Thornton (he/him)

Toby Anderson (they/them)

Credit: ioaphotography

Roseanna Dunn (she/her)

Sam Buttler (he/they)

Credit: Marissa Deng

Opera Now will follow the composers in two further blogs as they develop their operas throughout the JAM on the Marsh festival.


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