Welcome to my blog which will accompany the production of Rhondda Rips it Up! Over the coming months I will be exploring the history of Lady Rhondda as well as the influences and ideas that have shaped the piece. There will be plenty of contextual material, articles, photographs, music and our impressions as the creative team and I watch the production take shape and come to life in the run up to the premiere and beyond.
Today, I am going to talk a little bit about the process of creating an opera (or in this case an operetta, as Rhondda Rips it Up! is certainly not a contemporary opera in the normal sense). People often ask: ‘which comes first; the music or the words?’ The answer to that question is that the words come first, born out of a brief given by the commissioning organisation, in this case WNO. The libretto is then passed onto the composer who then begins to compose the music around the text. However sometimes, due to the nature of the piece, there were several occasions where Elena had a particular tune in her mind that she really wanted to use and so she asked me to retro-fit text to music that she had composed. This is probably more common in musical-theatre composition than opera, so it was great fun to be able to work in this way as well. Since it takes four times as long to sing something as it does to say it, a libretto is usually a compact and tight piece of work that is roughly between 6000-8000 words. This is much shorter than a play would be so the challenge here is to be concise, clear and convey big ideas with an economy of language.
My brief for Rhondda Rips it Up! was that it should be written in rhyming verse, should take inspiration from Music Hall and Vaudeville, and should include spoken dialogue as well as songs and big numbers. This meant that, from my point of view, it presented a far more exciting proposition than a straight forward biopic and allowed for invention and humour as well as history.
However the history was the first place to start and so I immersed myself in Angela V John’s excellent biography ‘Turning of the Tide’ which outlined the extraordinary events in Margaret’s life; events so incredible that they sometimes seemed to leap straight from the pages of a novel. I had already decided to book-end the operetta with the recent, ceremonial hanging of Margaret’s portrait in the House of Lords which allowed her to finally (though posthumously) take up her rightful place in the Upper House as a hereditary peer, so the next task was to decide what aspects of her life would inspire the drama.
Sometimes it’s the small things or the one-liners that catch your eye and you start to imagine how to construct a scene around them. One thing that grabbed me while I was reading the biography (and it was so brief it might easily have been overlooked) was the fact that Margaret had been desperate to acquire Henry Havelock Ellis’s voluminous work, ‘Psychology of Sex’. At the time it was only available on a doctor’s prescription, but ever resourceful, Margaret leveraged her contacts and managed to obtain a copy. Images of these sheltered young ladies and spinsters getting their hands on this explicit material captured my imagination and it wasn’t long before it became a big number entitled ‘It’s sex, sex, sex wherever I turn’ involving Margaret, her mother Sybil, her eccentric Aunt Lottie and her old school chum Prid. (For those who are interested you can actually find the entirety of Havelock Ellis’s ouvre online and it certainly makes for a riveting read!)
Margaret’s own autobiography, ‘This Was my World’, was also a great source of information and inspiration for me, not least because it is an extremely intimate and personal account written almost like a diary. It was from this that I gleaned at lot of information about her family and also her own ‘voice’ which was of enormous help when creating the characters of Margaret, Sybil and Lottie in particular.
To find out more about other themes and genres that influenced Elena and I, such as the Vaudeville music we listened to, the tradition of the Male Impersonator and much more, check in regularly with the blog. Till then, as we say in Rhondda Rips it Up! ‘Toodle pip!’