Stephen Fry on his E M Forster libretto, The Life to Come
- Credit: PA Archive/PA Images
Hampstead born Stephen Fry collaborated Hampstead local Louis Mander on their new opera
It pays to have ambition if you’re a composer, and a hard neck comes in useful too. But it was a textbook demonstration of the two combined when an unknown, untried composer straight out of the Royal College of Music wrote to one of Britain’s best-known media stars suggesting that they work together on an opera.
The composer was the Hampstead-based Louis Mander, the star was Hampstead-born Stephen Fry, but they were total strangers to each other.
“You could say that he cold-called me,” Fry remembers, “and I thought ‘That’s bold’. But sometimes bold is the best thing to be, so I wrote back and said ‘OK, why not?’”
Initially they didn’t have a subject. “Louis asked me if I had any ideas,” says Fry. “I didn’t. But then one of E M Forster’s short stories ‘The Life to Come’ struck me as a possibility, partly because it answers some of the clichéd requirements for what makes good opera - thwarted passion and a terrible death at the end - but also because I liked the fact that it dealt with sexual and political issues in a way that’s personal, passionate and sad but on the edge of satire. And I think that’s something opera can do well.”
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For anyone who doesn’t know these Forster stories, they’re essentially gay fantasies intended for the writer’s bottom drawer and never published until after he was dead.
The one picked up by Fry and Mander is about a missionary who has a night of passion with the tribal chief he’s trying to convert but then denies the nature of the love they shared. The consequence is both absurd and shocking as this “spiritual colonist”, as Fry describes him, gets a terrible come-uppance, in what Fry calls “Forster’s characteristic manner of a solid iron fist inside the softest velvet glove”.
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Fry is the first to say that he’s a novice in the writing of libretti. He likes opera, is a serious Wagnerite who made a probing TV documentary on the questionable lure of Bayreuth; and some years ago he also made an English singing version of ‘The Magic Flute’ for an opera film by Kenneth Branagh. But ‘Life to Come’ is his first true libretto; and he has approached the task with caution, insisting that “although you want the words to be heard, a libretto really needs to disappear as the music takes it somewhere else. So I hope Louis believed me when I told him not to regard what I’d written as a golden text.”
Mander, by contrast, is experienced in opera – or at least, he is now, ten years on from his approach to Fry. It’s taken that long for ‘The Life to Come’ to reach the stage: partly because, as Fry says, “I was slow delivering my words, while he was patient” but equally because Mander filled the waiting time with other projects.
There were chamber operas on Nijinsky and Diaghilev, on the poet Lorca, and most recently ‘The Dowager’s Oyster’ – all of them touching on gay themes which, Mander says, “have been part of my work as a composer from the beginning. I was always struck by the general absence of same-sex love in the operatic canon, so I wanted to address that. And when Stephen proposed ‘The Life to Come’, this colonial love story that mixes homosexual passion, sweltering exoticism and religion...it ticked all the boxes really.”
‘Life to Come’ was workshopped at the RCM some years ago; but now, at last, it’s ready to be seen. It’s playing at the Oslo Opera House in Norway (of all places) on October 5. But the world premiere production opens, courtesy of Surrey Opera, at the Harlequin Theatre, Redhill on September 28 and 29 before touring to Croydon and Brighton.
Full details: surreyopera.org