Christopher Morley gets the lowdown on the Virgin Queen from Robin Grant...
Queen Elizabeth I and her court have exerted an immense fascination for operatic composers over several centuries.
Rossini, Donizetti and Britten are names which immediately come to mind, and to these can now be added Robin Grant.
Grant?s two-act opera Dee is premiered by Birmingham Conservatoire (which commissioned it) tonight, and comes about through the composer?s chance television channel-hopping to Channel 4.
?I started to watch this documentary about John Dee, Queen Elizabeth?s astrologer,? the Bilston-born composer tells me, ?and I had a huge sense of excitement even from the opening credits. So I video?d the programme, and was spellbound.
?Later I showed the video to Peter Cann, a librettist with whom I?ve worked before, and who is local (which is important), and he was intrigued, too. I bought the novel The Queen?s Conjuror by Benjamin Woolley, and was further hooked.?
John Dee was a complex personality: astronomer, alchemist, bibliophile and one-time close confidant and advisor to Queen Elizabeth I.
With his collaborator, Edward Kelley, Dee sought to communicate with angels via a scrying stone, in the belief that they would reveal to him the secrets of the Philosopher?s Stone (which turns all base metals into gold), but his increasing obsession with deciphering their patterns of communication (dictated to him by Kelley) ultimately led to his downfall.
Grant has mirrored all these layers of activity within Dee?s story by carefully allocating specific verbal rhythms to the different types of character within the narrative. Only Dee himself has varying speechpatterns, according to his various states of trance whilst receiving messages from the angels.
Though the opera begins with Elizabeth?s coronation, the Queen herself remains a minor presence. This big scene involving chorus is interleaved by more intimate episodes, the style of music changing as the characters develop.
A more prominent character is Sir Francis Walsingham, one-time ambassador to France, and, in the 1570s, Principal Secretary of State. Today he would be called Home Secretary, and had the responsibility of maintaining a network of spies who helped him uncover several Catholic plots against the Queen. Not for nothing has his regime been described as a police state.
?As it was written for students, I wanted as many named characters as possible,? explains Grant. So the list of personages is large, and is double-cast for the four performances of Dee?s run.
Grant?s orchestra for Dee is compact and versatile, with a quintet of solo woodwind plus horn, a carefully specified number of strings, two offstage trumpets in the Coronation Scene, a harp, a harpsichordist doubling synthesizer, and one percussionist, among whose armoury can be found a Sanctus bell, a lion?s roar, and a variety of children?s instruments.
The renowned operatic conductor Andrew Greenwood is on the podium.
As an experienced composer of community music and for music involving schoolchildren, Robin Grant has composed his opera with the intention that it should express itself without any prior preparation from audiences.
?It?s not written for a contemporary music audience, it?s written for everyone,? he declares. ?It was always the theatrical experience which was of main importance.
?In fact Peter Cann always refers to it as ?a play?, Michael Barry, the director, insists on calling it ?a film score?. I think it?s only me who calls it an opera!?
* Robin Grant?s Dee is premiered by Birmingham Conservatoire?s School of Vocal and Operatic Studies at the Crescent Theatre, Birmingham tonight, and continues tomorrow and Saturday (7.30pm).
There is also a matinee on Saturday (2.30pm). Details on 0121 643 5858.