Classical Music Magazine interview with Tarik O'Regan
BBC News interview with Alice Goodman
New York Times feature
I was drawn to the idea of poise, something which came directly from Alice's libretto. By which I mean both the intricate way in which parchment was made in 1215 (and which Alice references in her text), but also the delicate nature of arriving at the wording which was written upon that parchment 800 year ago, and its subsequent interpretations. As a result, A Letter of Rights has a ritualistic quality to it: palindromic, divided into several text-driven movements interconnected by instrumental interludes for strings and percussion.
Amongst the treasures of Salisbury Cathedral is one of the finest of the few surviving copies of Magna Carta. To all intents and purposes it is a holy relic. It was the fact of the Cathedral’s possession of this copy of Magna Carta that motivated the Canon Chancellor to ask me to write something for this concert. So I began writing with a sense of the importance of the document itself, the piece of parchment to which King John fixed his seal. As I wrote, I discovered the paradoxes of the Great Charter; how quickly it was annulled, how little of it still matters to us, and yet how long and how powerful its continuing life has been, and how much we owe to it and rely upon it.
The cantata explores the text of clauses 39 and 40 (a right to due legal process) in the Great Charter of 1215: Magna Carta. The musical structure is formed of eight sections separated by short instrumental interludes, and is framed by a prelude and postlude. It is palindromic, with ‘The wording’ (Section 5) at its axis.
But something comes before the text, before the pen curves through the air to form the first capital. That is the ground on which the letter is set: the parchment. Since the making of parchment requires the shedding of blood, this is where we begin.
c. 40 minutes
– Percussion (one player): Tubular bells (positioned offstage, as far from the orchestra and chorus as is practicably possible. Pitches required: D4, F4)/Crotales (two octaves)/Large orchestral bass drum
– SATB Chorus (from which are drawn Soloists in all voice parts and a Semichorus, which should be formed of approximately a quarter of the singers in the Chorus, with a minimum of two singers per part; the minimum number of singers in the Chorus is 16).
– Strings: there should be an equal number of players for Violin I, Violin II, Viola and Cello; 188.8.131.52.1 is the minimum number of players required (examples of larger forces might be 184.108.40.206.2 or 10.10.10.10.4); a low-C extension for the Double Basses is required by at least one player.
O’Regan and Australian composer Nick Wales have worked a minor miracle by seamlessly fusing the a cappella original with new electronic music that frames, offsets and enhances to create something that they call Dance Score...I frequently found myself writing phrases like: “this is so beautiful” – and it is, again and again.
Bonachela’s achieves that sublime experience when music, movement and design coming together in euphoric alchemy: the choreography and the score seem to describe each other perfectly, seem so perfectly enmeshed as an organic whole that it’s hard to imagine one without the other.
Time Out Sydney
An enticing half-hour dance score that deserves more than one hearing.
Sydney Morning Herald
Endlessly fascinating...undeniably thrilling.
Sydney Morning Herald
c. 30 minutes
1. Fragmented Dimensions I
2. Scattered Rhymes I
3. Fragmented Dimensions II
4. Scattered Rhymes II
5. Fragmented Dimensions III
6. Scattered Rhymes III
Scattered Rhymes I/II/III composed by Tarik O’Regan (recording by Orlando Consort, Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, conducted by Paul Hillier: Harmonia Mundi USA HMU807469). Copyright © 2006 Music Sales Classical. Fragmented Dimensions I/II/III composed by Nick Wales and Tarik O’Regan, using samples from Scattered Rhymes (recording mixed by Bob Scott). Copyright © 2014 Nick Wales/Music Sales Classical
c. 30 minutes
– Pre-recorded mezzo soprano
– Flute (doubling Piccolo)
– Percussion (two players, sharing: small drum kit [consisting of bass drum, snare drum, hi-hat, ride cymbal, crash cymbal]/tam-tam/crotales [two octaves]/marimba/vibraphone/glockenspiel/two goblet drums/tubular bells [two pitches needed: C-sharp and E above Middle C]/sizzle cymbal/large suspended cymbal/zills/cabasa)
– Acoustic guitar (doubling Electric guitar)
– Electric guitar (doubling four-string Electric bass guitar)
– Double bass (optional with bass extension)
Conductor: Tyson Deaton; Director: Mallory Catlett; Lighting Designer: Jeanette Yew; Sound Designer: Charles Hagaman; Cast: Hai-Ting Chinn; Orchestra: American Modern Ensemble
The brilliance of Tarik O'Regan and Tom Phillips's new chamber opera lies in its ability to convey all that horror without the compulsion to show it - the ultimate psychodrama - and to employ music of startling beauty to tell such a brutal tale [...] Underpinning all this is a score of concise originality. Restless, leaping woodwind propel the narrative through the murky waters of the Congo, while interesting combinations of sonorities - double bass and classical guitar, for instance - trickle and bubble through the music. Just 14 instrumentalists keep the singers afloat on this quirkily beautiful raft, expertly steered by conductor Oliver Gooch.
