Commissioned by Editorial Paraiso Music

Revised in 2002 for the Badische Staatstheater Karlsruhe, only revised version available

  • 1(afl).0.1(bcl).asx(ssx)+barsx(bcl).0/1.2.0+btbn.0/vib(mba)/pf/egtr+bgtr/str
  • 2 sopranos, contralto, tenor, baritone
  • 2 hr 30 min
  • Victoria Hardie
  • English

Programme Note


How do art, genetics, ethics and commercialism interact with each other? Facing Goya examines different aspects of this question from different historical and moral perspectives. The unifying focal point is the skull of the artist Goya, which was found to be missing when his coffin was opened a century after his death. The principal character, a modernday Art Banker, travels through different centuries examining the changes in attitude towards these issues.


Facing Goya is an opera. The work is driven by music, by imagery and by drama. There is narrative, there are characters and there is dialogue. Things happen through action and interaction. But this is not an opera in the conventional 18th or 19th century sense of the term. The narrative has a linearity - the hunt for Goya's skull - yet the action leaps from location to location, zigzagging through three centuries. The characters do not drive the narrative through interpersonal relationships, projecting their personalities and steering a plot; rather they are vehicles for the delivery of facts, bombarding the listener with information about people, ideas and history. Long dead scientists and their discredited knowledge, political theorists with dangerous schemes and artists, particularly Goya, with vision, images and insight into the human condition are all woven into the fabric. Contemporary science, genetics, DNA and human cloning are also included in the story. The meaning in the work is generated by the fundamental elements of opera - music, imagery and drama - but it is the music that unifies everything and binds together the whole.

The essence of Facing Goya is divulged through manifestations of revelation. Some of these revelations are fanciful or dangerously misguided: the disclosure of falsehoods in 19th Century science with its prevalent ideas that the exterior could reveal the interior. That the size of the brain, the angle of the face or the shape of the ear was an indication of the character, personality or ability of the individual. Some manifestations are profound: the dangers of totalitarianism, of the state attempting to control the nature and value of art; the dangers of huge, multinational corporations attempting to control scientific discoveries, to patent individual genes and to clone personality, talent or human spirit. Some revelations are purely factual: the opera begins by declaring that Goya's skull was found to be missing when his coffin was opened at the cemetery of Chartreuse, in Bordeaux, in 1878.

The music is also revelatory in that it is open and accessible. The compositional methodology is not obscured by an opaque, modernist system invisible and inaudible to the listener. The overall musical form is episodic. Discrete, self-contained units flow sequentially with some occasional thematic reoccurrence in separated episodes. Melodies and harmonies sporadically reappear within a grand, mosaic like scheme, constructed from blocks of musical material that are laid end to end utilizing a multi-faceted, crystalline logic - a logic that defies any straight-through, developmental thread.

For the most part, the music does not emotionally reflect the subject matter of the text, as might be the case in conventional opera. The music rarely gives clues as to what a character is actually singing about. But this is not to say that the music lacks passion; indeed it has all the hallmarks of a Nyman score – strident pulse articulated by shifting, complex metre, rapturous harmonies and a tenacious sonority carved from the extremes of instrumental register. The absence of emotional cohesion between music and text is instead an echo of Erik Satie's advice to Claude Debussy, as reported by Jean Cocteau, "Believe me", Satie said "we have enough of Wagner. Quite beautiful; but not of our stock. We should see to it that the orchestra does not grimace when characters enter on the scene. Look here: do the trees of the scenery grimace? We should make a musical scenery, create a musical climate where the personages move and speak - not in couplets, not in leit-motifs: but by the use of a certain atmosphere of Puvis de Chavannes'. Facing Goya shadows Satie, not Wagner.

Nyman's approach to composition follows on from the 'Experimental' music tradition that he defined in his book 'Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond', originally published in 1974, and republished in 1999. His technique is firmly rooted in melody, harmony and rhythm. He writes tunes, the structures of which are often grounded in diatonic, tonal harmony. This 'New Tonality' germinated in Britain during the late 1960s as a reaction against the abrasive dissonance, generated through the post-war, European techniques of total serialism, as manifested in the works of Boulez, Stockhausen and Berio. The return to consonance began in America, migrated to Europe and became known as minimalism. This term itself was coined by Nyman in 1968, in an article, in the Spectator magazine, about the influential English experimental composer Cornelius Cardew. Minimalism re-examined melody and functional harmony and re-established pitch as a primary structural element in music. But this wasn't simply a direct return to an 18th or 19th century soundworld - the composer John White, a colleague of Cardew and Nyman, has clearly articulated the situation: "The analogy that comes to mind is very much that Zen thing about people who acquire enlightenment leading a perfectly normal life again -. but a couple of millimeters off the ground, and so it's possible to listen to Rimsky-Korsakov's Sheherezade now with absolute delight, because I listen to it as though it had no prehistory. Whereas before Cardew there was an obsessive toffee-like consistency in musical history that glued everything into place in a rather soggy, unadventurous way."

In the late 1960s and early 1970s British experimental composers were embracing compositional techniques that lay beyond the boundaries of modernism and broke the avant-garde thread that could be traced back to the Renaissance. One of those techniques, now an archetypal characteristic of post-modernism, was that of appropriation. Composers looked to the established repertoire for source material and made pre-existing material their own, often through experimental processes like chance operations, multiplicity and repetition. Nyman has appropriated the music of several composers including John Bull, Purcell, Couperin, Mozart, Schumann and Webern. But the composer he has most frequently appropriated is himself. This self appropriation is evident throughout Facing Goya, perhaps most wittily in the instrumental opening to 'Sequence of the Gene', from Act III, where Nyman refers to his own opening theme from the film Gattaca - which is itself about genetic determinism - the title of which uses the letters that label the four different nucleotides, adenine (A), cytosine (C), guanine (G), and Thymine (T), found in DNA. Here is a classic example of intertextuality, of meaning being generated through an interconnecting weave rather than a straight linear thread. And this weave enables the listener to move through this operatic material in more than one dimension. The music is a lattice onto which is attached boundless information, action, images, ideas and manifestations of the human condition. This opera reveals what it is to be human - to exist, to desire and to live.

© 2002 Robert Worby


Part II