"To The Edge"

Was performed on November 12th and 13th, 2004, Steiner Theatre, London

Director, Stuart Barker, Designer, Tom Rogers, Lighting, Georgie Hill

Cast: Emily Sharp, Kathy Taylor-Jones, Iain Sneddon, Randy Nichol, Michael Gunney

Orchestra: The London Contemporary Chamber Orchestra, conductor Alan Taylor


The performance - orchestra left, action right


The Libretto

We wrote the libretto ourselves. Faced with the problem of how to begin, we decided to take responsibility for one character each - so there had to be five, since there were five people in the group at the start. We chose stock operatic characters - jester, hapless woman, young romeo, patriarch, grande dame - and drew lots to decide who should have which character.

We decided early on that the opera would begin with characters rehearsing an opera, and that it would conclude with the performance of this 'opera within the opera'. A grid was drawn up by random means showing all the possible combinations of characters into scenes. We followed this grid to a considerable extent to generate a list of scenes as the basis of the drama.

The libretto was written by the composers responsible for the characters involved in each scene meeting to work out the text. The scenario for the 'opera within the opera' was sketched out by one of the group, and the scenes within it were then written.

We decided early on that the jester character, X, was distinct from the others. Rather, X represents an agent of chance events provoking changes and offering opportunities which the 'human' characters could choose to accept or reject.

After 18 months work, the libretto was complete. We then went through it noting the character of the music which should accompany each scene.

The Music

We began by sketching short motifs - each composer noted down motifs which connected with the character for whom they were taking reponsibility. This pool of motifs forms the basis of the musical material in the opera. Not all of them were used, but some became very prominent as the music began to be written.

We began writing music by different members of the group drafting sections of scenes. Generally, when any of us were drafting part of a scene, we had in front of us the previous section drafted by someone else. In March 2000 we had accumulated enough material to try out these draft scenes in a workshop. The scenes were first edited a little by one member of the group to improve the flow between sections written by different composers. The workshop was a great stimulus to the project. Rather to our astonishment, the drama and the music worked wonderfully well. The singers and players present asked to do more, and wanted to press ahead to perform the opera when it was completed.

After discussing the outcome of the workshop, we began to write the music a little differently, with individual members of the group writing drafts of complete scenes. The plan was for two other members of the group to edit each draft scene, so that all the music remained the work of more than one member of the group

We held another workshop to try out the new material in February 2001, and had further workshops as the writing progressed.

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Ken Edwards

Alan Taylor

Ann Wolff

Janet Davey and Rebekka Wedell also took part in the earlier stages of the work

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The music has an acerbic, cutting, frequently sarcastic character, underlining the nature of this opera as a 'take-off' of much that is conventionally 'operatic'. As the music began to be written, a number of distinct elements began were used repeatedly. These were used throughout the opera, and develop as the story of the opera itself progresses.

The opera opens with an agressive chord full of character, built out of F, A#, C#, and E. This chord, in the form of a chord, melodies, and arpeggios, is used extensively in the opera. It had the potential to turn into other chords, through losing one, or other, or both of the sharps - having the capacity to turn into F major seventh.

It has many melodies and harmonies in the region of G major and G minor. In different ways these underlie motifs associated with two of the characters, Hywa and James. They are not used diatonically, except as a deliberate contrast to their mainly more static and modal use. When the characters move out of these modes, this is often linked to changes in their emotional state, or other events.

Blues and jazz based idioms are used frequently, both for relaxed reflective episodes, and for bitingly sarcastic moments. Often these modes are used as backing to more extended vocal monologues.

There are deliberately over-obvious diatonic cadences and vocalising, aften in association with vocal sections for the grand dame character, a very 'operatic' personality.

Some of the music is designed for accompaniment to physical actions rather than singing. This comes in two forms. On the one hand there is music of a pastoral but tounge-in-the-cheek character which accompanies characters miming new roles. The other of rhythmically jerky music whcih accompanies secenes where X intervenes, largely through actions rather than words.

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To opera companies. We are offering:

  • a set of scores and parts, without charge
  • the services of our orchestra, if in London

Contact Alan Taylor if you are interested.

London Contemporary Chamber Orchestra
Forum Composers Group

The Story and Performance

Act 1 - - - - Act 2

How we worked collectively

The composers

Character of the music

A group of our members spent 7 years writing an opera collectively, from libretto through to the final product. We believe it is the only collectively written opera. The performance was a great success, and impressed people with its professionalism, the fascinating storyline, and the coherence of the musical structure.

Last updated on 3.11.06