Sydney Opera House

Nightingale a feast of compelling theatre


The myth and the music: Richard Mills on Nightingale

Allerta!: What made you choose the legend of Philomele  as subject matter for an opera?

Richard Mills: I discovered Timberlake Wertenbaker’s play, The Love of the Nightingale, quite by accident, in a bookshop while I was doing Christmas shopping. I read it in about an hour, and realised that it was a wonderful piece of dramatic writing that would have great power on the operatic stage. 

A!: What happened after you’d read the play?

RM: I found it in the late 90s, and for quite a while nothing happened because I was about to start working on Batavia. But it was always at the back of my mind. When the Perth International Arts Festival commissioned a new opera from me, the organisers agreed on this subject, for which I was very grateful. I contacted Timberlake and she was very happy to write a libretto.

A!: What has the interaction between you and Wertenbaker been like?

RM: We met in London for a fortnight in 2005: we worked out what the key image for each scene would be, and what the characters would say. I then left it with her. The time scale of music is very different from the time scale of speech, which means that there has to be fewer words in a libretto. The music also needs to take its rightful place in the overall scheme of things, and a good librettist will allow for that by pairing down. 

A!: Lindy Hume directed the world première of the opera at the Perth Festival in 2007, and it’s had revivals in Melbourne and Brisbane. Have you revised any of the music, as opera composers sometimes do, after the opera’s première?

RM: No I haven’t because there was no time; we did the first three runs one straight after the other. We even had to photocopy the orchestral parts for rehearsals in Melbourne because they were still being performed from in Perth. There wasn’t that much to tinker with anyway – perhaps the odd bit of orchestration to refine – but that was all done during rehearsals in Perth. Really, there’s not that much you can do to undo your sins; you just have to live with them.

A!: You wrote the part of Philomele for Emma Matthews. How does the musical writing suit her particular vocal strengths?

RM: Emma is a remarkable artist at the peak of her power. She has a lyric coloratura voice of great beauty, and the role was written for that fach. It’s a difficult, long and complicated role and it needs great vocal agility and skill to perform.

A!: Could you tell us a little more about composing Philomele’s beautiful final aria, the ‘Nightingale Song’: Did it come to you easily, or did you have to wait for inspiration?

RM: People often ask me what inspires me. I sit down to work at a certain time every day, and inspiration learns to be on time. I wrote the aria in about two days. I was conducting Tristan and I knew that I just had to get this aria done. And so, it just came.

A!: Could you tell us more about the role of the orchestra in this opera?

RM: The orchestra is a very important element of operatic theatre: it comments on and mirrors the action; it’s very much a character in its own right. In Nightingale, each instrument has an important contribution to make: the flute particularly in the ‘Nightingale Song’, the oboe in Phaedra’s aria, the brass whenever Tereus appears.

A!: Nightingalehas an important treble role. When writing for this voice type, what sort of things does a composer have to bear in mind?

RM: Writing for boy soprano, one has to be very careful to leave room for the voice. Audiences come to the theatre to hear people sing, not to be drowned in an orgy of orchestral sound. If a voice has to struggle against a mass of sound to make itself heard, it will never reveal its true beauty.

A!: For a conductor, what are the pitfalls of conducting one’s own opera?

RM: When conducting my own music, I approach it as I would a new score by a colleague composer, or a piece by Verdi. You just have to make it work.

A!: This production, originally conceived by Lindy Hume, has been “restudied” by director Tama Matheson. How does that work?

RM: A restudied production reveals the subject matter in a slightly different perspective [from what the original production did]. We’re using the set and most of the costumes from the original production, but we’re giving Tama Matheson the opportunity to find something new to say within those parameters. 

A!: Why would audiences enjoy the show? 

RM: Nightingale offers audiences  a compelling night of theatre. It takes you on a journey and shows you something remarkable. For people who love opera it’s also an opportunity to explore a new work. And it’s a celebration of Opera Australia’s magnificent ensemble.