Errollyn Wallen talks to KEITH BRUCE about writing a sequel to Purcell from her new home on Scotland’s North coast
There is an irresistible irony in the genesis of composer Errollyn Wallen’s new Purcell-resurrecting chamber opera, Dido’s Ghost, tracing back to a Scottish tour of her song-cycle Are You Worried About the Rising Cost of Funerals?.
It was the suggestion of former co-director of Dunedin Consort soprano Susan Hamilton, who performed that work with McFall’s Chamber in 2015, that a companion piece for Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas might be a useful addition to the repertoire.
“It stayed on the wish-list,” explains the composer, “and in December 2019 Jo Buckley, the current chief executive of the Dunedin Consort, included it on a list of proposals to the Barbican.”
The London venue liked the idea and other partners came onboard with a project that Wallen is delighted has survived the vicissitudes of the pandemic.
“It has been safeguarded through all this, when other things have been cut, but it didn’t give us a huge amount of time to get the libretto and the score ready with little chance of any face-to-face workshops.
“It has been written in lockdown, but on the plus side Wesley Stace and I have had all this thinking time for it, and began with Wesley producing the libretto. We had one little workshop last October which was just enough for me to hear some of the soundworld.”
That McFall’s Chamber tour – with a string quartet joining the singer – had a lasting impact on Wallen in other ways, in particular her residence at Strathy Point lighthouse, bang in the middle of Scotland’s North coast, which is where I have called her.
“I was forging connections before I moved here. I’d been working with [composer and multi-instrumentalist] Mike Vass and I was invited to mentor on the Distil course by Simon Thoumire, with Scottish traditional musicians, as well as working with Mr McFalls Chamber, which toured around Scotland. It was in a break during that that I nipped over to Tiree to see a little house and then ran up here, and found this.
“I’ve been coming here every month, splitting my time between here and London, since 2016 when I got it, but since the pandemic I’ve pretty much been here all the time, apart from a couple of trips to London. It has become my primary residence and it has everything I need really. It is an incredible location and it is so conducive to work. I am under pressure all the time to produce a lot of music, and here is just the right place.
“I had criteria when I was looking for a place. It had to be right on top of the sea and a place that wasn’t near people. I wanted it to be remote, and where no one could hear me playing. I wasn’t planning on Scotland, or a lighthouse, but it seems we were meant for each other.
“Through personal connections I’ve widened my knowledge of the richness and variety of music-making in Scotland. I’ve worked with the RSNO, the BBC SSO, and the RCS invited me to be a visiting professor of composition. We’ve only managed to have one concert, when I met David Watkins and Oliver Searle, and that was a magical few days. The Scottish music scene seems very friendly and warm. London is a very big city, so although I grew up there, studied there and began my career there, it can be quite daunting.”
Wallen moved to the UK with her family from Belize when she was two years old, and remembers her sister announcing when she was around 4 or 5 that she felt Scottish and was going to say she was from Scotland.
“And I’ve recently learned that during the Second World War loggers from Belize came over and helped with tree-cutting as part of the war effort – and they were based in Ullapool.”
The solitude the composer enjoys at Strathy has been put to particularly productive use since the start of 2021.
“I have written eight or nine works since January. I’m never not writing something, but I have sort of lost track at the moment! I have written an opera for Graeae theatre company that we think will go on next Spring, and immediately I’ve finished with Dido’s Ghost I start an opera for Chicago Opera Theatre. It is set in London in the 18th century, a period drama with a black cast, set in the years just after the American revolution.
“Because opportunities have presented themselves, I’ve had to work fast. There seem to have been so many opportunities recently – but I will have to slow down soon and have a holiday!”
“I also wrote music for [choreographer] Cathy Marston at Joffrey Ballet in Chicago for a short film. It uses violin and handpan, and that instrument will also be used in Dido’s Ghost. The handpan is a beaten metal instrument and I don’t think it has ever been used in classical music, but it has this lovely mellow sound with overtones. And there was a solo viola piece in February, called Lavinia, commissioned by Riot Ensemble, and Lavinia is one of the characters in Dido’s Ghost. So a lot of things have been preparation for writing this.
“I really love composing operas because you get swept away by the world you enter. Everything you do is in the service of drama and atmosphere. Not every composer has an instinct for the stage and I didn’t know I did, but the more I compose these things, the more magical it seems. You are dealing with vision and sound together as you write.”
“I’ve been obsessed by Dido’s story since studying Virgil as a schoolkid aged 13. I wasn’t that good at Latin, but these myths emerged from my bumbling translation and it stayed with me.
“After our initial conversation, Wesley went off and found a story in Ovid’s writing that is the perfect sequel, so we’ve based it on that. Wesley and I want to amplify the characters that are already there in the Purcell, and our opera starts after Aeneus has left Carthage. It is funny how these things evolve: you have an idea and then gradually the work starts to dictate what it should be. You’ll get the sense of a conversation across the centuries.”
That, Wallen intends, will be as true of the score as it is of the drama. And she was not at all daunted by following Purcell’s Dido’s Lament, a work which has influenced composers working in every field of music in the centuries since.
“I don’t think of it in terms of being bold. The more I worked on it, it became this wonderful conversation with music of the past. The Lament is possibly the best aria ever written, and it has been sung by singers of all genres because it is so expressive. I have referred to the Lament in other works of mine, and I feel very comfortable exploring it.
“Composing this opera has taken me to a world where tonality isn’t the same as we know it now, but there are some things that remain in music that are part of the fabric of our emotional understanding, and the descending bass is one of those.
“The way it has worked out is that the two operas intertwine and started to blend into each other. You’ll hear echoes of Purcell’s music from the beginning. Sometimes they are hidden and sometimes more explicit, but I’d like to think that everything has grown out of dramatic necessity.”
Dido’s Ghost is at London’s Barbican on June 6, and Buxton Opera House on July 11, 14 & 17.