Sunday, 6 December 2015

Mark Twain Opera - Mysterious 44

The November GMH meeting saw Kevin Malone give a talk
entitled Mark Twain Opera “Mysterious 44”.  

Kevin began by explaining his upbringing in a religious Lutheran family. He happily went along with everything he was taught about God and his religion until at the age of 10 he came across a book by Mark Twain entitled Mysterious Stranger. Though originally written by Mark Twain it was unfinished at his death and completed posthumously by his editor. Kevin recalled that this book, “scared the life out of me”, and started him on a path of questioning his faith.  

At age 11 there was a bus campaign in his home town with the message “God is Dead”. This added to his doubts and at this point he stopped going to church. He still battled with his belief in the divine though and managed to resolve his love of science and maths with theism by concluding that they were based on rules and that God therefore had created those rules.  

Later in life as part of his musical studies he moved to Paris to study at the Paris Conservatoire. While there he decided to study the bible in fine detail, to the extent that he mapped out where and when the biblical events were supposed to have occurred. And in so doing, he confesses, he became an agnostic.  

Kevin went on to talk about how the opera came about and how it was constructed. The book itself was set in Austria in 1490 but the events of 9/11 in 2001 were a key influence. In fact the opening of the opera features a piece involving a single cello and recordings of the New York air traffic controllers talking to flight crews in the air space at the time of the attacks on the twin towers. You can clearly hear one controller repeatedly trying unsuccessfully to obtain voice contact with flight ‘American 77’. The cello piece was appropriately entitled Requiem 77. Kevin talked about some of his other influences including the film the Unbelievers and Woody Allen films. 

A key character in the book, hence the opera, is 44 - an angel with supernatural powers. Using a video extract from the opera, Kevin explained how in a scene reminiscent of an old testament story, 44 enables two human characters to magically create their own human specimens which rapidly evolve into less than perfect beings that do wicked things. Consequently the two characters beg 44 to destroy their creations. This whole scene really showed off Kevin’s musical skill as it interwove traditional operatic style musical dialogue with electronic incidental music and classical choral sequences.  

Another key feature of the opera is Richard Dawkins’ voice which features at various points in the opera. 

Richard was also one of the financial backers of the opera along with The Arts Council and the University. Kevin recounted how Dawkins was a willing contributor to the project and an able voice actor but was very hard to tie down time-wise to actually do the recordings.  

Bringing the conversation back to the matter of religion, Kevin talked about how the credibility of an idea or a doctrine is enhanced by performance. Simply reading or stating something evokes one level of consciousness but singing it, as with church hymns, seeks to reinforce that idea, especially when promoted by institutions. Religions have, Kevin surmised, known this and exploited it for a long time. 

You can see the latest version of the opera at the following locations in the New Year: 
25 January  - Manchester premiere at the Royal Northern College of Music, Studio Theatre, starting at 7pm.  Tickets available from RNCM box office 0161 907 5555 and at (they haven't been listed on their website yet). 
27 January at the John Thaw Theatre, Martin Harris Centre for Music and Drama, Bridgeford St, Univ of Manchester.  (Starting time is 7 or 7:30pm - awaiting Centre's decision).  
29 January at Ordsall Hall, Salford during daytime for secondary school children performance.  
1 February at Central Library, Manchester Performance Space 1 (TBC).   


At the November Stockport meeting David Seddon spoke on Romanticism in his usual enthusiastic way. We heard how the word “Romanticism” came from Roman as did “Romance” as in the Romance Languages (French, Italian and Spanish).

The classical literature of the Romance stories written in Old French, Spanish and Italian were characterised by: a hero who fights evil, a lady for whom he is fighting, and a grateful Lord. One can think of our own Arthurian legends. Chaucer was deeply influenced by this literature.

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the Romantic Movement was born. The Brothers Schlegel in Germany were early exponents, responsible for the naming of the movement.

Before the romantic period there was a development in music reflected in the culture of the day. Under a strong hereditary system of Government, answerable to King and God, Bach, Handel and Haydn obeyed rules and wrote in a very disciplined way; at the same time producing wonderful music. Bach wrote music to order for the church. Handel’s patron and friend was George III for whom he wrote pieces like the Water Music and the Fireworks on request. Haydn invented the symphony and was commissioned by the King to write 106 of them.

There were rules in literature too. Alexander Pope thought that as well as rhyming and scansion we should be limited to big themes. John Milton also wrote very formal verse. Things begin to shift with Jean Jacques Rousseau who, not liking to be ruled by time, had no clocks. His political philosophy influenced the enlightenment in France.

The American War of Independence 1776-1781 heralded an era in which people were regarded as important for the first time: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among  these are Life, 
Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness".

The French Revolution followed in 1798 resulting in the execution of Louis XVI and his queen, Marie Antoinette. The French acquired a romantic hero in the form of the charismatic Napoleon Bonaparte, whilst the British romantic hero was Admiral Lord Nelson rather than the Duke of Wellington.

Musically Beethoven characterised the start of the romantic era. His freer form music now needed a conductor. He wanted to say something personal and wrote only nine symphonies. Later composers, such as Brahms, wrote only a few symphonies compared with the 106 of Haydn. Franz Schubert had a publisher rather than a patron making it easier to write the music he wanted.

In the year (1770) that Beethoven was born, William Wordsworth was born in Cockermouth. After being schooled in Hawkshead he went to Cambridge and in 1798 he went to Paris to witness the French Revolution in action. Disillusioned, he returned to London then to the Lake District with Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The two men wrote Lyrical Ballads, with a Few Other Poems first published in 1798 and generally considered to have marked the beginning of the English Romantic movement in literature.

Romanticism in art was aided by advances in paint technology that enabled Turner to produce his paintings without having to manufacture his paints every day.

In Literature Feminism began to make its mark. Jane Austen put heroines centre stage instead of heroes and highlighted women’s’ issues.  The Bronte sisters also wrote from a woman’s point of view as did Mary Evans (George Eliot) and Mrs Gaskell. Mary Wollstonecraft had written A Vindication of the Rights of Men in response to Edmund Burke's conservative critique of the French Revolution,  Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790); and she followed this with A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792).

Unfortunately Feminists took a step backwards in the Victorian era.

In the area of Human rights, the first British slave to be emancipated was freed in 1772. The antislavery movement got under way in 1783 and  the slave trade was abolished by Act of Parliament in 1807. The Slavery Abolition Act 1833 abolished slavery in most of the British Empire.

The meeting ended with a Q and A session.