The operas of Mark-Anthony Turnage
Before the staging of Greek, a look at the audacious, candid and engrossing output of an ‘operatic enfant terrible’.
18 October 2013 at 4.05pm | Comment on this article
British composer Mark-Anthony Turnage was initially wary of opera. In spite of an evident gift for evoking vivid drama in his music – as demonstrated in his 1983 early work Lament for a Hanging Man – he had been put off the genre by concerns that many operatic subjects seemed distant from modern life. However, Hans Werne Henze encouraged him to try his hand and Turnage’s first foray into opera, Greek, was given a triumphant premiere at the 1988 Munich Biennale. Unafraid to take risks and eager to engage with the reality of modern life, the composer quickly established an international reputation as a daring and much-admired ‘operatic enfant terrible’ (as dubbed by the Telegraph).
The libretto for Greek was adapted by Turnage and Jonathan Moore from a play by Steven Berkoff, itself a contemporary reworking of the Oedipus myth. Setting the story in 1980s East London, the composer draws on the power of ancient myth in a modern setting to examine racism, greed, AIDS and unemployment. The score incorporates an audacious blend of musical influences – from Benjamin Britten to Turnage’s hero Miles Davis, and even football chants. All evoke the urban angst of Berkoff’s drama and cut through with moments of lyrical tenderness.
In the years following Greek Turnage spent time concentrating on his orchestral output and developing his unique musical language, producing works such as his highly acclaimed Blood on the Floor, which saw its first complete performance in 1996. The 50th anniversary of the Aldeburgh festival in 1997 saw the premieres of his next compositions for the stage: Twice Through the Heart, a dramatic scena for mezzo-soprano; and The Country of the Blind, a chamber opera. Between them, these hard-hitting works include moments of wonderful expression – such as the beautiful love duet in The Country of the Blind – as well as exhibiting Turnage’s now signature synthesis of jazz with elements of modernism, and his propulsive rhythmic energy.
Commissioned by English National Opera, The Silver Tassie premiered in 2000 and confirmed Turnage’s mastery of the genre. Amanda Holden’s libretto is based on a play by Sean O’Casey and explores the impact of World War I on a Dublin family. The opera’s four acts follow the form of a traditional symphony, where the composer draws together the powerfully acerbic qualities of Greek with the expressivity of his intervening work. Turnage also infuses the opera with traditional melodies and memorable motifs, and gives each character a subtle and developed musical identity.
Anna Nicole is Turnage’s boldest opera to date. Commissioned by The Royal Opera and first performed in 2011, its portrayal of the dramatic life and death of the Playboy model and celebrity Anna Nicole Smith generated a huge media buzz even before the opening night. In a consciously lighter vein than Turnage’s earlier operas, the work’s fabulously vulgar libretto by Jerry Springer: The Opera co-creator Richard Thomas is paired with a typically eclectic score. With trademark tinges of jazz and blues skillfully combined with influences from a plethora of 20th-century masters (amongst them Stravinsky and Janáček), this ‘musically rich, audacious and inexplicably poignant work’ has become a classic of our time.