We 'Meet the Creators' ahead of the premiere next week of our contemporary opera project 12:42 - a unique film documenting the collaborative creative process of producing brand new operas under coronavirus lockdown conditions. Produced almost entirely in quarantine, the documentary follows the ambitious journey of 42 creative people – comprising the National Opera Studio’s Young Artist singers and repetiteurs, in close collaboration with some of today’s most exciting composers and librettists from around the world — to create eleven new opera arias entirely through online work and digital media.

We caught up with librettist Theophilus Kwek about his new work Above the White Island which, in collaboration with 2019/20 Young Artist Shengzhi Ren and composer Alex Ho, will be premiered on the National Opera Studio’s YouTube channel alongside the documentary. Along with filmed performances of each aria, the 12:42 documentary will première at 7.00pm GMT on OperaVision on 17 November HERE.


How have you found the process of writing this aria in both English and Chinese?

Preparing a bilingual text isn’t easy! In this case, I was able to square away some of the challenges by treating this as a work of translation rather than actually writing in both languages. So, the first part of the aria is written in English, while the middle section directly incorporates a poem by the T’ang Dynasty poet Du Fu, sung in Chinese. It’s a poem about exile and homesickness, and the final part of the aria (based on my own translation of this poem) ties the poet’s melancholy back to the protagonist’s present-day sense of being far from home, trapped in London under a lockdown. 

Including Du Fu’s text within my aria – a poem within a poem! – allowed me to create a sense of historical perspective, by lifting the protagonist’s sense of loneliness out of the immediate context of this year’s pandemic. It also provided a way for me to infuse a sense of distance and ‘strangeness’ into the text. I hope to give the audience a sense of what it means for migrants and other exiles to live between two worlds, or in two worlds at once.


The aria is based upon Shengzhi’s personal experience of being homesick and far from home, was it challenging to evoke this feeling through the words? 

Alex and I had the opportunity to speak to Shengzhi before I began work on the text, and this really helped me to see things from his perspective. Some of these conversations were challenging, as we were not only separated by time-difference and technology, but also had to converse in both languages (with me translating between them) to reach a common understanding. Over the webcam, I got a glimpse of both their rooms in London (Shengzhi later spent some time in Shanghai as well, as we continued work on this piece) and was struck by how all three of our lives, though far apart, looked so similar and walled-in due to the global nature of the pandemic. This became the starting-point for the aria.

The other important element of these conversations was Shengzhi’s interest in preserving and communicating traditional Chinese culture, which he spoke about passionately as we discussed the piece. I knew then that I should try to incorporate something from Chinese literary tradition, even while staying true to our present, cosmopolitan moment. That led me to researching and ultimately incorporating Du Fu’s poem within the aria.


What has the creative process been like working in a close partnership with Alex Ho?

I’ve had the privilege of working with Alex since our time at university – we were in the same year at Merton College, Oxford, where he read Music and I read History and Politics. As a violinist, I’ve had the opportunity to perform some of his work, and also to have a poem set to music by him for the Oxford Lieder Festival in 2017. These past collaborations gave me a good idea of the sound and style of this piece as it took shape, even though we couldn’t simply walk across the quad to hear it on the piano as we might have in the past!

Having some experience of working together also means that I trust Alex with the text. Where time or technical constraints might mean that we have to remove lines or even stanzas to make things fit, I know that we can quickly reach a shared decision on how to adapt the text for performance while still preserving the meaning of the original. As a writer, it’s important to find someone who sees eye-to-eye with you on bringing your text to life in the best possible way. With Alex, I find the end-product even better than I imagine.


Do you approach writing for a libretto in a different way to that of your poetry?

Every poet approaches their work in a different way – for me, I often begin with a sense of the context I am responding to, as well as the audience I am trying to reach, so my poems don’t often begin by verbalising something that I feel internally, but contain something I want to speak into the external world. Writing a libretto is similar, in that the context and audience have already been defined; my role as a writer is to land on something meaningful (and hopefully also beautiful) to speak into this space, to this crowd.

Where it differs, I think, is that I’m quite an aural writer, and often hear a text in my own voice as I’m working on it. For this piece, I had to keep reminding myself that it would be sung (rather than spoken), and by someone else at that. So, I had to avoid consciously associating the rhythms and pronunciations too much with my own voice!


What is the future of ‘Above the White Island’, would you like to develop it into a full opera?

I think there’s room here to develop it further, especially if that involves bringing more of Du Fu’s poems into a 21st Century context, translating and reframing them for the present-day. The best poems have a way of transcending time and space, speaking in universal terms to human experience – regardless of our place or station in life. Rediscovering and re-positioning historical texts such that they speak to the current moment is perhaps the surest and most rewarding way of preserving them for future generations, too. Even if not with developing this aria into a full opera, I’d love to see how that approach might be applied to other texts and occasions.