When the goat’s bell rang for ‘Sappho’

Peggy Glanville-Hicks

It was July 2009 in Bali’s hill town of Ubud, tucked in by the Ayung river gorge. The wild clanging of a goat’s bell from the Greek island of Mykonos shattered the tranquility of tropical bird calls and the cascading river. Jennifer Condon was celebrating. The emerging conductor was achieved a nine year ambition to obtain the rights to Peggy Glanville- Hicks’ final opera Sappho.

Condon was visiting Glanville-Hicks’ biographer James Murdoch in Ubud attempting to win his support for her project. She seemed to have won over the other trustees; Murdoch was to have the final say. Peggy Glanville-Hicks was a major part of his life’s work. He was living in Bali and in talks with the other trustees when he finally agreed to speak with Condon.
Symbolically, at Murdoch’s gate hung the bell that Glanville-Hicks had ‘stolen’ from a goat on the island of Mykonos where she lived whilst writing Sappho. Murdoch bade Condon farewell with instructions to “ring the bell with all your might as you’re leaving, and don’t look back”.

Jennifer Condon - realising 'Sappho' on disc.

In Sydney recently, for a brief visit to promote the Sappho project, Condon displays a singular tenacity and ardour. She identifies with Peggy Glanville-Hicks with mischievous pride “Peggy Glanville-Hicks would not give up when she got something into her head. The trustees said I reminded them of her because I’d been calling them for 9 years. They kept saying “No” and I kept calling back. They realised that I wasn’t going to let go and that the piece is in good hands”. ” There were other reasons”, adds Condon. “Firstly, I’m a woman. They said Peggy would have liked that even though she didn’t approve of the ‘female composer/musician label’. Secondly, being Australian was vital; thirdly, being young was useful in the longevity of the project and finally, they said ‘You’re a downright pain in the arse’. This is my second meeting with a lawyer. I have been called a ‘pain in the arse’ before, but it has never happened quite that quickly!’

