A Minute With: Composer Julian Anderson about his opera "Thebans"

Wed Apr 30, 2014 1:51pm EDT
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By Michael Roddy

LONDON (Reuters) - Everyone knows what happened to Oedipus, the ancient king who angered the Fates by killing his father and marrying his mother. But Julian Anderson's opera "Thebans", based on Sophocles's versions of those ancient stories, still packs some surprises.

Anderson, 47, who is often ranked among the top flight of British composers, has been writing music since he was 12. "Thebans", which will have its premiere at the English National Opera on Saturday, is his first opera - and is more than double the length of anything he has written before.

Mozart, of course, wrote more than a dozen operas before he died at age 35. But Anderson, who spent three years composing his opera based on a libretto by Irish playwright Frank McGuinness, says producing one today is a much bigger deal than it was in Mozart's time.

"It's a totally different animal," Anderson told Reuters in an interview in a day packed with rehearsals before a premiere for which the ENO has pulled out all the stops, including enlisting French-Lebanese star director Pierre Audi.

"It's much bigger, it's much more complicated, it's much more ambiguous a venture. There aren't any conventions in opera like there aren't in the rest of life. Everything has changed so it's a much more ambitious undertaking," Anderson said.

If Anderson is biting his nails, he isn't letting on. He couldn't be more pleased about the choice of McGuinness, whom he calls "an amazing wordsmith", to boil down three of Sophocles's plays into one.

He also thinks his own innovation, switching the chronology so Oedipus dies in the second act but remains a haunting presence in the third, works better. He says it shouldn't trouble audiences inured to time-shifting plots by constant exposure to them in soap operas and films.

"This is effectively a flashback, but it's a little more atmospheric and complicated than that term implies," he said.   Continued...

Cast members perform in the English National Opera's production of Julian Anderson's opera Thebans in London April 30, 2014. REUTERS/Neil Hall