In the Wings

Backstage glimpses with Boston Lyric Opera

Mark Anthony Turnage Interview

Nov 15, 2016 4:39:57 PM
By Richard Dyer

Boston Lyric Opera presents the first New England performances of Mark Anthony Turnage’s Greek at the Emerson/Paramount Center on November 16, 17, and 19 at 7:30 PM with a matinee on November 20 at 3:00 PM.

The world premiere of Mark Anthony Turnage’s first opera, Greek, took place on June 17, 1988 in Munich, Germany.

The British composer had just turned 28, and his violent, visceral, in-your-face adaptation of the Oedipus myth propelled him into the forefront of composers of his generation. The press dubbed him “the angry young man of music,” a role he admits he delighted in playing for a number of years, and still enjoys from time to time.

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Turnage, pictured in conversation with the writer at the BLO administrative offices in the spring of 2016.

Now, 28 years later, he has mellowed a little without losing his edge and his capacity to create surprise – both in music and in conversation. He has created one of the largest catalogues of music of any living composer – more than 50 works for orchestra (including a dozen concertos and pieces blending jazz musicians with orchestra), chamber music, choral music, vocal music, as well as two large-scale operas, one of them controversially based on the tragic life of Anna Nicole Smith. Two more operas are in the pipeline now.

He has served as composer-in-residence for seven major international orchestras and festivals. Last year he was made a CBE, a Commander of the British Empire, but it doesn’t look as if he’s anywhere close to retreating into grey establishment officialdom. During a quick visit to Boston last spring, he was casually dressed, spirited, intelligent, offbeat, and apparently amused to find himself discussing his younger self.

Born in Essex, England in 1960, Turnage began piano lessons at the age of 6 and within three years, he had begun creating his own little pieces, a process which interested him more than the drill of practicing music by other people. By the time he was 14 he had been admitted to the Royal College of Music in London, where one of his most important teachers and mentors was composer Oliver Knussen. An important stage in Knussen’s own development was his study at the Tanglewood Music Center with Gunther Schuller, the eminent composer and jazz scholar. It was only natural that Turnage, in turn, would want to come to Tanglewood to work with Schuller as well – his own interest in jazz was profound, and it remains so to this day.

In 1983 Turnage arrived in the Berkshires, where he did indeed work with Schuller and with that summer’s Tanglewood composer-in-residence, Hans Werner Henze. Henze liked the short pieces that Turnage had written; what struck him was the dramatic and theatrical element in them. The senior composer knew what he was talking about; by that time he had composed more than two dozen music-theater works including operas, oratorios, and film scores – in fact that summer he finished writing his opera Das Verratene Meer. He suggested that Turnage should compose something for the theater.

Turnage didn’t think he was interested, and in fact said no at first. “I didn’t grow up with opera,” Turnage says. “Instead I grew up with orchestral music. I never thought that opera was something for me – in fact, I had a bit of an aversion to opera and to the posh audience brigade crowding into establishment theaters or to people who talked about what a good Rodolfo [the lead tenor role in La Bohème] someone was. I told Henze I never want to write an opera – that would be a completely bourgeois thing to do. He was a Marxist so he found that very funny.

“Also at that point I hadn’t written any pieces that lasted more than 10 minutes and very little vocal music, although that summer I was working on a piece for soprano and chamber ensemble called Lament for a Hanging Man [the title comes from a poem by Sylvia Plath]. Henze finally arranged a commission for me to write an opera for the Biennale Festival in Munch. This was pretty scary – the idea of writing a work that would last an hour and half. It was really hard to envision myself doing that. But Henze believed in me; he really backed me. He gave me a lot of confidence – and a lot of advice, not detailed advice, but general advice about writing for the theater.”

Henze also had an idea for the subject of the opera – a play by Edward Bond, Pope’s Wedding. Turnage thought the play was “really fantastic” and wrote to Bond suggesting a collaboration. But Bond did not reply for a month – he was away on holiday – so Turnage moved on to Steven Berkoff, another major figure in British theater.

