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The pieces that made Thomas Adès

The British composer has been at the vanguard of new music throughout his career, as demonstrated by these must-hear works.

By Paul Kilbey (Content Producer (Ballet))

21 April 2017 at 10.48am | Comment on this article

Thomas Adès’s sources of inspiration have ranged from an anonymous medieval poem to a 1960s sex scandal. And the composer's music is just as varied as the subjects he chooses: one of few common threads running through his work is its consistent unpredictability.

Here's a taster of his key works for both opera house and concert hall and what makes them so important:

Powder Her Face

Adès’s debut opera caused a stir in 1995 at its Cheltenham Festival premiere, thanks to its unabashed portrayal of Margaret Campbell, the ‘Dirty Duchess’ of Argyll, whose divorce proceedings in 1963 revealed details of her sex life that scandalized the nation. A full-length, chamber-scale work, the opera deploys three singers taking on a number of guises and a 15-strong chamber orchestra that veers from louche jazz pastiche to witty Stravinsky quotations.


While Powder Her Face put Adès on the operatic map, it was Asyla, his orchestral work of 1997, that established him as a major orchestral composer. This four-movement work resembles a symphony in its dimensions, with a notorious third movement subtitled ‘Ecstasio’ replacing the conventional scherzo with music that evokes the world of contemporary nightclubs.

The Tempest

The Royal Opera’s first commission from Adès was The Tempest, which was first performed in 2004. With a libretto adapted from the Shakespeare play by Meredith Oakes, The Tempest draws on as wide a range of musical references as Adès’s other work, but channels them into a romantic form in keeping with large-scale opera’s rich heritage.


Intriguingly subtitled ‘Voyage for Orchestra’, Polaris received its premiere in Miami in 2011 and has been widely performed since. Though just 14 minutes long, it is a work of enormous scale, whose title refers to the North Star. Polaris spirals out from intricate repeated phrases in the high winds to a cataclysmic climax involving groups of brass instruments stationed around the auditorium. It was memorably choreographed by Crystal Pite in 2014 and will be performed at the BBC Proms 2017.


Adès’s 2013 BBC Proms commission was a 35-minute work for orchestra and vocal soloists that set an anonymous medieval text written under a 15th-century German frieze. This ‘dance of death’ depicts people from all strands of society, from the highest to the lowest, each claimed by the figure of death. With its enormous orchestra, it is his largest-scale orchestral work yet, and brings his theatrical experience to bear in its startlingly dramatic form.

The Exterminating Angel

‘Why can we ever leave a room?’ asks Adès, re-working a question that lies at the heart of Luis Buñuel’s Surrealist 1962 film El ángel exterminador. The guests of a dinner party appear mysteriously unable to leave, despite no physical barriers blocking the exit. First performed in Salzburg last year, Adès and librettist-director Tom Cairns’s operatic version of the film features a magnificent ensemble cast of singers and has already been hailed as a defining opera of our time.

The Exterminating Angel runs 24 April–8 May 2017. Tickets are still available.

The production is a co-commission and co-production with Salzburg Festival, the Metropolitan Opera, New York, and the Royal Danish Opera and is staged with generous philanthropic support from Stefan Sten Olsson, the John S. Cohen Foundation and the Boltini Trust.

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