For my money, O'Regan is one of the great hopes for British music in the 21st century. I've been engaged, excited and entranced by his development [...] and this piece - his biggest undertaking to date - is obviously a landmark. With a libretto by the polymath artist/writer/genial giant Tom Phillips, it turned out to be a viable score that holds attention, sustains pace, and draws your ear into a magical and haunting sound-world, frequently sustained by a symphonic kind of writing for the voices - all of which places it head and shoulders among the vast majority of new music-theatre pieces that come along these days.
Tarik O'Regan's Conrad adaptation is an audacious, handsome debut [...] The craftsmanship of this first opera is indubitable, the horror muted by curatorial delicacy.
The Independent On Sunday
'Heart of Darkness' is very good. If you think of opera as an often bloated, over-wrought art form with hammy plots and acting, you would do well to try this one. It is elegant, moving, and, at just 75 minutes, short enough to allow time for dinner afterward.
The Wall Street Journal
The most striking achievement of Tarik O’Regan’s new work at Covent Garden’s Linbury Studio is to transform [the novel] into a compellingly taut evening of music theatre. O’Regan’s ... pacing is secure and varied – he avoids the meandering parlando of so much new opera.
This neat production, mounted by Opera East and ROH2, has no time to babble. Floridly lyrical, instrumentalists from the spunky ensemble Chroma brightly chatter, especially winds, harp and celesta [...] in the music’s clarity and harmonic sting. Worth seeing [...] and it’s short.
The orchestral writing is richly coloured and imaginative. [Kurtz's] manic aria, inexorably repeating the single ironic phrase 'I am glad’, has a charged intensity [...] O'Regan should be given another commission.
At around 75 minutes, the result is swift and well paced, with no individual scene lasting longer than it should. The opera demonstrates O'Regan's wide range of technical skills. The vocal writing is skilful and effective.
The sound-worlds [O'Regan] conjures up with the Chroma Orchestra's percussion, woodwind, strings, harp, and celeste are very beguiling.
Fluidly conversational while suggestive of the ambivalences and dark enigmas that underlie the story.
O’Regan and Phillips have created an atmospheric psychological drama. Reflecting O’Regan’s transatlantic existence, his score references the anguished coiled chromatic vocal phrases of Benjamin Britten and the clean metrics of American minimalism, as well as including an exuberant dance to celebrate the arrival of vital, ship-repair-enabling rivets.
Careful not to bite off more than he could chew, operatic first-timer Tarik O'Regan focused his efforts on a chamber adaptation of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and its sell-out run at the Linbury Theatre (in a co-production with pioneering Opera East) more than made up for any lack of scandal. Charting a captain's journey into the nadir of colonialism, O'Regan's [...] burst out of the chamber opera confines and within 75 minutes O’Regan and librettist Tom Phillips told a vivid tug-of-war between society and despair. There's surely further operatic gold waiting for O'Regan.
