Sunday, 8 January 2012

Why Amy Johnson?

The simple answer to this is that Adam Strickson asked me to be involved in this opera, and had already come up with the basic subject matter and plot. Adam won an award from iMove, part of Yorkshire cultural programme for London 2012, for a large scale project called Wingbeats, which includes this opera, another opera which has already been performed called Flightpaths, with music by Steve Kilpatrick, and many other wonderful arts projects and events. You can find out more about it here. Although I didn’t really know anything about Amy Johnson at all when Adam asked me to be involved, I quickly realised after talking with him that this was a wonderful subject for an opera and everything about Amy appealed to me, both personally and artistically.

In preparation for writing the libretto, Adam had read a fantastic biography of Amy by Midge Gillies. It was great to go through this book and pick out all the things that interested me about Amy, and tell Adam about them. In this way, even though the original idea had not been mine, I felt I was able to put a great deal of input into the content of the opera and very soon felt that it was ‘our’ opera rather than just Adam’s. As it happened though, Adam had already independently written a short summary what interested him, and it almost exactly matched what I’d noted down. So that was a good sign!

In the summer I went up to Bridlington to see the premiere of Flightpaths. I was able to see the venue, and spent a few days in the town soaking up the atmosphere. On the Sunday I did a 20 mile walk along the coast, which actually gave me so many ideas for the opera! The scenery was amazing (despite the fact that at one point I got lost for about an hour in thick bramble and then slipped down a very muddy bank and got covered in mud...) and I can honestly say I’ve never enjoyed fish and chips as much as I did at the end of that walk before getting the train back to my B&B in Brid). Amy spent a lot of time in the area, and so things I had read about in the biography and only known cerebrally, suddenly made proper sense. For instance, spending a whole day walking along the edge of the country, where land runs out and seeing the sea and the horizon really had a great effect on me, and is something I’m thinking about a lot now I’ve started writing the opera far out of sight of any coastline. The seemingly seamless merging of sea and sky in the far distance is something that I’m trying to portray in the harmony of the work, either by using very “open” sounding harmony, or by merging harmonic boundaries into each other. Just being able to see so far into the distance also made a great impression on me, and the horizon is a very important element of Amy’s story in many ways - that sense of exploration, the urge to travel beyond what she could see, etc. I also learnt later that the way pilots learn to stay level in their planes is to continually keep their position in check with the horizon. There’s something about this double function of the horizon, which both coaxed Amy into undertaking dangerous adventures as well as keeping her safe and up in the air, that really fascinated me.

Anyway, I came back from Bridlington really excited about the opera, about Amy, and about the performances, which at this point in time seemed so far in the future that they might never happen. This was all to change when I realised how much work I had to do though! Suddenly that premiere seemed terrifyingly close...

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