Longer term readers of this blog will know that I have, for some time, been grappling with the challenge of writing my first opera. Considering the amount of composing I have done even typing that previous phrase makes chuckle. It feels akin to a novice hill walker claiming that they’re going to climb Everest. My piece is no Ring Cycle thankfully, clocking in at a modest 45 minutes.
Opera writing, as I have discovered, is really rather difficult – but after 2 or 3 false starts, I finally have a complete work, fully scored, ready to road test on a bunch of unsuspecting singers and instrumentalists. Whilst, the estates of Britten and Stravinsky need not feel troubled by a new kid on the block I reckon, whatever it’s artistic worth, it has the potential to be an affecting drama. Certainly, it’s short story source is a rightly celebrated piece of horror writing and it’s high time the story was presented in musical form. You can read the original story here. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/12122/12122-h/12122-h.htm
So without further ado, a few of my notes from the soon to be launched “The Monkey’s Paw -The Opera” website, ably put together by my lyricist, Alasdair King. Have a read, and if you’re interested in finding out more, drop me a message!
“Be careful what you wish for, you may receive it”
The Monkey’s Paw is a one-act opera in 3 scenes with music by Richard Townhill, libretto by Alasdair King, from the short story by W W Jacobs.
We have set it in a small town somewhere in Yorkshire probably at the turn of the 20th century.
- Scene 1 – The White’s House, living room, Autumn, a stormy evening
- Scene 2 – The White’s House, living room, the following morning.
- Scene 3 – The White’s House, living room, evening a couple of weeks later
W W Jacobs was primarily comedy writer who wrote mainly at the end of the 19th century. However it his creepy masterpiece the monkey’s paw for which he is best known. I first came across the Monkeys Paw as a young boy in the form of a short stage play. My father, teacher at a prep boarding school ran a play reading society as one of the evening activities for the students. Every Friday evening during term time, they would tramp across the school playing fields to our house and plough their way through mainly creaky old early twentieth century comedies and melodramas. It was an annual tradition that the first play of each year would always be the creepy ghost story, The Monkey’s Paw. The basic plot revolved round a small family, the Whites, father, mother and son Herbert and an evening spent with a mysterious Sergeant Major who ends up selling them the eponymous paw, having convinced them that it has the power to grant them 3 wishes.
As the story unfolds, the first wish does indeed come true, but the byproduct of this is the death of the Whites’ son. The climax of the piece sees the Whites wishing their son alive again and the creepy denouement is played out as the undead Herbert bashes manically on the front door as the White’s struggle with each other and their consciences regarding what it would mean to let him in.
I used to have fun each year, playing the undead Herbert banging relentlessly on the door at the appropriate moment, scaring the unsuspecting students witless.
It always struck me that it made the perfect little ghost story, reliant on nothing more than a sound effect for its scares. Likewise, the heightened melodrama of the situation seems to fit the heightened reality of the opera house, and thus many years after my first exposure to the piece, The Monkey’s Paw – the opera is born.
Cast and Orchestra
Mr White (Father) – High Baritone
The weight of the world hangs heavy on Mr White’s shoulders – a man ground down by a life of hard work and meagre pay. Tinged with sadness he looks back on a life of ordinariness and missed opportunities.
Mrs White (Mother) – Mezzo Soprano
Mrs White tries hard to envelop her little family with love and happiness. She is particularly close to her son Herbert, overly protective perhaps, after the death of Herbert’s elder brother in childhood.
Herbert – Tenor
Unlike his father, Herbert is at the start of his working life, full of optimism and ambition. He is generous to a fault.
Sergeant Major Morris – Baritone
A weary old soldier full of tales of his adventures in the farthest flung corners of the British Empire. But is he more than that? He brings to the White’s attention the story of the Monkey’s Paw, thus setting the ball rolling as the family head towards their final fate.
Mr Browning – Bass
The man from the factory, given the unenviable task of delivering the baddest of news to the Whites.
Choir – Soprano, Tenor, Alto, Bass
Providing atmospheric support.
- Harmonium (or Reed Organ)
- Timpani and Percussion
Notes on the music
The Hymn Tune
The Day Thou Gavest, Lord is ended first appeared in the English Hymnal in 1874. It is one of the most popular of all of English hymns, and is also a regular choice of hymn at funerals, the sentiment of the words and the gentle lilt of its waltz time melody providing calm and comfort. The melody and words appear throughout the opera, often representing the closeness between Herbert and his Mother. It is also used when Father puts all his faith in the power of the Monkey’s Paw. At the end of the opera, we hear the tune and words for its original purpose – as a funeral hymn.
The Folk Songs
A number of folk tunes can be heard, often sung by the off stage choir, reminding us of the time and place the story takes place in.
Keep that wheel a turning – often sung by the men of the choir, tells of the working man and the rise of industry.
The Beverley Maid and the Tinker is a nineteenth century love ballad. Mother sings it as she waits for her son to return home from work.
The Nursery Rhyme
Mother and Herbert are close, often to the exclusion of Father. They often joke together, singing their own nursery rhyme melody, much to the annoyance of Father.
The choir have a number of roles in the opera. Primarily, they act as part of the orchestra providing (always offstage) vocal tone colour. They also represent, at times, the men and women of the village, and to some extent the inner voices of Father’s temptation, presented to him by the Sergeant Major.
This strange hybrid instrument, a cross between a church organ and a folk accordion, perfectly represents this life of small town community and strong religious faith.
Different types of bells are used throughout the opera. The glockenspiel, the sound of the mantelpiece clock or a nursery music box – represents the warmth and safety of the home and family. The vibraphone, the only instrument in this orchestra to have an electric component, is the otherworldly sound of the magical paw and its ability to grant wishes. Finger cymbals evoke the sounds of the exotic east as Morris sings of his time abroad. The anvil, not strictly a bell, but still metallic and struck with a metal hammer, is the sound of the factory – not least the grind of machinery which results in Herbert’s death. Lastly, the tubular bell is naturally the toll of the funeral bell.
The violin has long been considered the devil’s instrument and is often used by composers (particularly when played double stopped) to represent Satan’s malevolence. It is also the instrument the soldier plays in Stravinsky’s
The Soldier’s Tale, which he sells to the devil. In
The Monkey’s Paw, Morris is both a soldier and a devilish Mephistopheles, presenting temptation to the family. Thus it is only right that the violin plays his themes.
Whilst marching drums also represent Morris, they also tap out seductive tango rhythms as he tempts the family. Also, time and again we hear the ratatatatat of the drums forshadowing the devilish knocking on the door by Herbert at the end of the opera.
The door knocks
Ratatatatat. The turning point in each scene is always a knock on the door. Always the same rhythm. Always looking towards the devastating climax of the opera. Herbert’s door knocks in the final scene start as before, a quiet ratatatatat – before crescendoing to a violent relentless bashing of the door. In no way should this be connected to the music on the stage – rather, the singers and musicians need to carry on with their show, despite the noisy offputting pounding of the door.
So there you have it. If you’re an opera or music group looking to try something new we’d love to hear from you. I hope it won’t be too long before I’m able to report on “The Monkey’s Paw’s” transformation from notes on the page to spooky live drama!
Some great programmes coming up from a number of my favourite orchestras and bands that I get to play with:
Wilmslow Symphony Orchestra – this Saturday 6 June.
Cheshire Sinfonia – Saturday 20 June
Lostock Funk Band – Friday 19 June, Saturday 4 July
All details at my previous post here!