I’ve not talked much about the work I am doing with Helen Russell. We met in December 2014. She contacted me after hearing the CD called Clameur I had done with Matthew Pollard, and she needed a librettist for new a project based on a short story by José Saramago called The Centaur. Here is a link to Nadine Gordimer reading the story.
The project was an opera. And its narrative is centred on the last living Centaur. Saramago shows us the struggle of his half man, half horse nature. He has managed to survive by hiding in the woods of Europe over the centuries. Naturally, he is lonely, and an encounter with a woman by a river triggers a series of events where the centaur draws attention to itself. Eventually he falls from a hilltop trying to escape pursuit, and is split apart and killed on a jagged rock.
The story is deceptive, it seems quite simple to begin with, but rewards reading and thinking about. Nadine Gordimer wrote, ‘there’s as much in this little story as in 20 novels and 20 poems’. Certainly the more Helen and I thought about its dramatic and philosophical implications, the more excited we became. In the intervening years we have found ourselves discussing philosophy, mythology and ontology and the whole process has been one of personal growth. For me it also led naturally from poetry I’ve written re-imaginging mythological characters in a contemporary space. My poem ‘Minotaur’, from the pamphlet, The Nightwork is one such example. Here it is set to music, not by Helen, on YouTube. I like it when your work seems to organically develop like this.
So for the last couple of years I have been popping around to see Helen in Hove every now and again, armed with tranches of libretto, while Helen has busied herself writing a lush and involving score. With now more than an hour of the opera safely on Sibelius software, plus notebooks of musical sketches and our carefully worked out, our vast project is gradually taking shape. Naturally, as it is opera, there’s no need to hold back from passions, and writing on a grand scale. We have written all kinds of scenes, the first we worked on was a love duet between the woman bathing in a river, and the Centaur who chances upon her. All looked over by Selene the goddess of the moon, as baying dogs and an angry crowd gather offstage. Not every day that you put yourself into that kind of imaginative space.
This is a long project, but I intend to put some more about it here. Meanwhile, here’s a snap of Helen Russell at her piano.