Through His Teeth
#18: Rave reviews
Can this be the best British opera in years? Luke Bedford’s Through His Teeth at the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Theatre is exceptional. Drop everything and go.
(Anne Ozorio, Opera Today, 09.04.2014)
Short, pithy and smart, Through His Teeth managed that elusive feat of being at once gripping and amusing. […] Bedford’s score is surely his most accomplished so far, often turning down the aural volume as the drama grows noisier – to bracing effect.
(Fiona Maddocks, The Guardian, 06.04.2014)
Bedford sets Harrower’s directly phrased text fluently, infusing his vocal lines with a strong sense of character and situation. The musical-dramatic pacing is swift and almost cinematic – an aspect reinforced by the use of screens with multiple CCTV images placed at the back of the stage, which show us the physical ambience of each scene.
(George Hall, The Guardian, 04.04.2014)
It's a shame that Through His Teeth has only been scheduled for four performances as it deserves a far wider audience. An unqualified success, Through His Teeth looks set to become a modern classic, and is certainly the most ambitious and successful of recent new operas that have been seen on the London stage.
(Keith McDonnell, WhatsOnStage, 10.04.2014)
As music, it manages to be atmospheric and seductive while still pushing the edges of sound art, becoming increasingly disharmonious as the situation becomes more extreme. Composed by Luke Bedford, it will surely be produced by other opera companies in the future as it contributes both to what opera is and to the enduring moral tangle of Faust.
(Eleanor MacFarlane, The Upcoming, 04.04.2014)
Bedford’s score is appropriately tense, explosive, and fragmentary, uncertain in movement and devoid of any conventional lyricism. Charm is not on its aesthetic agenda: exploiting quarter-tones and the sonorities of accordion and percussion, it seems charged with the restless urban angst that fuels Harrower’s libretto.
(Rupert Christiansen, The Telegraph, 04.04.2014)
There might seem to be a mismatch between Harrower’s words (mundane, lots of swearing) and Bedford’s score (subtle, spare, elusive). But the music draws otherworldly sounds out of its small band of harp, accordion, percussion and others, and adds the extra layer of mystery that sets the imagination spinning.
(Richard Fairman, Financial Times)
The vibrant accompaniment of contemporary chamber orchestra CHROMA is a key element of the success in this production, fulfilling the intensity and the surprising lightnesses of the score and pushing the cast on to greater emotional heights.
(Laura Peatman, A Younger Theatre, 05.04.2014)
If there’s one thing you need to see this week, this is it.
This is not the first opera from Luke Bedford […] But it is easily his most impressive - and I hope the comparative ease of staging the score will lead to further productions in future, perhaps from students.
#17: Score scene 1
Tonight Luke Bedford’s chamber opera Through His Teeth is finally premièred at the Linbury Studio Theatre of the Royal Opera House by mezzosoprano Victoria Simmonds, soprano Anna Devin, baritone Owen Gilhooly and the Chroma ensemble (cond. Sian Edwards).
John Fulljames, Associate Director of Opera for the Royal Opera House, introduces the ROH’s A Faustian Pack programme. Watch John Fulljames and sound artist Matthew Herbert talk about the project and view rehearsal photos from Luke Bedford’s upcoming opera Through His Teeth:
Ruth Padel recently joined the rehearsals for Bedford’s Through His Teeth, which she describes as a “Faust without the supernatural. The evil is all human. But there’s lots of it: demonic sex, demonic fraud, demonic psychological abuse.”
Read the full text on Ruth Padel’s blog.
#15: Shipping an opera
Are they're off! The music of Luke Bedford's new opera is now on its way to London. We've added some photos to our Facebook page.
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#14: Printing an opera
We've added some photos from our production department to our Facebook feed:
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#13: The score
Final corrections are being made. The clock is ticking and the pressure is on! We hope to send the material to the Royal Opera House in London this week.
In February and August of 2013, theatre director Bijan Sheibani, playwright David Harrower and composer Luke Bedford had two workshops at the ROH, in which they were working on the libretto with actors.
Luke Bedford on the workshops:
It might seem strange to have an opera workshop where there are no singers or musicians present, but from the beginning of this project I was clear that getting the text right was crucial before I started writing any notes. Therefore the workshops we had on the piece involved a few days working with actors and trying out various ways of telling the story.
