Opera companies these days are faced with a near-insoluble problem: neglect new work and opera becomes art in a museum, stage too many new operas as main house productions and you risk financial suicide. Jonathan Dove's Pinocchio was, of course, a major triumph for Opera North, but that was over six years ago and since then the Leeds-based company has taken the canny way out by mounting co-commissions in smaller venues.
The latest collaboration, set up last year to celebrate Benjamin Britten's centenary, is with Aldeburgh Music and the Royal Opera House, designed to produce three new operas in three years. Richard Mantle, General Director of Opera North, sums up the intention of the scheme:
"This new initiative enables the composers to see their work taken right the way through to full production and for audiences to see and hear contemporary music theatre of the highest quality."
The first commission of the new partnership is a double bill, to be staged in the studio theatres at Snape and Covent Garden and the Howard Assembly Room in Leeds. The choice of subjects is bold, as is the decision to commission two young composers embarking on their first operas. Both, however, have achieved much outside the opera house and they can rely on the support of an accomplished creative team.
Cafe Kafka is based on a selection of Franz Kafka's darkly surreal short stories. 28-year-old Spanish composer Francisco Coll had an instrumental work premiered at New York's Lincoln Center by the time he was 20 and 2014 sees the UK premiere of his Piano Concertino by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under Thomas Ades. Coll has studied composition with Ades and, possibly not by coincidence, the librettist for Cafe Kafka, Meredith Oakes, was also responsible for Ades' The Tempest, one of the most notable of 21st century British operas.
Elspeth Brooke's The Commission won the composer the 2012 Opera Award from the Arts Foundation while still a work in progress. A stark historical drama, it follows a craftsman's journey to avenge the abuse and murder of his younger brother. The opera has been developed through the Jerwood Opera Writing Programme at Aldeburgh by composer Brooke, poet/musician Jack Underwood who has written the libretto, and moving image artist Ellie Rees. Soprano Anna Dennis, equally well known for Baroque opera and contemporary work such as Damon Albarn's Dr. Dee, has also been involved with The Commission from its inception.
The director for the double bill is Annabel Arden, the founder of the experimental Theatre de Complicite, who has a fine record of opera productions for mainstream companies including (frequently) Opera North. Conductor/composer Richard Baker conducts the operas with the orchestral ensemble CHROMA, outstanding in an earlier Opera North co-commission, the excellent Firework Maker's Daughter. Apart from Anna Dennis, the talented international cast includes Australian soprano Suzanne Shakespeare and Icelandic bass-baritone Andri Bjorn Robertsson in addition to tenor Daniel Norman and counter-tenor William Purefoy.
Performances of Cafe Kafka and The Commission:
14 March Britten Studio, Snape
17-19 March Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House, London
22 March Howard Assembly Room, Leeds