Neal Thornton Sonya's Story
Exciting news this week that international opera star Sally Burgess is building on her last year's highly successful venture into opera direction with another premiere for the Tete-à-Tete Opera Festival for which she is not only director, but also closely involved in the making of the piece itself — Sonya's Story is written by Sally's pianist/composer husband, Neal Thornton. It's a thought-provoking version of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya told from the point of view of Sonya, the youngest character in that tale of dashed hopes, whose life seems most blighted by events.
I went to interview Sally and Neal at their London home to hear more. The idea was born some years ago when Neal, at a West End performance of the play, 'just heard music in my head' as Sonya was making the play's final speech, that passionate, hopeless promise to Vanya that '...we shall know a life that's bright and beautiful....we shall have rest....'
Neal at once wrote an aria based on the speech which Sally sang at many of the concerts they've done together. But the play continued to haunt him and he re-read it and soon made a treatment for an opera based on Sonya. He wrote no more music, however, until the opportunity came from Tete-à-Tete this summer, when he composed the present 45-minute version in just a few weeks. It's for two voices and a 6-piece wind and string instrumental ensemble including Neal on the piano, and conducted by the well-known international opera maestro, Lionel Friend, with whom Sally has worked for years at ENO and beyond. (The final version of the opera will have a first section of similar length, telling the story from Yelena's point of view, she being the rich, glamorous, educated and urban counterpart to poor Sonya.)
In the present version there are two singers and a dancer (Caryl Hughes as Sonya, Cozmin Sime as Astrov and Vanya, and Ilana Gorban as Yelena). How to represent the nine characters of the complete play? 'Often limitations present interesting solutions,' says Sally. And certainly the plans sound interesting. The piece is through composed. Sonya's sung text follows Chekhov faithfully, with a few brief spoken passages, written by Neal, 'very simply – not trying to be poetic' – to fill narrative gaps. The overbearing father, Serebriakov, and his wife, will appear in a big portrait that dominates the stage throughout. Behind him, a curving screen of suspended banners will represent the various boundaries felt or imagined by the characters. The baritone, playing the two men most important to Sonya, will look and sound quite different in each part, not least because each persona is as seen through Sonya's eyes – first the doctor, Astrov, elusive object of her love, then Vanya her incendiary uncle. Each has his own musical leitmotif. Similarly, the langourous Yelena, idling on a swing, will be a (silent) vision of all that the endlessly overworked Sonya feels she herself lacks.
Designer of the production is the distinguished international architect and opera buff Charles Phu. That both he and Neal are making their operatic debuts seems if anything to have boosted the level of innovative thought. 'We're a very good team,' says Sally. 'Charles is highly imaginative, Neal and I know each other pretty well – it's all very harmonious!'
Neal, whose work so far has been mostly in jazz and lighter music, makes no claims for Sonya as high art. But if melody is the essence of opera, melodies in multitudes Sonya has. And he has made a work that offers Sally limitless scope for her great imaginative skills as a director – and of course supremely gifted singer/actress – mistress of the intensely felt moment, the physical expression of emotion, the portrayal of the inner life. From my brief encounter with her detailed concept of the piece, I think we may be in for something special.
Sonya's Story Saturday 7 August 8.15 pm, Sunday 8 August 5.15
Riverside Studios, Crisp Rd, Hammersmith W69RL
020 8237 1111 Hammersmith Tube 7 mins