Nigel Osborne talks to KEN WALTON about composing the music for a new theatrical production of King Lear with a cast of opera singers
When Shostakovich composed music for a 1940s Soviet stage production of King Lear, audiences may have been surprised to hear Jingle Bells appear as one of its main melodies. Eighty years on, Scots-based composer Nigel Osborne has called on songs he claims he heard as a foetus as inspiration for the music he has written for the same Shakespearean tragedy.
“I’m not being weird,’ insists the retired Edinburgh music professor. “Babies from the third trimester remember music heard in the womb. My mother, from Scots-Irish stock, enjoyed singing, especially those popular songs of the late ‘40s and ‘50s. I know that at that time in her pregnancy she was very worried – my father was suffering a nervous breakdown. She would sing herself to sleep with songs by Doris Day and the likes. I’m sure I emotionally remember that.”
For Osborne, these seemed the perfect model for the Fool’s songs, “so reminiscent of postwar Britain – soggy, funny and nostalgic.” As award-wining opera director Keith Warner intended to set his Grange Festival production of Lear in postwar Britain, why not respond with a corresponding musical style?
Mention of opera is key to understanding the novelty of this production. A quick look at the cast list helps explain why: veteran Wagnerian bass Sir John Tomlinson as Lear; tenor Sir Thomas Allen as Gloucester; soprano Susan Bullock as Goneril; tenor Kim Begley as the Fool; the brilliant upcoming soprano (and Edinburgh graduate) Louise Alder as Cordelia; the list of opera stars goes on. But why stage a theatre production at an opera and dance festival played by a cast of sixteen singers?
“It began with discussions between Keith and singers like John and Kim around the fact that the world doesn’t know opera singers can act,” Osborne explains. “They wanted to create a show that proved they can. King Lear is a great choice, one of the darkest, most emotional pieces you can imagine. This is where a singer’s voice quality is unique. They don’t bellow, but exert extraordinary control over every shade of their voices. They bring something special to Shakespeare.”
As such, this project has given Osborne the opportunity to think way out the box. For a start, there are no instruments involved. “We had these great singers, so I said why aren’t the voices the orchestra, in fact the whole sound design? They um’d and ah’d a bit, then turned round and said ‘great idea’.”
If anyone else had suggested such an approach, they might have been laughed off the set, but Osborne has a proven track record in making people do things out of their comfort zone. He has dedicated much of his life applying his musical energy and creativity to aid work in the worst war-torn areas of the world, on projects to rehabilitate displaced children in the Balkans, India, Middle East and Africa.
Nearer to home – he lives in the Scottish Borders – Osborne is currently engaged in a game-changing music therapy programme with the NHS in England, helping frontline workers to write songs as a means of alleviating their own trauma in the face of Covid. He’s convinced well-known artists to work with him – Sting, K T Tunstall and Eric Clapton among them – creating online technology and providing the musical support needed to help participants achieve extraordinary results.
“We’ve had all sorts of musical styles: jazzy ballads, folk and rock, and stuff that’s on the fringes of Kurt Weill-like music theatre,” he says. “One group of frontline surgeons and GPs wrote of the impossible decisions they were having to make every day, that sense of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t, and who’s going to die today?”
Theatre has played its own part in Osborne’s renowned rehabilitation programmes. He’s the house composer for the Ulysses Theatre in Istria, where in 2000, not long after the war in Yugoslavia, he cut his teeth with King Lear. “We invited people from different parts of the former Yugoslavia to work together,” he recalls. “Most of the actors had opposed fascism and genocide and had been exiled or imprisoned. Lear is about a kingdom divided. It was like them telling their own story.”
And it was in Istria that Osborne explored ways of using extended vocal techniques in theatre. “It was through phonetics,” he says. “To be really crude about it, you can ask actors to make the sound of the wind, as they often do, and it’s terrible, because it begins as a mannered parody and ends up falling to bits after a few nights because there’s no discipline underpinning it.”
Fast forward to the Grange Festival today, where Osborne has been working on Lear with opera singers who thrive on discipline. “Singers hate the arbitrary,” he insists, which has allowed him to explore more deeply the possibilities and intricacies of a soundtrack driven by detailed analysis of the phonetics in such phrases as Lear’s “Blow, winds!”.
The end result is a conflict of extreme musical worlds; those “soggy, sentimental post-war songs”, and a mysterious underpinning modernism built on vocalised harmonies etched out of weird scales. Sometimes these worlds collide. “Step by step, a whole-tone chord can become a 1950s George Shearing harmony. The brutal sounds of nature become nostalgic reminiscences.”
With such extensive experience of composing for opera and theatre – he was master of music at London’s Globe Theatre, and his operas have premiered world-wide from Glyndebourne and Scottish Opera to Oslo and Vienna – Osborne has the wit and confidence to allow the cast a certain creative flexibility. Not every aspect of his score is prescriptive. “Most singers have had to follow the detailed instructions of composers their whole lives. At the very moment they don’t, I’m not going to come along and give them instructions. Everything, then, is in their hands.”
Such moments, he says, are simply intended “to insinuate”, and they are liberating for the performers and the play. Is a Shakespeare audience ready for it? “I’m imagining a lot of knee-jerk reactions, but I’m happy with what I’ve done. It doesn’t bother me if some don’t like it. I just hope people will see something profound going on.”
The Grange Festival’s production of King Lear runs from 14-17 July. Full information at www.thegrangefestival.co.uk