Julian Philips talkes to Terry Grimley about Varjak Paw, his opera for families and kids.
Julian Philips was staying in a palazzo in Umbria last week when he called me via his laptop to talk about his new family opera, Varjak Paw.
He was the guest of the Civitella Ranieri foundation, an American cultural charity set up by multi-millionairess Ursula Corning, which offers the inspiring equivalent of a weekend hideaway for creative artists.
“Quite a lot of British composers have been here – Jonathan Dove, Richard Causton, Thomas Ades,” he said. “I’m trying to finish an opera for Glyndebourne and planning another piece for them for 2010 which is a sort of community opera.”
Philips, who was born in Cardiff in 1969 but moved to Warwickshire at the age of 10 – his parents still live in Leamington – is currently composer-in-residence at Glyndebourne. Theatre of one kind or another has played a significant role in his career, including dance collaborations with leading choreographer Michael Corder.
That trend seems to have been set at the outset, when he wrote incidental music for school productions while a pupil at Warwick School. He remembers his formative experience of music in the West Midlands being primarily about participation.
“I played in the Coventry Youth Orchestra all the way through school, and to be fair Warwick School did lots of music. There was no kind of masterplan, but I had always written theatre music at school and then when I was finding my feet I drifted into writing theatre music and over a period of about six years did two or three shows a year.
“What appeals to me is the idea of being a composer in some sort of collaborative context where you’re not in an ivory tower but working with other people. I think the more collaborative a project is, the more engaged I become.
Even when I’m writing instrumental pieces I feel the more involved you are with the players the better your chances.”
Contemporary opera seems to have split into two contrasting camps. While new full-scale pieces like James MacMillan’s The Sacrifice, staged by Welsh National Opera last year, remain rarities there is a thriving area of small-scale pieces being enterprising companies like The Opera Group, which commissioned Varjak Paw.
“The James MacMillan opera was a grand opera, a Verdian way of making opera, and at the moment I don’t see how I would be able to make something of that grandiloquence and scale,” says Philips.
“My feeling is the more interesting work is on a reduced scale, whether it’s opera or music theatre, because there’s something about grand opera that’s out of synch with the wider culture at the moment.
“There are some composers like Philip Glass who famously has found a way of making the form his own, but I think when you set out to write a piece nowadays you really have to decide whether it’s an opera and why this story has to be told in music.
“Varjak Paw was very much led by John Fulljames, the artistic director of Opera Group. They have commissioned a lot of composers, and it came out of a conversation about whether I would be interested in writing an opera intended to have a wide appeal that we could present as a family show.”
Looking through a number of books in search of a likely subject, they came across S F Said’s two best-selling books about the adventures of a Mesopotamian Blue kitten.
“When I read the first one I thought there was something in it because it’s all magic and poetry. The characters are all cats except for one dog, and the fact that you have to put yourself in that world from the outset establishes that this is a magic fantasy world. Then it was a question of finding a librettists and that’s where Kit Hesketh-Harvey came in.”
The opera’s hero is forced by the arrival of interlopers to step outside his home on the hill for the first time and seek help on unfamiliar city streets. It offers the opportunity to incorporate elements of popular urban styles of music into a piece which needed anyway to be accessible to a non-specialist contemporary music audience.
“There are composers who have found a way of writing an operatic style of music, but I think I’m more interested in basing the music on character. At the same time I would like to think the piece is not overly eclectic because I constructed it very carefully to try to get a through-line in the music.
“Because it’s a family show, on the one hand I would like it to be direct and clear, but on the other hand I don’t want it to be anodyne or unambitious. The imagery may suggest a certain kind of music, but you’re always wanting it to sound familiar but intriguing at the same moment. You don’t want it to sound like it’s just a cod swing number.”
Though wary of the term “world music”, Philips has taken advantage of the hero’s ancestry to add an Arabic tinge to the score, and was pleased to find that it was S F Said’s favourite sequence. Philips says that he wants his music to reflect the variety of music around him, so what kind of things does he listen to?
“The listening I do does tend to relate to what I’m working on. Recently I’ve been listening to lots of operas, old and new, by lots of different composers – Barry, Birtwistle, Dove, Andriessen, Glass, John Adams.
“I’ve always been quite a big Tippett fan, to the extent that I’ve had to push that influence away. I’ve been listening to Kaija Saariaho who has written two operas, and even though the way she writes music is nothing like me, I think the texture of her music is wonderful. And then there are some American composers like John Harbison – he’s writing very traditionally but with great integrity. To be able to write music that sounds familiar and approachable but fresh and engaging, not many composers can do that.”
Opera may have the attraction of allowing composers some latitude in mixing styles, but when it comes to concert music, isn’t the almost infinite range of possibilities open to them today a problem for a young composer looking for a personal style?
“The best advice you can give a composer on how to find a personal voice is by not looking for it. The only thing you can be is intuitive, however out of kilter it may be with what’s going on around you, or you might as well not write.
“But you have to have open ears to everything. Sometimes you learn more from composers whose work is nothing like your own than you do from those composers who seem a bit like you.”
* The Opera Group presents Varjak Paw at Warwick Arts Centre from tonight until Saturday at 7.30pm, plus Saturday at 2.30pm (Box office: 024 7652 4524).