opera and music theatre

Abraham On Trial (2005)

Five singers with electroacoustic music and video

Premiered at the Junction Theatre, Cambridge in May 2005 by the Electric Voice Theatre.

Duration 85 minutes.

The libretto derives inspiration mainly from a book by anthropologist Carol Delaney (Abraham On Trial) which dissects the familiar bible story in terms of gender and patriarchy. It begins with an account of a trial in northern California of a man who claimed to be commanded by God to sacrifice his youngest daughter. Her account of the trial makes clear that many of the participants were extremely troubled by the comparison of the accused with the biblical patriarch.

With a cast of five, the first act retells the original story: a (male) story-teller and a young woman watch and comment as the relationships between Abraham, Sarah and Isaac unravel. The first act ends with the angelic intervention on Mount Moriah. Then an interlude whirls the action forward to a courtroom in California in 1992. Two journalists watch and comment on the progress of the trial of John Vallier. His wife Rosa also watches and struggles - with the court itself, the prying journalists, and a court psychologist who needs her help in assessing her husband’s state of mind. When Vallier is pronounced “not guilty”, Rosa precipitates a confrontation with Abraham’s legacy.


In two short acts, Abraham on Trial juxtaposes the biblical tale of Abraham and Isaac with a story set in 1990s California: John Vallier is on trial for the murder of his daughter, an act which he claims he was instructed to carry out by God. The newly-composed work, premiered at Cambridge’s achingly trendy new artistic centre, The Junction, styles itself as an “electroacoustic opera” and in keeping with its subject matter, fused traditional and innovative elements. Andrew Lovett’s score combines sung roles with a pre-recorded soundtrack of vocal, instrumental and electronic sound, ranging from visceral screeches to angelic chorales, and the whole action is played against a backdrop of video projections by Brian Ashbee.

Abraham on Trial takes inspiration from the book of the same name by the anthropologist Carol Delaney, in which she “questions the foundations of the faith that made a virtue out of the willingness to sacrifice a child”. The opera’s creators have formulated this central issue in a way that is beautifully apt for the medium, taking up the notion of “hearing voices” common to the Abraham and Vallier stories and running with it, posing questions about the authority of the storyteller and drawing attention to characters whose voices have traditionally gone unheard. Andrew Lovett’s marvellously expressive vocal writing, recalling Luciano Berio at some climactic moments, was superbly realised by the five members of the Electric Voice Theatre. Immaculate diction ensured that not a syllable was lost. The rich baritone of Gwion Thomas was perfect for his several “authority figure” roles, and his portrayal of the detached curiosity of the psychiatrist in the second act was a highlight. James Meek’s more controlled baritone made him a rather understated Abraham, in keeping with the piece’s questioning of his traditional image; and the hauntingly pure tone of the counter-tenor David Sheppard brought something of the fragility of his first-act Isaac into his later portrayal of John Vallier. But it was in the female roles that the drama was really concentrated: Jenny Miller’s warm tone contrasted pleasingly with the straighter voices, and she carried off very convincingly a potentially awkward moment when Sarah’s voice is reduced to agonised mouthing. Frances M Lynch was a little mannered in her first guise as the boyish storyteller’s companion, but when we heard her at full throttle as Rosa she brought the work to a hair-raising climax.

KARIS MCKEE (Opera Magazine, August 2005, pp 995 - 996)

Superbly sung, with practically every word distinct, and digital electronic music never less than impressive, this is a modern opera on an ancient theme.

- Valerie Grosvenor Myer, Stage Online Reviews May 2005

The score for Abraham is one of the most potent and effective mixed pieces that I have experienced in over thirty years of being closely connected to the world of electroacoustic music.

- Dr Ian Cross Director of the Centre for Music and Science, Cambridge University

Lonely Sits the City (2009)

Solo soprano with electroacoustic music.

Premiered at the Junction Theatre, Cambridge (May 2009) by the Electric Voice Theatre (Frances M Lynch, soprano).

Duration: 30 minutes.

The libretto is derived from The Book of Lamentations from the Hebrew Bible. This text consists of five poems detailing the destruction of Jerusalem in 586BCE. This text has been set to music many times, usually in the context of mourning. Lonely Sits the City by contrast, is a dramatic setting and therefore draws on a much wider emotional range. A conceit of the original text is to personalise the city as a violated woman. This is taken further in the opera by treating this female voice as a real person, traumatised by the recent destruction of everything around her. The five poems are imagined as stations of grief: shock, anger, numbness, despair and finally acceptance. During the third section - the only poem which is definitely given from a male point of view - she collapses and listens to the distant despairing voice of a captive. At the end of the fourth (solo) section she finally has to decide whether she can continue. In choosing life - the fifth section - she is also determined to remember what has happened.

The piece is - deliberately - a virtuosic work for the soprano soloist, composed as a tribute to the extraordinary talents of long-time collaborator, Frances Lynch. The pre-composed music included five additional voices (a female chorus and a counter-tenor). These voices were projected through separate loudspeakers from different parts of the auditorium to create a highly dynamic theatre of sound. The electronic music also used samples from a re-created ancient Babylonian lyre. The text is heavily redacted and set in both Hebrew and English. The Hebrew letters - alef, bet, gimel, dalet, hey etc - are used to reflect the acrostic nature of the poems and the musical tradition of setting the letters as part of the text.

Don’t Breathe A Word (2005 - )

8 voices, 4 instruments and electronic music

Duration (estimated): (110 minutes)

Don’t Breathe A Word is a collaboration with award-winning dramatist Fraser Grace (Breakfast with Mugabe). A showcase workshop of three scenes was presented at The Colchester Arts Centre in May 2006 with members of the Electric Voice Theatre. The piece will be in two acts, each lasting approximately 60 minutes.

Following the workshop in Colchester, I was awarded an Arts Council Fellowship to attend the Banff Music Program Winter Residency in early 2007, during which I revised and completed a short score of the first act. Most recently, the Royal Opera House, London (ROH2 Opera Development) took over the project sponsoring a highly successful workshop in 2010, followed by the performance of an extract in their Exposure Series in the Linbury Theatre. This process continues with a further extract included in Exposure 2011 and planned workshop activity in 2011/2012.

The opera is set in the Central Asian, former Soviet republic of ‘Ushkent’. It tells the scandalous tale of a British Ambassador who falls in love with a local dancer – and dares to speak out against human rights abuses - committed by the Ushkenti government and excused by the West in its anxiety to prosecute the Global War on Terror. The Ambassador’s subsequent downfall is presented as a contemporary tragedy; a flawed man with a shred of decency who challenges authority and is destroyed by a warped and twisted moral universe.

Fraser’s libretto gives ample opportunity for humour and fun, passionate love-music, and deeply affecting scenes between the protagonist and his wife. The ending is ambiguous. The Ambassador’s career and family-life are in ruins, but his Ushkenti lover returns, cautioning him again: “Don’t breathe a word...”