The spark was ignited when Condon heard the final 9 minutes of Sappho during her last year of high school. “I couldn’t get it out of my head. It absolutely had me spellbound, and that quality in modern music is rare, so I started chasing it. I think it’s one of those undiscovered masterpieces”.Condon believes that one reason for the opera’s dormancy is that to date, it has been presented for consideration as a piano score, which, though compiled by the composer herself “doesn’t even come close to describing what is meant to be heard”. Condon however, began her journey of discovery with the manuscript held at the Australian Music Centre. “Little by little, looking at all the details, I discovered its hidden secrets. It’s one of those pieces, if done properly, has the potential to be truly magical”.
Sappho was composed by Glanville-Hicks in 1965. It was commissioned by the San Francisco opera, funded by a grant from the Ford Foundation and written for Maria Callas in her comeback as a mezzo-soprano. Callas never saw the score. It was rejected by the company before it got to her, with the comment that it was “too modal”. Here too, the decision was based on the reduced piano score rather than the manuscript. Condon believes this may have been a factor in its rejection.
In the face of so much doubt, I asked Condon why she alone believed so firmly and for so long in its potential. “One factor is the libretto … the work of Lawrence Durrell. The play is an extraordinary work. There are fragments of Sappho’s own work in the libretto, and it’s poetic form start to finish. Then there’s Peggy’s knack for setting text – she could really word paint. It’s not modern music – I’m calling it a ‘new old opera’ – it has elements of epic music from a bygone era which made the poetry flow – there’s no conflict. The text is illustrated in every sense. Her style is difficult to describe because it’s unlike anything that’s ever been done before simply because she was on her own stylistic trajectory at this point, trying to move away from harmony without going towards 12 tone. It was the equivalent of Elektra for Strauss, going towards atonality. Sappho is the closest that Peggy got to devolving the principals of harmony and that’s why it is completely unique in structure and in colours”.
I challenged Condon’s conviction with a comment on the final movement of Sappho from Joel Crotty in Resonate in October 2007: ‘The rather dense text rarely allows the music to breathe, and as such the singer has to push the line along without being allowed the opportunity for interpretation. Was it worth all the energy to present this fragment? The answer is an emphatic ‘no’ as it has little musical worth on its own terms”.
Condon relishes the contest: “I disagree – very strongly! The text is very dense in the final aria – it’s one of the Sappho excerpts and it’s packed with meaning. Sappho needs to be an actress and poet of the highest quality as well as a singer. The singer has to allow the time to look at the text for the final aria”. For the recording, this singer will be Wagnerian soprano Deborah Polaski.whom Sydneysiders would have heard in 2000 when she sang the role of Elektra for the Sydney Festival. “In our first sessions going through the text we spent 5 hours on the last 9 minutes. I know that’s excessive. But we had to understand the narrative and its relevance. Also, unless the conductor puts the time into making the orchestra aware of the importance of the text, it won’t carry. Sappho is similar with Britten’s Death in Venice. If it’s not done by the highest possible calibre of performers who really put heart and soul into bringing you the characters, it will fail completely….. without the finest Aschenbach you’re asleep in 10 minutes. Sappho too relies on a really strong character. There is only one quote from Peggy about the opera and it’s about the importance of the Sappho character. Essentially, she said it’s more important to have a fine actress than to have the most beautiful or famous voice. I’ve used this quote as the basis for casting and for my study of the work. It’s been the epicentre of where the work should stem from musically”.
Singing opposite Polaski in the role of her husband is English bass Sir John Tomlinson. It’s a special dynamic for Condon. “For years at Bayreuth they were father and daughter, Wotan and Brunnhilde. The bond between them is so beautiful that to have them at this stage of their careers as husband and wife is thrilling. They’re consummate actors and their interpretation is just phenomenal”.
How does posterity view Glanville- Hicks the composer? Crotty proposes that her fame in Australia “rests mainly in being associated with significant American composers rather than with the music she wrote. She mingled …(with).. the likes of John Cage, Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson and Roy Harris. … it is her biographical quirkiness that keeps her music occasionally popping up in programs”. Conversely, too often ideas and creations that are ahead of their time are consigned to the bottom drawer until the zeitgeist is right for a re-kindling. It’s posterity’s gain. Was Peggy Glanville-Hicks ahead of her time, misunderstood and sidelined with the label of being a female composer?
Condon is firm in her belief that this is indeed, right.” Peggy knew how to write for keeps. Her writing will never age. It’s as relevant today as is the story from ancient Greece. There are no female opera composers but music is music and unrelated to the gender of the composer. If it were a matter of writing for characters, then perhaps it may have some small influence , but Strauss and Wagner wrote for the female psyche extraordinarily well and I suspect they were probably both reasonably chauvinistic . The composer’s gender is relevant historically but I don’t believe it’s relevant musically”.
It was only in July 2011 that Condon got to hear the music of Sappho in its entirety. She travelled to Lisbon for a day long workshop with the Gulbenkian orchestra with whom she will record the project. ” Before they signed on to such a big project they gave me one day – six hours to convince them. It was the most extraordinary 6 hours I’ve ever had, to watch the change in the orchestra, who on the last day of their season really didn’t want to rehearse 6 hours of a modern Australian opera they’d never heard of with a conductor they’d never heard of – they’d rather be on holiday. When I walked on there were lots of slouching players – but I knew what the music had done to me and to everybody else I’d played it to . I knew what the text had done to me and to everybody else I’d read it to. We started to play it. It wasn’t quite right. There’s no way of asking an orchestra to ‘Play like eggshells please’ so I read them the first line of text from the Sappho aria which begins “My sleep is fragile as an eggshell” . We started to play again and sure enough, they just lit up and by the end of the reading were convinced that they wanted to do it.”
Condon presently lives and works in Germany where she is Souffleuse at the Hamburg State Opera and counts Simone Young as a mentor. She decided at 11 that she wanted to be a conductor, studied piano under Gerard Willems, graduated from the Sydney Conservatorium, studied opera conducting with Vladimir Vais in Melbourne and moved to Europe in 2005.
As fate would have it, Glanville-Hicks and Durrell were born (1912) and died (1990) in the same years. They had even more in common – Durrell was born in India and lived in Greece. He was strongly influenced by these cultures. Glanville Hicks had expert knowledge of oriental music and lived in Greece for 25 years.
The recording team and musicians will convene in Portugal for 3 hot weeks in July 2012, the year which marks the centenaries of the births of Glanville-Hicks and Durrell. Condon has won the support of the International Lawrence Durrell Society and has resolved to commemorate the centenary of Glanville-Hicks’ birth on 29th December 2012, with the release of the recording. The name of the recording company and other singers are still under wraps, but she is eyeballing a 6 figure investment in the project. To those who are travelling with her already, she is grateful. “Showing confidence and interest in this project is very different to working with me as a prompt and conductor, but the instinct ,the reaction and the trust are absolutely the same and I’m thrilled that they’ve accepted that. They’re my favourite voices. They’re the voices I used to sit and do homework to with my headphones on”.
Condon unleashes another surge of passion when I ask if she envisages Sappho being staged.” I can! I’ve spoken to a number of directors! ” For this staging, a co-production with a company in the US or the UK is a prudent choice, but with an Australian cast and world premiere. “Just making a recording isn’t giving it a chance I won’t feel I’ve done my duty by Peggy unless I’ve tried on three different continents to bring this to life – then I’ll rest”.
“For me the really extraordinary thing is that this piece that has taken over my life – the last few years particularly, but it has been one of my main goals since high school. It’s been paper for 48 years. and all of a sudden it was music. There is no way of putting that into words”.

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