Classical Music Magazine
This is a thrilling new work, in a brilliantly realised production. I hope I get the opportunity to see it again soon [...] The handling of form and pace is superb. Marlow’s journey is swift but the composer allows for moments of repose and reflection, effortlessly and almost imperceptibly altering tempo and metre, register and colour.
...this is a terrific new work, intelligently staged and magnificently performed [...] Taken as a whole, Heart of Darkness has more going for it that many new operas, and I left the auditorium longing to hear it again - preferably immediately, certainly soon. The tour mooted for 2012 cannot happen quickly enough.
A well-crafted, well-executed work, which, whatever the future may hold, permits of not only a satisfying but at times moving evening in the theatre. How refreshing it was, then, to experience a work and production that spoke of true collaboration.
Seen and Heard International
Tarik O'Regan's first step into operatic waters [is] fat-free and tautly structured [and] makes for a gripping 75 minutes. There aren't many tickets left, but do grab one if you can – and a spare for your friend who doesn't really like opera. This is the sort of production that might just change their mind.
[With] wonderful orchestral touches [...] O’Regan has perfected the art of allowing the ensemble to function as a giant percussive instrument in choppier moments of tension. Overall Philips and O’Regan’s Heart of Darkness treats a sinister and multi-layered subject with imagination and artistic flair and the small cast impressive [...] as thought-provoking and successful as any adaption of Conrad’s symbolic frame-narrative can be.
Heart of Darkness managed what a lot of contemporary opera does not care about, emotion. The woven textures of the score and the beautiful singing by the dedicated cast was a joy to listen to, but more importantly an emotional experience, like the best of opera it touched the audience.
O’Regan’s first opera (he is only 33) is a mature representation of a difficult theme, which is both engaging and disturbing, though never dull.
Show Me Something Interesting/James Edward Hughes
Wow! This was a remarkable achievement by 33 year old composer Tarik O’Regan, along with a libretto by artist Tom Phillips. They have packed Joseph Conrad’s novella into 75 minutes of gripping musical narrative [...] nothing is hurried, everything is accomplished.
Mark Ronan's Theatre Reviews
It is a struggle that this opera reflects well, leaving the audience, like Marlow’s audience, contemplating a complex and enigmatically revealing vision.
The Joseph Conrad Society
c. 75 minutes
MARLOW (tenor): an old seafarer who tells of his early employ as the captain of a steamboat on an expedition to Central Africa
THE THAMES CAPTAIN (baritone): a captain of a ship moored in the Thames Estuary, and witness to Marlow’s tale
THE COMPANY SECRETARY (tenor): based at the Company’s headquarters in Europe
THE DOCTOR (baritone): also based at the Company’s headquarters
THE ACCOUNTANT (tenor): the Company’s chief accountant, based at an outer trading station
THE MANAGER (tenor): a Company manager, in charge of Marlow’s expedition
THE BOILERMAKER (baritone): based at the central trading station
THE HELMSMAN (tenor): on Marlow’s steamboat
KURTZ (bass): an ivory trader
THE HARLEQUIN (tenor): in Kurtz’s entourage
THE RIVER WOMAN (soprano): also in Kurtz’s entourage
THE FIANCÉE (soprano): Kurtz’s fiancée in Europe
It is possible to double-cast several of the characters, allowing the opera to be performed with as few as eight singers. A combination of both single- and double-casting is also possible. Character doublings are: The Company Secretary and The Manager (tenor); The Doctor and The Boilermaker (baritone); The Accountant and The Helmsman (tenor); The River Woman and The Fiancée (soprano).
– Flute, doubling Piccolo and Alto Flute
– Clarinet 1 in B-flat, doubling E-flat Clarinet and Bass Clarinet
– Clarinet 2 in B-flat, doubling Bass Clarinet
– French Horn
– Percussion (1 player): Vibraphone, Tubular Bells (range C-sharp 4 - D-sharp 5), Glockenspiel, Crotales (2-octave set from C), Tambourine, Triangle, Sizzle Cymbal, Large Suspended Cymbal, Large Tam-Tam, Snare Drum, Goblet Drum, 4 Tom-Toms, Bass Drum
– Acoustic Guitar, with clean amplification, doubling Electric Bass Guitar
– Piano, doubling Celesta, Harpsichord and Chamber Organ (Acoustic instruments should be used wherever possible. If this proves difficult, high quality digital alternatives - e.g. Roland C-30 or C-80 - may be used.)
