Caro Meets Opera Interview

Tarik O’Regan: The Wanton Sublime

By | Published on Thursday 20 August 2015

Next week at Arcola Theatre Londoners will get the chance to see a brilliant operatic double bill, of ‘The Wanton Sublime’ by Tarik O’Regan and ‘The Medium’ by Peter Maxwell Davies, starring US mezzo-soprano Hai-Ting Chinn.


To find out more about the performance, I spoke to acclaimed composer Tarik O’Regan, who told me all about ‘The Wanton Sublime’, a collaboration with writer Anna Rabinowitz, and a bit about his career and upcoming projects.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about ‘The Wanton Sublime’? What themes does it revolve around?
TO’R: The Wanton Sublime is based on a book-length poem of the same name by Anna Rabinowitz, who also wrote the libretto. At its simplest, the show is about iconography. In particular, its themes focus on the interplay between the iconic image of the Virgin Mary and her physical being.

CM: What made you want to create a piece involving these themes?
TO’R: I’ve always been interested in parallel narratives. My first opera was an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’, in which the protagonist is situated in two different places and times: the Thames in his old age, and Equatorial Africa in his youth. ‘The Wanton Sublime’ feels very connected to this for me, because what I feel has been distilled from Anna’s poem into the libretto is an exploration of the parallel human and mythic aspects of Mary.

CM: How would you describe the music you’ve written for this?
TO’R: It’s a half-hour monodrama for mezzo-soprano (Hai-Ting Chinn) and nine-piece band (The Orpheus Sinfonia, conducted by Andrew Griffiths). The instrumentation of the ensemble gives weight to the narrative bifurcation: at times it is light and celestial (strings and soloflute), and on other occasions heavy and of the earth (electric guitars and percussion). The voice of Mary, although sometimes fragmented and layered, inhabits the territory in between. This musical drama is played out in mosaic form, with small glimpses of thematic ideas repeated and combined in differing combinations throughout the work.

CM: Did you work directly with Anna Rabinowitz on the project, or did you work separately? How did your collaboration come about?
TO’R: ‘The Wanton Sublime’ was commissioned by American Opera Projects (AOP) in Brooklyn, New York. AOP had worked with me before when they’d helped develop ‘Heart of Darkness’. It was AOP who brought Anna’s poem to my attention; prior to that, I knew her work only from another operatic adaptation (‘Darkling’ by Stefan Weisman). Before anything was committed to paper, we worked closely together (discussing logistical as well as thematic ideas); Anna then created a first draft of the libretto. After further tweaking (a normal and valuable process with any musical stage work), I went away and completed the score, which then underwent further workshops by AOP before it was premiered in New York last year.

CM: Your piece is being staged as part of a double bill alongside ‘The Medium’ by Peter Maxwell Davies. How did this come about? Do the opera complement each other, do you think?
TO’R: The pairing is the idea of Robert Shaw, who is directing both works. I think it’s a great idea, and I can’t wait to sit in the audience and hear each work in context. They are both pieces which explore multiple identities in a single character. Because Max and I have scored our pieces for mezzo-soprano, Hai-Ting Chinn will perform both works, lending the evening an additional binding layer.

CM: Can you tell us something about your career? Did you always want to be a composer? What steps did you go through to become one?
TO’R: I had great teachers at school and university (where I studied music), but I was certainly never a prodigy. Despite it being my goal back then, I didn’t think it was possible to make a living as a composer; in fact I spent time working at an investment bank during and after my undergraduate studies. My composing was helped along the way by many people and organizations who gave advice, commissions and general support. It was my moving to New York City in 2004 as a Fulbright Fellow which opened my eyes to just how provincial the classical music world is. I was surprised at how little Londoners and New Yorkers knew of each other’s music scenes. I don’t think anything has changed significantly since then, unfortunately. But something positive that came out of that discovery was that a key step for me became to focus on working in as many different territories as possible. I now divide my time between the USA (New York City) and the UK (Cambridge), but spend a good quarter of the year in neither place, working on various projects around the world.

CM: What other projects are you currently working on?
TO’R: It’s always a mixture of composing and preparation at any one time. Right now I’m working on a full-length orchestral ballet score for the Dutch National Ballet. It’s a massive project, based on the life of Mata Hari, and it opens in February. I’ve also just recorded a new album with The Hallé Orchestra for the NMC label, which will very shortly need to be edited and produced in time for its 2016 release. There’s also a concert of my stuff at Carnegie Hall in November, which I’m greatly looking forward to.

‘The Wanton Sublime’ and ‘The Medium’ are on at Arcola Theatre from 25 to 29 August. See this page here for more info and tickets.

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