Just about everyone who’s had more than ten minutes conversation with me over the last five years will know by now that, yes, I have been writing an opera. When it’s catch-up time and we’ve got past “How’s work?” and “How are the kids?”, it’ll be “How’s the opera coming on?” Well, it’s now finished. I put off doing it for as long as I could, because I didn’t know if I could write two and a half hours worth of music, but in the end Jim Crace’s Quarantine, the novel on which the opera is based, had got its hooks into me, and I gave into its demands. Crace himself couldn’t have been more helpful – when I asked him for permission he was happy to agree to the adaptation as long as he didn’t have to be involved himself. That suited me fine.
How do you go about adapting a novel for the stage? Well, I broke it down into a series of events, and then tried to work out how I could shape and order those events in a way that made musical and dramatic sense. The last bit was easy, because if the novel didn’t make dramatic sense it wouldn’t be a great book (which it is). A novelist doesn’t have to worry about an interval however, and I spent a long time thinking about how to make the first half end in a way which was satisfying but would leave the audience wanting to find out what happened next. Then there was the issue of pacing – how could I make the conclusion work when the most dramatic event takes place offstage (no well-adjusted person goes to the theatre to watch one actor pretend to rape another) well before the emotional and psychological resolution which, while less horrifying, is the story’s real climax? That requires an acute sense of timing and, of course, the ability to write the kind of music which feeds the requirements of the narrative. There are times in an opera when the characters are singing about stuff which is fairly quotidian (what my wife calls “Pass the salt” music), but other times when the composer is fiercely aware that now, at this moment here, the audience needs invention which goes to the heart of the dramatic situation in a deeply expressive way.
Who wrote the libretto? I did. Well, that’s almost true. I adapted it from Crace’s novel. I can’t think of a novelist alive who has a better command of language – he is expressive, vivid and flexible without ever being florid. Although there isn’t much dialogue in the book, there is a great deal of interior monologue. Most of what I needed could be lifted almost straight from the novel; I made very little up, and only occasionally changed a word, perhaps for one which had a better rhythm, or better vowel sounds for the singer. Mostly it was a matter of excising what I didn’t need.
What’s Quarantine about? God, religion, greed, lust and death, off the top of my head. A handful of pilgrims – one of them is a young man called Jesus – go into the desert, roughly 2021 years ago, where they encounter a ruthless merchant and his put-upon wife. The story concerns what happens when these half a dozen individuals collide. It’s by turns horrible, funny and touching. All of them are changed, most for the better. The merchant, Musa, is a monster – charming, charismatic and violent – diabolic even. He is one of the great villains in fiction, I think, and I loved writing for him.
In the last forty years or so my principal recreation has been mountaineering, and I am well used to the idea of standing underneath some implausibly tall peak and, ignoring the totality of the task ahead, simply taking the first step uphill. And then another. That’s what I did with Quarantine. I wrote the first scene and found I really enjoyed doing it. Then I wrote a couple more and found that I was half way through the first Act. When I had done Act I I reflected that all I needed to do to finish the job was to keep writing and live long enough. For the last five years I have been very careful crossing roads. Now perhaps I can play chicken a little more recklessly.
It may turn out that the hardest part of writing Quarantine is either getting it put on somewhere or living with the failure to do so. I’m under no illusions, I think, about the difficulties which lie ahead, but also have no regrets about having written the piece. You have to do something with your life, and I always went to work with a will. I was well aware that I was writing something, during Covid, which had at least a titular resonance with the pandemic. It remains to be seen whether opera companies will have any interest in reminding audiences about a bleak time for all, or whether they will all be playing Gilbert and Sullivan for the forseeable (nothing wrong with that).
Whatever, barring a bit of editing, Quarantine is done. Small-talk will have to move on to pastures new.