– 2 Violins
– 2 Cellos
– Double Bass, with low C extension
Extraordinary beauty: so strongly tonal that the use of dissonance in it can be as stunning, sometimes, as Josquin DesPrez or Carlo Gesualdo. A hugely unusual success.
Young composer Tarik O’Regan’s star is now rising at such a velocity that to describe him as “up and coming” feels decidedly passé. His compositional style, a captivating extension of the English choral tradition, coloured by American minimalism and set within a largely tonal and modal harmonic language, has the quality of being both accessible to the masses and complex enough for the cognoscenti. O’Regan’s major new choral work, Acallam na Senórach / An Irish Colloquy is a setting of one of the longest-surviving works of medieval literature. O’Regan’s beautifully conceived and striking work presents six of these short stories over the course of 60 minutes. His forces are comparatively small – a 16-strong choir singing in English and Middle Irish, a solo guitar, and two bodhráin (traditional Irish frame drum) parts. However, the resultant sound is rich indeed. Sometimes exhilarating, always atmospheric, the work demonstrates O’Regan’s natural feel for the voice, his deftly multi-textured part-writing, and his strong rhythms. Aside from the sheer quality of their overall sound, there’s a lovely sense of intimacy and wonder-filled narration. All told, this is yet another beautiful Tarik O’Regan disc for Harmonia Mundi.BBC Music
Threshold of Night marked O’Regan’s coming of age in terms of international recognition, garnering him two Grammy nominations. The 33-year-old Brit has established himself as one of the premier young composers today, with over 90 compositions and over 20 recordings. You can’t ask for much more than that at his age. Acallam na Senórach (The Colloquy of the Ancients) is Ireland’s most famous and perhaps longest narrative going back to the 12th century. In this reduction there are only a few tales related, the chorus covering all parts, while a sketched outline of the whole is maintained. A guitar is used to represent Cas Corach, the musician of the underworld, and the integrity of the story in marvelously scattered among chorus and guitar. This was an easy hour to spend, and I was engrossed the entire time, spending much of it enjoying Harmonia mundi’s usual high production values and excellent booklet. The surround sound is well-nigh perfect. Enthusiastically recommended!
The music avoids cliché yet still evokes a palpable sense of ancient history and obscure rites. O’Regan achieves this through incredible economy of means. It is a highly effective and, in places, inspired piece, beautifully delivered by Paul Hillier and the National Chamber of Ireland.Gramophone Magazine
Tarik O’Regan leads a generation of new choral composers whose music shows that originality need not be radical – nor upend the medium being inhabited. His recently premiered opera Heart of Darkness aside, O’Regan is heard in his most ambitious project yet, a musicalization of the medieval Irish epic Acallam na Senórach. O’Regan writes some of his best music here, walking a fine line among traditional chant, popular ballad, and a kind of 21st-century imagination that comes from a millennia-long overview of what has come before. At its best, the music is highly visceral. At its very best, the piece enters previously unheard sound worlds, with astonishing effect.Philadelphia Inquirer
Acallam na Senórach, a Middle Irish narrative dating to the late 12th or early 13th century, translates to English as ‘The Colloquy of the Ancients’ or ‘Dialogue of the Elders’. It is one of the most important texts to survive from that period and is one of the longest surviving works of original medieval Irish literature. The original text tells the story of St Patrick’s interactions with two of the last-surviving members of a fían (band of warriors) once led by Finn mac Cumaill: Caílte and Oisín. They are still alive centuries after the famed battles in which they fought (traditionally assigned to the third century) and no explanation is given as to why they are still roaming Ireland, with their followers, at the time of St Patrick’s arrival in the fifth century. The conversation between the saint and Caílte (who takes a significantly larger role in the dialogue than Oisín), as they journey around Ireland, provides a frame in which are embedded approximately 200 shorter narratives describing incidents in the era of Finn and his fían. Acallam na Senórach survives in five manuscripts, which date from the 15th and 16th centuries: two in the Franciscan Collection at University College Dublin, two in the University of Oxford and one in Chatsworth House.
