Sometimes a single plot adjustment can turn one well-known story into another. Imagine if Madame Butterfly, abandoned by her husband, kills their child instead of herself: She'd become Medea.
The similarity appealed to English composer John Harris, who sprinkled allusions to Puccini's melodrama throughout the new chamber opera he wrote with Canadian playwright Marjorie Chan. They made the husband American, like Butterfly's Pinkerton, and put Medea's origins in the Middle East, which takes up as much space today in the Western imagination as the Far East did when Puccini wrote his opera.
The 90-minute piece, called M'dea Undone, gets its first performance Tuesday night in a Tapestry Opera production, directed by Tim Albery, at Toronto's Evergreen Brick Works. That raw industrial space seems apt for what Harris describes as an attempt to scrape down to the core of the ancient Greek story, minus its supernatural elements.
"We felt that in Euripides's original play, Medea gets let off the hook," says the 44-year-old Harris, during a break in rehearsals. "She can do all this terrible stuff and then hop into a chariot provided by her grandfather the sun god, and fly away. The other problem we had was that she's always portrayed as a witch, someone with special powers. We thought that if you take those things away from her and make her an ordinary human being, the story becomes infinitely more disturbing. You have to understand her motivations in human terms."
The work has been six years in the making, though much of what will be seen and heard at the premiere is scarcely dry on the page.
"I've basically rewritten the whole thing since December," says Harris, his head dropping as he recounts all the times that he and Chan had revised and rewritten before then. M'dea Undone is the hard aftermath of a Tapestry workshop in 2009, when Chan and Harris, who had just met, were told to pull a scene from Euripides's play and make it a singable drama within a few days.
Tapestry subsequently commissioned a full chamber opera on the subject with Glasgow's Scottish Opera, which had produced a short piece by Harris and his wife, Zinnie Harris, also in 2009. His works as a composer had till then been mostly for theatre productions – a background that helped shape his attitude toward setting words to music.
"All the lines in the opera follow speech intonations of one kind or another," he says. He seems both shocked and amused by an opera composer's power to impose an exact pace and shape on what comes out of the performers' mouths. "Imagine a playwright trying that," he says.
He was thrilled, he says, when Tim Albery agreed to direct. The English director has staged several productions for the Canadian Opera Company but also has an extensive résumé in theatre. "He likes everything to go at dramatic speed," Harris says, which means treating the opera more as a sung play than a composition with words.
The piece is written for four singers – Lauren Segal, Peter Barrett, James McLean and Jacqueline Woodley – seven strings and electronic tape. The recorded rehearsal excerpts I heard show a lean, tense and rather slippery kind of music, with lots of room for the voices.
"It rarely settles to a key," Harris says. "It's doggedly bitonal." The divided focus is less about representing cultural difference, he says, than psychological conflict, as Medea tries to find her place in a foreign land – the United States – while her relationship crumbles.
The electronic bits are mostly built up from sine tones, the simplest of musical elements. "They're like Lego, you can do anything with them," he says. "I like to build things on top of them."
Harris followed an unusual path toward opera. He studied physics and metallurgy at Oxford University, where he was also an organ scholar, and composition at Glasgow's Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. When he was 19, he busked across Canada as an organist, pitching his talents to churches and often sleeping there after his performances.
He has held several positions as organist, including one at the elite Edinburgh school where Tony Blair studied, while gradually building his reputation as a theatre composer. He took over directorship of Edinburgh's Paragon Ensemble in 2001, and began to focus more on "pure" music, and opera.
While working on M'dea Undone, he and Zinnie Harris wrote The Garden, a 40-minute piece first done in Edinburgh in 2012, for two singing actors, DX7 keyboard and computer. The voices, he says, moved along a continuum between speech and song, sometimes over drones and pedal-tones – a natural choice for an organist, perhaps, but one that he says helped mediate between sung and spoken text.
His work with Chan, he says, "has been a process of honing down to this lean muscular thing, where there's nothing really extra on it." Even the original scene they wrote in 2009 turned out to be "extra" – it was dropped from the piece by the final cut. Like Medea, they had to kill their darlings.
M'dea Undone runs at the
Evergreen Brick Works in Toronto from Tuesday through Friday