By Nicholas Boyd-Vaughan, Engagement and Communications Manager

30 March 2017


With the rehearsals for our 2017 contemporary scenes production getting underway this week, we took 10 minutes to catch up with Elena Langer, composer of Four Sisters and The Storm Cloud (Tucha), both of which will be performed in their entirety.

We are delighted to have two of your recent works presented as part of Dubai-Rostov-New York.  Could you tell us a little more about Four Sisters and The Storm Cloud (Tucha) and your inspiration when composing them?

When Dawn Upshaw asked me to write an opera for her students at Bard (New York), I thought it would be nice to have an originally written contemporary libretto specifically tailored for this occasion - perhaps with a few frivolous young girls at the centre of the piece.

Soon after, I happened to have a chat with a director John Lloyd Davies and shared these thoughts. John, at that time, was designing Chekov’s Three Sisters in Vienna. A few days later I received a short scenario for Four Sisters!

Writing this piece was a new challenge for me - I have never done anything light or comical before. Despite liking humour and comical situations in both art and real life, most of my works never came out as such. My previous opera The Lion’s Face was about an old man suffering from Alzheimer’s and one of my most often performed chamber works Ariadne about a broken-hearted girl - deceived and abandoned by her lover on a deserted island… Luckily, no one is ill or broken-hearted in this piece. Everything takes place in NY. The sisters believe that inheriting a lot of money will help their dreams come true. They sing about their dreams in their arias, which are distinctly different – Masha’s one is written in a kind of Caribbean style, Olga’s song has a bit of klezmer influence and so on (each sister’s cell ring tones musically represent their dreams too). The music in Four Sisters is intentionally eclectic - its overall "me-ness" and "Russian-ness" is mixed with Calypso moments, waltz moments, and even some 12-tone moments. I tried to create contrasts in tempi, moods and situations.  After a few outings in the USA, I am glad that Four Sisters is being performed in London and by a young cast - just as was intended!
Tucha is a piano-and-voice version of an orchestral song that was part of my chamber opera Songs at the Well, commissioned by the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Musical Theatre in Moscow and performed there in 2012. The texts come from a collection of old Russian love-songs and laments.
For the most part, Songs at the Well are lively, folksy pieces about the joys and tribulations of love and lovers, with characters complaining about their spouses, bickering and celebrating. Tucha is rather more tragic; the consequences of hiring an inept contract killer – in this case an undiscriminating storm-cloud. 

You mention working with John Lloyd Davies on the libretto of Four Sisters, how would you describe the composer-librettist relationship during the creative process?

Each collaboration is very different. I had a couple of disastrous ones! But John was generous and supportive.  He wrote his libretto very quickly - it is light and unpretentious.  He let me edit it too. My previous collaborator, a poet Glyn Maxwell, while writing the libretto of The Lion's Face said that he wanted me to be in 'composer's heaven' while working together.  That is my favourite type of collaboration, haha!

What inspired your move from Moscow to London?

I moved here for personal reasons but probably also a little by chance... Now I realise it was the wisest thing I have ever done.  London is home now and I am happy here.

How do you feel living in London has influenced your music?

After graduating from Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatoire I studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London.  My music is probably a symbiosis of everything - something Russian, something English, something of my own...I love living in London and seeing a lot of shows and concerts. In terms of my own music, I simply I write what I want to hear.  It is hard to say exactly what influences what... 

This programme celebrates three female composers, do you feel that a gender divide still exists within contemporary music?

To be honest, I am not interested in gender related issues that much.  I never tend to think in this way, but since you ask, my favourite composers happen to be male composers - Handel, Brahms, Schubert, Mussorgsky, Haydn, Mozart, Poulenc, Lutosławski, Ligeti...I also like Offenbach, Rossini, Kurt Weill, Cole Porter, Gilbert&Sullivan. For the audience, it probably does not matter whether the composer is male or female - the main point is to enjoy the show!

Finally, what do you hope that audience members will take away with them after experiencing these two operas?

​I hope they will be entertained and would want to come to see my next work - a cabaret/music hall/vaudeville called Rhondda Rips it Up! about an important Welsh suffragette with very exiting and eventful life. Coincidentally, it is going to be written for all female cast with a lot of cross dressing where women play prime-ministers and policemen. It will have songs and dances.  I hope it will be fun!