“I didn’t know much about Berkoff, except as an actor – he was a famous baddie in the movies at the time – he was a Bond villain in Octopussy. He was also in a lot of dodgy films, which subsidized his work in the theater, where he was pretty much a legend. I had seen a TV documentary about him which really attracted me and made me interested in him as a writer. I devoured all his plays and poems and grew quite obsessed with his work. I went to see him in his big apartment in the East End of London, and he said, ‘I think Greek is the most operatic of my plays.’ And he was right.”

Greek is based on the famous Sophoclean tragedy of Oedipus, the king who murdered his father, married his mother and blinded himself when he learned the terrible truth of his situation. Berkoff transposed this ancient story – Sophocles’ play was first performed in 429 BC – into East London in the late 1970s and early 1980s, in the troubled era of prime minister Margaret Thatcher, which is not that much different from our own.

“The play,” Turnage says, “has a sort of lyricism about it but also this violence, a Shakespearean sort of verse alongside slang and really vulgar and coarse language. What attracted me were the strong contrasts. And amid all of this tragedy was a saucy sort of humor, like in the lusty-busty ‘Carry On’ films that had been so popular in Britain; they were rather tacky, but I was a big fan. Greek always gets big laughs, both the opera and the play. And the East End of London is where my family came from, so the atmosphere was familiar – the play is not removed from my roots. There were certain aspects of it that felt part of me.”

The blunt, crude language of the libretto is something you can hear in movies and on television and overhear on the Red Line any day, where it has lost all shock value; the operatic setting of those “bad words” restores their jolt. This was not the kind of talk Turnage grew up with. “My parents were strictly religious and evangelical, so I never swore in front of them.”

In fact, Turnage was very concerned about how his parents would react when Greek came to the Edinburgh Festival for its second set of performances. “I tried to put them off the scent and gave them the wrong dates. Seriously, I did. I was standing in the lobby and saw them in line to pick up their tickets at the box office. I was horrified, but afterwards they said they liked the opera – except for ‘those words.’ I was off the hook – I pointed out that the words were Steven Berkoff’s, not mine; all I wrote was the music!”

The process of writing the opera took more than two years. (In another Boston connection, he dedicated the opera to one of his closest friends of the 1980s, a fellow composer Andy Vores, who is now a dean at the Boston Conservatory of Music.)

For the first act of Greek Turnage was his own librettist. “I studied a lot of operas, but I really should have swotted up on libretto writing. I just had a copy of the play and crossed out the lines I didn’t want. Which is a very strange way of going about it. I didn’t have a full libretto before I started writing the music; I just did it as I went along.” For the second act, Turnage enlisted the aid of Jonathan Moore, a playwright and actor who was particularly helpful in moving things around and restructuring the act to provide a musical and dramatic climax.

Turnage did not compose all the music in the order in which it appears in the opera, in part because he did not have a complete libretto before he started to write. The ending came early on, and it gave him no problems – he knew what words he wanted to use and the effect he wanted to make.

The beginning – the opening three or four minutes – on the other hand, gave him quite a lot of trouble. “I needed to find a style for it, because I had been writing very complex orchestral music, so doing things that were quite straightforward was a really strange thing for me. When I finally did write the opening I was thinking, ‘I’ll scrap this eventually. I’ll just do a sketch’ – but it ended up as the opening I used.”

The opera opens with a rhythm – “a very famous soccer rhythm in England. Everyone would know that; you can hear the crowd chant it at every match and it’s on television all the time. Some form of it appears on virtually every page of the score. It becomes a sort of rhythmic Leitmotif. At first I thought this was too obvious to do, but then I realized this was theater. It’s a different medium and it requires clarity. So I had to sit on it for quite a while before I was brave enough to go with it. Looking back now I can’t believe that I had such difficulty with this.”

Turnage undertook the orchestration simultaneously with the music – which is no longer his habit when writing operas. The commission called for a chamber orchestra of 17 players. He knew he wanted a lot of percussion, nearly 50 instruments (including a large garbage can lid). And he extended the scope of percussion by requiring each of the other players to double on a least one percussion instrument as well. One important scene, a street riot, is accompanied only by percussion. “There’s an all-percussion interlude in Shostakovich’s The Nose that I was very aware of,” Turnage admits.

