Macbeth Q&A with Luke Styles and Ted Huffman

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Macbeth: a new chamber opera

Macbeth is a new 75-minute work of uninterrupted dramatic and musical intensity.

The new chamber opera was developed during Luke Styles’s time as Glyndebourne’s first Young Composer in Residence (2011-14), together with director/librettist Ted Huffman and a number of exceptional singers from the Glyndebourne Chorus and Jerwood Young Artists programme.

It has an all-male cast and sets the events of the play in a present-day rebel conflict. The opera’s musical idiom hearkens back to recitative style from 17th-century Venice, while Styles’s unique contemporary voice simultaneously propels us into new territory.

The company is supported by 13 members of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, who supply a thrilling, percussive sound world, and a lush melodic palette.

We spoke to Luke and Ted to find out more.

Photo: Soldier in Afghanistan, 2011 © akg-images/ullstein bild/Vogt/Joker

Q&A: Luke Styles and Ted Huffman

Your production of Macbeth echoes several recent conflicts. What was it about these recent events that reminded you of Macbeth, and encouraged you to base this piece on the contemporary regimes we hear about in the news every day?

Ted: ‘While we were creating this new Macbeth, the news cycle was full of horrifically violent wars and revolutions happening throughout the world, which reminded us of the destabilised political situation in Shakespeare’s play.

We didn’t make this adaptation specifically about any one of these events or places, but they contributed to our understanding of the political murders in Macbeth.

The way Macbeth learns to lie, deceive, and murder throughout the piece was echoed, for me, in the way totalitarian leaders today have no shame in making statements that run totally contrary to any objective facts.

I believe the ability to kill innocent civilians is a by-product of military and militia culture – something we’re dealing with on a terrible scale today.’

Why have you chosen exclusively male voices for the opera?

Luke: ‘The choice to compose the opera for exclusively male voices (excluding the countertenor voice) links to the historical precedent of Shakespeare’s time, when his plays were performed by all male actors.

The use of male voices also creates a distinct, clear sound world and heightens the strangeness that draws me to the theatre of opera, in that this sound world doesn’t reflect the real world. (We don’t live in a world of all male voices, thankfully!)’

You’ve chosen to use the original language in this piece. What was behind that decision?

Luke: ‘I feel a deep affinity with Shakespeare’s writing, which I’ve used previously in my work Vanity for Glyndebourne in 2013. Shakespeare’s words immediately suggested a music to me, and this text in particular provided a narrative that allowed my music to go darker and more sensual than ever before.

People may come to the work already knowing the story of Macbeth and this is a particularly good advantage in opera. A well-known existing work can sit as a kind of object people are already familiar with. From this point Ted and I can craft our own work, wherein our departures from and interpretations of Shakespeare’s original work are additional to just understanding ‘what happens’ in Macbeth.’

Ted Huffman and Luke Styles, photographer: Sam Stephenson

What differences between Shakespeare’s play and your 75-minute mini-opera can you tell us about?

Ted: ‘We had to make hard choices about what material we could keep to turn this play into a 75-minute opera. Luckily, Macbeth is already one of Shakespeare’s shortest plays.

We did make some drastic dramaturgical decisions, mainly by insisting every scene made sense in the context of a fictionalised version of “now”, where we’re setting our opera.

This means our version focuses much more on the human side of the play and much less explicitly on the supernatural elements that are so famous in the original.’

Looking at the cast and LPO players in the piece, were there any specifics you were looking for when running workshops across the year and in your casting sessions?

Luke: ‘I was always looking for the right voice types for the characters in Macbeth and was able to try this out throughout the development period. Some characters certainly changed voice type as I developed the piece.

There was no orchestra involved in the workshops, but testing out the music meant I was able to start thinking about orchestration in workshops with singers. Because of this and also the importance of dramaturgical decisions simultaneous to development composing, I started to gain a sense of strong percussive and low instrumental colours in the orchestration, which in the composition process only emerges as the last piece of the puzzle.’

With 2016 marking the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, do you have a vision for turning this piece into a full-length production?

Luke: ‘Ted and I have always imagined a full-length version of Macbeth. I’d certainly love to fill the piece out to include a large orchestra, with more brass in particular.

We made strong decisions about what to leave out of our Macbeth to create a piece that functioned within 75 mins and didn’t become a rushed summary of the play.

By making a fuller version of Macbeth, we’d certainly be adding some elements back in and changing the work drastically. I’d be up for the challenge, but also another one or even a series of Shakespeare operas would be an exciting venture for 2016.’

Macbeth will be performed on 25, 27, 28 and 29 August in the Jerwood Studio at Glyndebourne. Find more details here.

The production is generously supported by Ms Linda Christmas, Hamish and Sophie Forsyth and Miss Myriam Trevaux Charitable Trust through investment from Glyndebourne’s New Generation Programme.