The first idea was to set it all in one flat, where R had two women installed/imprisoned. David had written a few scenes exploring this idea, hints of which you can see in the final version of the text. And while this scenario certainly had intensity, it soon became clear that clamping the story into just one location was too restrictive. Especially when R had forbidden the women to speak to each other. This kind of idea has been touched upon in opera before, but we felt it wasn’t right for the piece that we wanted to make. Also, seeing the actors on the stage told us the mood was simply too dark: too monochrome. So David and I went away and thought about how to take the elements we liked from the workshop but find a better structure for them. After some work, we ended up the framework of the final piece: to focus on just one woman’s story and have a series of snapshots of A and R’s (and her sister’s) relationship, intercut with A being interviewed after the events.
The second workshop was on something close to the final draft of the text. Hearing how the actors read the lines was really useful to me – partly as they confirmed many of my own ideas where the key dramatic moments are, as well as the pacing of the work. And sometimes they would read a line or two very differently to how I’d imagined it – and this was also useful, even if I rejected ‘their’ way in the end. In fact, this has haphazardly evolved into a technique that I now use when working with text. I try and imagine the opposite of how I’ve set some lines, to see whether it works better than my first draft. Often it doesn’t, but just now and then it throws up something wonderfully unexpected – and it ends up in the final piece. One example of this is in scene 12, when R appears at A’s flat and pressures her to leave with him. My first idea was to have very dramatic, crashy, wild music. But then I stepped back and tried to imagine the scene with almost nothing happening and I knew straight away that this was stronger. In the ensemble, there are just six pitched, extremely high notes from the violin, and underneath the whole scene is the distant, otherworldly sound of a thunder tube.
The scene I’m currently working on, scene 13, is kind of a bit like a showdown, although I don’t really want to use that word. But it is the sort of point where the various plots come together.
The scene is about five or six minutes long. It actually has a bass drum, which starts very slowly, but is almost imperceptibly getting faster over the course of about five minutes. So at the beginning it’s only playing every couple of seconds, it’s just this very distant sort of thud. And as the scene builds up, you might become gradually aware of this kind of undercurrent, there’s something pulling you, as you move towards the key moment at the end of the scene. And I like this idea. A lot of the scene is very quiet, there are long pauses between what is said. The text is actually quite short, it’s barely a side of A4. And this is something that is quite interesting about the pacing of things: sometimes you need gaps there, so that the music can spell out the tension in a scene.
#10: Scenes 1 and 2
Did you start with scene 1 and work your way towards the last scene? How did you start writing?
I haven’t written the piece in chronological order at all, I didn’t start with scene 1 and finish with scene 10. I started at scene 9 I think, then I went to scene 2, then scene 1, and, having set those almost sort of boundaries of the piece, I then started kind of connecting the ones in the middle.
Also I kind of focused on what seemed to me the more important scenes. Obviously every scene is important in its own way, but some scenes are bigger sort of structural moments, or simply just longer. And I wanted to get some of those bigger ones out of the way earlier in the piece, so that if things became tight, at the end of the writing process, I wouldn’t be working on the very key moments, they’d already be done – so that was almost like my insurance policy.
Could you give us examples of such scenes?
One of the crucial scenes is obviously the first time A and R meet, as that scene establishes their relationship. Then there’s a scene in a restaurant where it looks like A is going to leave him, and you have to see his ingenuity, he has to come up with some reason why she can’t, and he has to do it very quickly. And he tells a huge lie basically, an almost unbelievable lie. But he does it in such a way, that if she doubted him, she would think “Well, this guy must be mad, why would he say this to me?” So she is in a way forced to believe him.
#8: Stages of composing
#7: Working with two keyboards
For the last few years, I’ve been working quite often with quartertones, and the most effective way I find of just practically hearing these notes is by having a second keyboard, so that one keyboard is tuned a quartertone below the other one. With a single keyboard you could obviously imagine what the quartertone would sound like, but I prefer to actually hear the physical sounds.
I got my second keyboard about a year ago. Up until that point I’d actually used a guitar and a banjo, tuning those down a quartertone – it was ok, but it wasn’t very effective.
