“I I didn’t want a ready-made story,” says Tom Coult about his new opera. “A Greek myth or a Shakespeare or whatever. But I’m not good at making up stories – that’s not what I do. The 33-year-old composer drinks coffee in the sunshine outside a rehearsal room where he prepares for the premiere of Violet, the opening event of this year’s Aldeburgh Festival. And it boasts the work of its librettist, playwright Alice Birch, who also recently penned the screenplays for the TV adaptations of Sally Rooney’s Normal People and Conversations With Friends and the 2016 film Lady Macbeth. “I am in awe of writers. Get the most perfect sentence, the most perfect sentence, in a resonant way with the words. The idea of writing an opera with someone who has this particular quality is very exciting, and Alice has it in spades.
For someone who says he’s not good at making things up, Coult’s work so far seems to suggest a lifelong interest in making things up. I Find Planets, written last year, defines words generated by a Twitterbot that announces a new imaginary planet every hour; Codex (Tribute to Serafini) and Rainbow-Shooting Cloud Contraption, written in 2013, are inspired by his fascination with the Italian artist Luigi Serafini and his richly illustrated collection of imaginary objects, an encyclopedia of a parallel universe. Another inspiration was Heath Robinson, whose mechanical contraptions aren’t entirely fantastic but might as well be. And in St John’s Dance – a BBC commission that opened the 2017 Proms – its starting point was the unexplained medieval phenomenon of groups of people dancing spontaneously in a frenzy until they collapsed.
Violet is the first opera for Coult and Birch – “so it’s not a first language for any of us – I’m excited about it”. Coult has been preparing for it for several years, however. As a postgraduate student at King’s College London, he studied with George Benjamin, who had just completed his own internationally successful opera, Written on Skin. What did he learn from these studies? “Knowing where things are in someone’s voice and what is intelligible in different ranges of voice. It’s something I tried to think about a lot while writing Violet.
The premise of Violet’s story is consistent with Coult’s earlier work, in that it is a subversion of objective rationality: the inhabitants of a small, inward-looking village find that time itself “develops holes”, at the rate of an hour more each day. . “The first time to go is one to midnight, then two to midnight,” he says. “Around the 20th day, there are no more daylight hours. Day 23 only lasts one hour. There is something terrifying about this concept: when something that is supposed to be objective starts to break down. As for the title role, “Violet is the only character who, rather than just being terrified, is somehow overjoyed. She’s in a mind-numbing marriage in a mind-numbing village, and the way she sees that, at least somehow thing is happening.
Around Violet, however, things quickly begin to fall apart – which made the story oddly prescient when Coult realized that the opera’s planned summer 2020 premiere would be postponed indefinitely. “There’s a lot in Violet about how quickly society can crumble. It was very strange to see this happen and to have this as the reason why our production was cancelled. Coult watched 2020 go from his big year to a year of almost no performance.
Another great work of 2020, his violin concerto Pleasure Garden, was belatedly premiered by Daniel Pioro and the BBC Philharmonic last year (the London Philharmonic is bringing it to the Royal Festival Hall in October). It was the first of three major commissions Coult has lined up as a composer in association with the BBC Phil, a role he clearly enjoys. “After the pandemic and having to write for soloists or for Zoom performances, the absolute privilege of being able to think about orchestral music and stepping into a room with 80 of the most skilled musicians is properly magical.”
The same goes for being able to connect again with an audience in the concert hall. “I like the idea of managing the public’s time. They give me their ears for 15 minutes or half an hour or whatever, so how can I arrange that time as wonderfully as possible? I love this artisanal quality; that you should be a creator of wonderful things.
Violet inhabits darker territory than most of Coult’s work, but it still has the playful, playful qualities that characterize so much of his music. “I always think of composition as a game – which doesn’t mean it’s always about making jokes or anything like that, but trying stuff, you’re not necessarily goal-oriented. All the time. Whatever I’m writing for, whether it’s for a solo piano or a full orchestra, I treat it like a toy box. What interesting things can I put together? Imagining the most wonderful sounds I can – that’s what gets me out of bed in the morning.