GORMENGHAST a fantasy opera by
Irmin Schhmidt: music and scenario
Duncan Fallowell: libretto inspired by the the trilogy of Mervyn Peake
Irmin Schmidt, founder of the legendary group CAN, has written an opera: GOR-MENGHAST Commissioned by : Wuppertaler Biihrten, the work was performed in the English language and premiered at the Operahouse Wuppertal on 15th November 1998.
Inspired by Mervyn Peake’s masterpiece of gothic fantasy, English novelist Duncan Fallowell wrote the libretto in St. Petersburg, combining romance, comedy and futurism into an adventure of epic strangeness peopled by unforgettable characters.
The opera is in 3 acts and centres on the rise and fall of Steerpike, a courageous, clever and charming kitchen-boy who becomes by degrees the murderous tyrant of Gormenghast Castle and its domain. In the process he bewitches and destroys Fuchsia the daughter of Gormenghast’s opium-addicted ruler. Finally he meets his own dramatic death. The other inhabitants of this vivid decaying realm are drawn into the terrible tale.
Irmin Schmidt, who studied under Ligeti and Stockhausen, not only created in CAN one of the most influential of avant garde groups, but is also a classical conductor and pianist and has composed music for over 70 film productions. His work transforms elements of the popular, ethnic and classical into a wholly original musical language . In both libretto and music, this integration of high culture and popular culture is not like anything which has gone before: it is achieved with perfect naturalness, carrying the art of opera forward into a new phase. The result is both accessible and magically unexpected : GORMENGHAST is a major addition to the world of musical theatre.
INTRODUCTION by Irmin Schmidt
Gormenghast is a gigantic castle, ancient and labyrinthine. A world unto itself – and like all fantasy worlds, which deal with myths and history, it’s an image of ours. The story is a Gothic tale of wild beauty, concerning the rise and fall of the kitchenboy Steerpike, a parable of power and seduction, of the eternal return of tyranny, whereby youth’s rebellious dreams of a better world are corrupted by the lust for power and twisted into murder and destruction. And so images of our history appear in all the poetic, comic, and fantastic guises of the characters, eg. Steerpike as the incarnation of utter rationalism, of self-obsessed urges which inevitably lead to destruction of traditional culture, ancient wisdom and ultimately nature. But fantasy is also a play on myths and Steerpike also a mythical hero, who, akin to the trickster, provokes chaos in order to bring about the transformation of an exhausted system.
The scenario, which I developed from the epic scope of the novel, condenses Steerpike’s tale into a series of scenes (based on Peake’s tableaux) that follow a strict and almost ritual pattern. Three acts, each separated by a period of seven years.
The sequence and location of the scenes in the first act are inversely mirrored in the third act, but there they have become scenes of decay, devastation or magical transfor-mation. The second act is symmetrically mirrored in itself.
1. Lady Gertrude’s chamber
2. The Great Kitchen
4. Fuchsia’s bedroom
5. The Tree of the Twins
2. Fuchsia’s bedroom
4. The Great Kitchen
3. Library (burned)
1. The Tree of the Twins
5. Lady Gertrude’s chamber
The final form of the scenario was completed in co-operation with Klaus Emmerich and Claus Henneberg. Duncan Fallowell has taken this formal rigidity and breathed into it vitality and rhythmic flow laced with grotesque comedy, dark poetry, crazy frolics and sombre drama. A libretto that is a composer’s delight. A wealth of inspiring images with a diverse blend of formal, contextual and symbolic associations and relationships. Above all, it’s a singers text, almost completely rhymed, bursting with melodic intonation and furious rhythms: his words dance. My music is basically rhythm-orientated; the groove holds together a diversity of styles. The soundscape is unusual. The orchestra was recorded and reprocessed in order to reach a sound continuum in which electronic and natural sounds blend or transform into each other. The percussion is also a complex mix of traditional (also ethnic) instruments, objects such as stones , logs, china, metal etc. and synthetic sounds, such as samples, breakbeats. All in all this produces a rich and original soundworld.
In performance this prerecorded mix is enhanced by the addition of a string quartett (obligatory) and a percussionist (ad lib).The pre-production has been in collaboration with soundengineer and programmer Jono Podmore, whose own solowork under the name KUMO belongs to the drumin bass avantgarde. He has intertwined and enriched my music with fresh and current ideas, especially in the development of the rhythms and grooves.
All parts are sung, there is never any spoken dialogue, melisma are rare except for the bizarre strains of the Twins and Prunesquallor. Steerpike sings rock songs; the Earl-tur-ned-owl intones a romantic impressionistic kunstlied that floats on clouds of electronic sound; Fuchsia sings dreamy and tragic ballads; Barquentine roars out a wild rocker about chaos; the Twins twitter madly through musical history. Musical styles – or the remnants of them – are juxtaposed in abrupt succession. Nevertheless, there are also melodies that serve as leitmotifs and give shape to the characters, and there are other motifs, harmonic associations and single chords, all of which weave a net of relations-hips and meanings.
In Gormenghast there is no such thing as “normal” behaviour: every gesture and movement is carried out in a more or less stylised or ritualised manner, creating forms of dance. Steerpike prances in frenzied rapture at being liberated from his kitchen confines, performs acrobatic tricks to impress Fuchsia, or assumes the form of the Grim Reaper to subdue the Twins. In the final duet with Gertrude, his evil rooster dance culminates in rage and madness. Fuchsia dances back into her secret world of dreams, yearning for a brighter life. The Twins skip, trip and fidget around like a couple of crazed marionettes, Barquentine stamps out a frenetic ritual dance on the tabletop, Swelter fences a whirling war dance at his rival Flay. At the end of the first act the Twins, Fuchsia, Prunesquallor and Steerpike perform a romping dance number on the tree overhanging the abyss. And of course, all rituals are grotesque group dance numbers.
Gormenghast is, both in spirit and form, Grand Opera. But elements and characteristics of Musical, the rock concert, and modern dance theatre play equally important roles within it. A new genre? In order to preserve the wondrous form of opera we have to explore ever new possibilities to transform it. This is what I’ve tried to do. Therefore I call Gormenghast, simply, a Fantasy Opera.