Commissioned by the Purcell Consort of Voices with funds from the Arts Council of Great Britain

  • 2 Sopranos, Countertenor, Tenor, Baritone, Bass, silent Male
  • 20 min
  • Fable by the Composer
  • English

Programme Note

Stephen Oliver once said that "opera composers shouldn't just write novels but should write short stories as well." He also felt that people should have the opportunity of seeing opera in as many places as possible, and that all too often audiences stayed away from 'new music' because they were afraid it would all be a horrible noise. His solution was to write a series of short 'one-acters' (with small casts and minimal sets) in musical and dramatic styles calculated to be absolutely direct in their appeal. The extensive catalogue of his compositions includes a fair number of these 'mini operas', whose themes and theses embrace the surreal, the comic, the darkly sinister and the reflective. At one end of the production scale lies a work like Cadenus Oserv'd a dramatic sketch scored for solo unaccompanied baritone using a text selected from the works of Jonathan Swift. At the other end lies the wholly Oliveresque The Ring, an hilarious fifteen minute opera for singers and orchestra using characters from Granada TV's Coronation Street. (The 'Ring' of the title has been dropped by Mrs Walker, found by Fred Gee and made into an ear-ring by Bette Lynch!)

Stephen was constantly exploring and developing new operatic possibilities, and it was perhaps inevitable that he should eventually get round to experimenting with wordless opera. Ten years before the composition of Commuting he composed The Waiter's Revenge, an 'absurd fable for six voices and director' first performed at the 1976 Nottingham Festival by the Purcell Consort of Voices. As with so much of Stephen's work, the humour is delicious and incisive, and in this case communicated entirely without recognisable words. The point, of course, is that opera can effectively deliver its message without them. Performances of operas in foreign languages (or with incomprehensible diction) do not necessarily prevent us from understanding the basic plot and characterisations - always assuming that the composer, set designer and director have done their jobs properly.

In The Waiter's Revenge we are left in no doubt as to what is going on in this execrable eatery, thanks to Stephen's unerringly apt vocal writing and careful choice of vowels and consonants for each solo and ensemble number. The incompetent waiter's opening lament communicates its highly expressive message as powerfully and as clearly as a Monteverdi madrigal or a Mozart aria, and we have no need of lyrics to tell us that the cause of the man's grief is merely a pounding hangover. Similarly, words become redundant when we listen to the ecstatic, fatuous and (ultimately) meaningless warblings of the two young lovers, whose infantile "ah", "mah" and "nah" sounds tell us all wee need to know about them. Paradoxically, perhaps it is the very absence of words that actually facilitates our understanding of what is happening on stage, since we are no longer required to catch every line, to study the libretto beforehand or to strain to read the surtitles.

© Brendan Beales