In writing this musical setting of Acallam na Senórach I was drawn to the evenness of the dialogue. Instead of St Patrick simply converting the pagan warriors, he is encouraged to listen to Caílte’s stories and poems of an earlier time, in which the saint delights. This secular/sacred osmosis is maintained unwaveringly throughout the entire text. By the end of the narrative, one has witnessed not only the arrival of a new religion in Ireland, but also a richly-recounted secular narrative map of the entire island: the peaceful and enriching shaking of two great hands. In preparing the libretto (the sung text), I have focused on only a few of the shorter constituent tales. This decision was born of the practical constraints of duration. I have, however, kept the skeleton, albeit smaller, of the overall frame in place. Finally, for the sake of simplicity, Oisín is removed from the primary narrative. The characters are not assigned specific voices. The narrative as a whole is carried by a persistently changing combination of voices and guitar. The one exception is Cas Corach, the musician of the síd (underworld) who is most closely embodied, throughout this setting, in the solo interludes for guitar. The music itself is not ethnographically inclined; that is, I have not attempted to reconstruct theories on Irish music of the period from which Acallam stems. However the score generally, and especially in the guitar writing (the editing of which was by Stewart French, who performed the guitar solo for the premiere) is imbued with an air of Arab and Persian influence. The dulcimer, which Cas Corach plays, is thought to have been similar to the Iranian Santur. A potential antecedent of the bodhráin (Irish frame drum), for which I have written two parts in this work, is the North African bendir. Considering that the surviving manuscripts of the Acallam stem from a period in which Ireland maintained some contact with North Africa and the Near East, both of a friendly (trade) and hostile (piracy) nature, perhaps some variety of cultural exchange (not dissimilar to that between St Patrick and Caílte) influenced the extant transcriptions. Acallam, after all, tells us that, following his baptism by the saint, Caílte repays Patrick with a block of gold from the ‘Land of Arabia’. This is, no doubt, a reference to the Holy Land (from a different era altogether). For me, however, that precise moment, where continents, cultures, material goods and spiritual blessing intersect evenly, is the kernel of the entire work and, from my first reading of the text, served as the catalyst for this musical rendering.
PART ONE begins with a prologue (I), after which we witness Patrick, newly-arrived in Ireland, meeting Caílte, an ancient warrior, and his retinue for the first time (II). Caílte is baptised by Patrick and repays the saint first by reciting a poem and then with a large block of gold. We are told that it is from this gold that the subsequent decoration of the psalters and missals of Ireland was crafted.
Caílte then introduces Cas Corach (III), a fine musician of the síd (underworld), who plays for Patrick (IV), lulling the saint to sleep. He awakes to a fierce storm in the morning (V). After the storm has subsided, Patrick asks Caílte about a nearby spring, which prompts the warrior to tell the tale of Níam and Oísin (VI).
At the start of PART TWO (VII), we learn that a great number of stories and verses have been recited by Caílte to Patrick (VIII) including the sorrowful tale of Cáel and Créde (IX). This prompts Caílte to ask Patrick of his own mortality (X) and Patrick answers, giving the warrior the number of years he has left to live.
After some time (XI), Patrick worries that he has been neglecting his duties (XII). However, he is reassured by his two guardian angels that the stories of Caílte are important and should be preserved. At this signal (XIII), Caílte decides to leave for Tara, which Patrick has already foretold to be the warrior’s final resting place.
The setting closes with the parting of Patrick and Caílte (XIV).
c. 60 minutes
Acallam na Senórach: An Irish Colloquy, Chamber Choir Ireland, Stewar French (guitar), conducted by Paul Hillier: Harmonia Mundi USA HMU807486. Copyright © 2010 Music Sales Classical.