Preparing for Skellig – Tod Machover (MIT Professor and Society of Sound Fellow)

I’m in Newcastle-on-Tyne right now, in the final stage of rehearsals for my Skellig opera which premieres here at the Sage Gateshead next Monday and runs from November 24-29.

Newcastle is a lot smaller than Boston, where I live, but it has a familiar feel of an East-West running river that empties into the ocean with two contrasting cities on each bank (Newcastle/Gateshead, Boston/Cambridge), and blasts of wind from the sea that cause the weather to change often, the sky to be dazzlingly blue when the weather is nice, and one to be almost blown off the street and into the river when the weather isn’t so nice.

Skellig is a bit of an unusual project (as – I guess – most of mine tend to be) because it is an opera created for a non-opera house. It is by far the largest project that the Sage – a spectacular music complex designed by Norman Foster that opened in 2004 – has mounted. This means that we are stretching the Sage’s production capacity (augmented by an army of audio and theatrical consultants, as well as two fantastic students of mine from the MIT Media Lab) to the limits, and also that I’ve had to think about creating a piece that immediately appeals to almost anyone – since there is no obvious “opera” audience here, and since much of the audience will not likely know much or anything about my previous work – while retaining all the qualities that make my music, well…..mine!

It both helps and is slightly scary that the opera is based on David Almond’s very popular (especially with tweens and teens) novel: helpful because many people know the brand and the story, scary for the same reasons – while composing the opera I kept imagining lovers being bent out of shape by what I had done with ‘their story’. It’s that kind of book.

But as everything takes shape – yesterday was our first rehearsal with singers, orchestra and electronics together – I am increasingly confident that the piece just might work on these various levels. It was just thrilling to hear the music well up into physical space that had been only trapped in my head for the past year or so. The melodies and the overall flow seem to carry people along, and there is plenty of complexity and craziness – especially in the hybrid audio textures combining acoustics and electronics, and both real and “musical” sounds – to interest those who listen below the surface.

I am especially pleased with how the teenage chorus is rising to the task. Since Skellig is a coming-of-age story about a young boy and girl (age ca. 13) – admittedly stranger than it sounds, since they meet a decrepit homeless person who turns out to be an angel! – I decided to recruit an untrained group of teens for each production, to sing alongside some of the world’s top professional singers, and along with the excellent Northern Sinfonia orchestra and plenty of electronics. Most of these teens can’t read music, but they’ve been working for months to learn the opera’s sounds, melodies, harmonies and movements – often aided by an “audio score” which guides them while they sing – and yesterday really showed their stuff. We did the first run-through of the opera with all forces together, and in spite of absolutely brilliant and moving performances by each of our principals, the chorus literally blew everyone away. They made creepy sounds of insects, birds, wind and “the world”, morphed from background to foreground with great ease, and sang their big musical numbers with lovely sound and intense passion that soared above the orchestra and conveyed all the emotions that I had intended. The fact that we were able to interest and train such a group of non-professional young people and to integrate them into such a high-level production, confirms my deep conviction that music must be for everyone and anyone, and that all can participate to powerful effect given the right context and the right tools.

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