You can of course use computers as well, but I don’t like doing this sort of creative composing on the computer. I feel that especially with most notation software it’s limiting, you end up writing more what works on the computer than actually what works on the instruments or on the voices.
So I thought it was important to get this second keyboard if I wanted to explore different tunings and different quartertones – I suppose if I worked on eighth tones or third tones I’d just have to keep getting more and more of them. But I think that at the moment quartertones are enough.
#6: Why quartertones?
Through His Teeth is scored for eight instruments. It’s quite a small ensemble, but I tried to get as big a range of colours and sounds as I could out of that. So there are quite a few instruments that are capable of playing chords. There is a harp, there is an accordion, there’s various tuned percussion instruments, and there’s violin, cello and bass. And against that there is also a clarinet and a trumpet. It’s a kind of small, mixed ensemble.
I tried also to balance it as much as I could, so I count the accordion as a sort of wind instrument. So there’s a clarinet, trumpet and accordion doing some wind-side of things, there are three strings, and then the harp and the percussion as tuned instruments.
Because of the quartertones, it had to be instruments that can play them better than others. Obviously for the harp, percussion and accordion, it’s not easy to get quartertones on, but for the other instruments, especially the strings and trumpet, it’s something that shouldn’t be too much of a problem.
I decided that the singers were not going to be singing in quartertones – these are only heard from the ensemble. It’s partly a practical thing: some singers can obviously sing quartertones, but others find it very hard. And for a while I wondered whether if the note was strong enough in the ensemble, whether it would be ok to use it in the voice. But in the end I decided against it: partly just to keep things clear in my own head, but also for the singers – they’ve probably got enough to do anyways without worrying about the quartertones.
So it’s something that is happening from the music surrounding the characters really, it’s something in the air. They never go into that directly.
#4: Working with David Harrower
Composer Luke Bedford talks about working with Scottish playwright David Harrower and how they created the characters for their upcoming chamber opera Through His Teeth. The interview was recorded in Berlin in October 2013.
Luke Bedford on the story line of Through His Teeth:
I’ve been speaking to David Harrower, who has written the libretto for the new opera, about what kind of subject or theme we wanted to play with. David very often works with true stories as a starting point, either things from newspaper reports or something you have heard.
We’d been speaking to the Royal Opera House about doing this piece, and they asked whether we’d be interested in doing something on the subject of Faust – which initially we weren’t over the moon about. A sort of traditional telling of the Faust stories has been done so many times that we were quite unsure about what we could add to that. So we knew that we had to find our own take on that, a different way of doing it.
If you don’t think that we have a soul that you can sell, what is the sort of modern equivalent for that? So we talked about identity, and people lying about their identity or conning people about their identity.
We came across this story of a man who seduced at least eight women over the period of ten years or longer by claiming to be a sort of “super spy”, apparently having fast cars and a very glamorous lifestyle. All of this was a total sham, and he basically stole money of them and effectively kidnapped them without using any force.
He must have been a very charismatic man, but also really some kind of psychopath, just locking them in flats for weeks on end, sending them out for missions to do things, leaving them at an airport with no money…just leaving them there for a week, having no idea when he was going to come back – very abusive things.
This horrible story rang some bells for us, and we started talking about how we could turn this into an opera. I think from very early on we wanted it to be the women’s story really. We didn’t want to celebrate his acts, we wanted to try and understand what one of the women might have been through.
#2: June 2013
This is the interview with Luke Bedford that was mentioned in the introduction of this blog. It was conducted in June 2013, when Through His Teeth was still without a title. Harrower and Bedford already had very clear ideas about the storyline and the instrumentation, however.
#1: IntroductionIn June 2013 we conducted a video interview with composer Luke Bedford about his upcoming chamber opera Through His Teeth. The operawas commissioned by the Royal Opera House and will première on 3 April 2014.
Intrigued by the composer’s words, we decided that we’d continue to document the work’s process of creation. Starting today we will provide you with regular updates regarding the development of Through His Teeth, ranging from the composing of the score and the writing of David Harrower’s libretto to the actual printing of the score and its production – who knows, we might even catch the postman when he finally delivers the score to Sian Edwards and the Royal Opera House.
What will the rehearsals at the ROH look like? Do you want to catch a sneak peek of the score before the première? Now’s your chance.