A harlot prepares for a big night in Vienna

A harlot prepares for a big night in Vienna


norman lebrecht

October 02, 2013

Here, as promised, is our first blog entry by a British composer who’s about to stage a world premiere in Mozart’s town. Enjoy.
My name is Iain Bell and I am a 33-year old classical composer. My opera ‘A Harlot’s Progress’ (based on the Hogarth series of etchings to a libretto by Peter Ackroyd) is due to receive its world premiere in Vienna’s Theater an der Wien on Sunday October 13th.
As of today, I have been in Vienna for exactly a month and will stay for another month. Being at this mid-point, a day shy of a fortnight before curtain-up, it feels like the perfect opportunity to take stock and bring you all (and myself) up to speed…
Now that time has ironed out those initial creases of paranoia that so crumpled my first few days here, with such internal outcries as, “that piano score reduction sounds nothing like the orchestra…eek” or blaming myself when a singer is fishing for their pitch at a particularly thorny vocal entry, I have now adapted to and grown very fond of my life in Vienna; I know to get all my food shopping in on a Saturday night as no shops are open on a Sunday, likewise I know better than to cross at a red light lest I incur the wrath of spittle-filled tutting from all others!
It is difficult to convey the surrealism that came with the first few days of rehearsal here. Obviously I knew this period was coming; I completed the work eighteen months ago and it was commissioned in 2010. Nonetheless, nothing could prepare me for the fact that on that first day of scenic rehearsals those dozens upon dozens of people were in that studio to realise a story that had up to that point existed solely (to me) as six etchings that had somehow morphed in my mind into the form of a black-and-white Watch with Mother cartoon with a slightly racier sound track.
What should have been the least surprising moment of the entire process was when the time came to hear the singers actually ‘sing’ their roles. I don’t know why it came as such a shock to me to hear them finally utter the words I had set to music, it is an opera after all, but I was utterly bull-dozed. No longer did I have to imagine how Diana Damrau would shape a certain phrase, it was there, living and breathing in 3D (excuse the mixed metaphor). Moll Hackabout – Hogarth’s name for his titular harlot – now existed, and what’s more she had a much finer voice than my broken-baritone could ever muster!
iain bell
As the weeks have passed, I’ve become more relaxed in the environment and completely engaged in the rehearsals I have attended. I chose not to attend them all as it was very important to me to hand over the reins to the singers, directorial and musical staff and let them really stamp their own identities on the piece. I didn’t want them to just interpret, I wanted them to create and therefore have as much ownership of the work as me. This has thus far floored every journalist out here who has interviewed me who are seemingly all too aware of stories about composers terrorising entire houses with their diktats. Not for me. There is so much fun collaboration to be had as an opera composer so you have to be willing and happy to embrace that, if not, just stick to writing (and conducting) symphonies!
So t-minus 13 days and I am a very happy bunny indeed. The cast is on fire, we have had several runs of the piece already and the director’s concept is marvellous. That said, I am well aware that another set of tests will be presented in the coming week. We move from our studio rehearsal space in the outskirts of Vienna to the stage in the opera house, meaning the cast will have to transfer all their staging to a completely new space. This is also the week in which the first orchestral rehearsals take place. I have been urged by my publisher to stay well away from the first couple of these. The orchestra is world-class but as this piece is brand new to them, one cannot expect them to be note-perfect on the first attempt, so it has been decided that hearing this may not be a completely necessary part of my musical journey, as desperate as I am to hear them breathe life into the dark underbelly of London I have sought to evoke!
Will let you know…


  • MWnyc says:

    You know, Norman, when I read that headline I was certain you were talking about Richard Lugner’s guest for this year’s Opera Ball.