He also had to do some horsetrading – he sacrificed violins in order to get three cellos. “I put the cellos in a high range quite a bit, even the violin range, because I wanted to give it a more intense sound.”

The way traditional instrumentalists double on percussion in the orchestration of Greek reflects another unusual aspect of the piece – as in Berkoff’s play, four actors take on all the roles. Eddy (Oedipus) is a baritone, who is the only singer to play just one role. The other three singers, a soprano, a mezzo and a baritone, take on three or four roles apiece (just as the baritone does in Britten’s Death in Venice). Four additional actors take on miscellaneous speaking and non-speaking roles, and the four singers have a lot of spoken dialogue.

“Some people thought this was a cop-out, and I wouldn’t do it now, but speaking was something I wanted then. I felt that in order to create clarity at certain points, the singers would have to speak, and when we were casting it we were very careful because we needed people who could recite really strongly and could act. I wanted a balance among recitative, bel canto, and speaking, and I tried to be quite careful not to overdo any of them. There is less speaking in the second act – the opera gets more lyrical as it goes on, but I made a conscious decision to go back to speaking at the very end, to mirror the opening, which is also rhythmic speaking.”

Asked if this tragedy has a happy ending, Turnage replies, “I think it is. In his way Steven Berkoff is quite a hippie and love does conquer all. He’s not cynical – that is something I really liked about the play. This is quite something that really hits you.”

There are influences and collisions of many types of music in the score. Most of the music is atonal and much of it is violent. “There is an incredible, visceral power in the words that I had to try to convey in the music. There would have been no point in trying to make the play and its language into something lame and conservative.”

Jazz is prominent, emphasized in part because of the wailing presence of saxophones. Turnage admits he didn’t know a lot of earlier operas at the time he was composing Greek, but he did know Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Puccini, Britten (particularly Billy Budd), Stravinsky and especially Berg; as an homage, there is a hidden allusion to Henze. Turnage’s discovery of the Dutch composer Louis Andriessen at the time he was writing the opera was crucial. Eclectic as the score is, the dominant voice is that of Turnage himself – angry, violent yet also capable of real lyricism and profound emotion. In fact he says there is more lyrical than violent music in the score. There is even a love duet – but not a tenor (“I’m not a great fan of tenors!” he says).

Turnage, the cast and the production team of the first production were nervous about performing the work in English for a German audience. But the early performances of Greek were highly successful. Turnage went on to other things and Greek slumbered for a while, although there was a television production that is now available on DVD. That TV version has seriously dated, but the music has not – it still packs a punch. Gradually the opera gathered more and more productions and performances, hundreds by now – Turnage says there are now two or three productions a year.

“All I have ever wanted to do,” Turnage says in conclusion, “is be a composer. If something happened and everything was taken away from me and I couldn’t earn my living doing that and got a normal job, I’d still write music in the evenings. It’s a compulsion, and I’d still do it, no matter what. I feel so lucky I’ve got self expression. I absolutely love it. I am happiest when I’m writing music. More even than hearing or attending performances. I love the process. I love rehearsal; I love performers, players, singers. For a performance I have to wear a posh suit and all of that stuff which really irritates me. I don’t like the formal part of that. Instead if I have two weeks on my own just to get on writing a piece, that is bliss.”

Turnage says he remains fond of Greek. “I am still surprised at how raw and confrontational it is. I may have been fumbling around, but I hit on something, particularly in the last 20 minutes, which I really like. In the first act I can see things I might want to rewrite, technically. The older you get the more technically assured you become. Then again, a revision might not be so raw. Some of the things I might not do so well today. Some of my other pieces from around that time I really don’t want to hear again – I’m not that proud of them, I don’t feel close to them now. But this is one I really want to see, which is strange because it’s not mine anymore.”



Richard Dyer is a distinguished writer and lecturer. He wrote about music for

The Boston Globe for more than 30 years, serving as chief music critic for most of that time. He has twice won the Deems Taylor/ASCAP Award for Distinguished Music Criticism.

Topics: #GreekBLO

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