Recently I’ve been setting more music for Jim Mollison. Until this point all I’d really written was his part in the aviation-term-seduction-duet, where for the most part he is indulging in innuendo-laden banter, and, well, this certainly only represents one side of his character.
There are some truly wonderful quotes about Jim in Midge Gillie’s biography of Amy.
ʻJim had developed a knack of squeezing the most pleasure and the least discomfort
out of any situation he found himself in...’
‘Jim was proud of his suede shoes and double breasted suits that quickly became
rumpled, giving him a ʻjust out of bedʼ look’’ and ‘his most common pose what that of one hand in his pocket, the other holding a cigarette between his thumb and middle finger. He rarely smiled.’
Like Amy, he would often dress up to the nines for aviation (in this I totally approve....I, erm, had my premiere dress organised for this opera before I’d written a note, and currently own three aviation-themed broaches, and probably will own more in due course (there are more than three performances of this opera, don’t you know...). The dress was 90% off in the Harvey Nics sale so was actually a compulsory buy. Fact.
Anyway, I digress. Jim’s nickname was ‘Brandy Mollison’, as he had a habit of taking flasks of brandy and other beverages with him in the cockpit, imbibing copious amounts on his record breaking flights. And by all accounts he was a terrible womaniser. Another great quote from the book about Amy and Jim’s relationship:
“Their relationship had always been tempestuous: now it fell into the pattern of their flight
across the Atlantic: short periods of calm followed by turbulence that finally ended in a
dramatic crash fueled by alcohol and overwrought emotions, before the whole process
started again with high hopes and replenished supplies of good will. Amy refused to
believe that the marriage could not be rescued.”
Well, she refused to believe that the marriage couldn’t be rescued until she found Jim drunk in a hotel room with a woman she didn’t recognise....
So, it’s pretty apparent that Jim wasn’t exactly ideal husband material and all that, being as he was an arrogant, womanising, heavy drinking man who resented Amy’s greater fame.
However, he still was a bloody good pilot who undertook some amazing, life threatening, courageous journeys, and in the opera, I really want to portray a little of this. This opera is very much about Amy, and Jim’s function is largely to help tell Amy’s story, but I still didn’t want to reduce him to a caricature, as if nothing else, he wouldn’t be that attractive and surely one has to be moderately-to-exceedingly attractive in at least one way to be a successful womaniser (God, I have the feeling this might be a hideously un-PC thing to say, but you know what I mean). Simply put, I wanted to be able to rather fancy Jim’s character in the opera, or at least see what Amy saw in him at points, rather than roll my eyes at what an up-himself berk he was.
Jim has the line “Just you and me and the sky and the sea” several times in the Atlantic crossing scene. I really like the mixture of naivety, wonder, courage, childishness and affection in this line (as amongst other things he’s obviously happy that Amy is with him). There’s a kind of faux charm about the line that is very simplistic, but when you think about it it sums up a variety of emotions from joy and freedom to terror (Amy hated flying over water). I wanted to set these lines in a way that would give us a glimpse into Jim’s pioneering spirit, and the fact that (at first, anyway) Amy and Jim were excellent, professional flying companions.
Anyway, this is all well and good but I was completely stuck on this for a few days.
There were several reasons for this. First, I’ve just been composing non stop for several months now (I’ve written 35 minutes of music in less than 6 weeks, way over my usual output) and I feel I am something of a compositional corpse (just as well I have a week of not composing coming up, which I’m slightly terrified about in one way but I think a short enforced break might be very good idea). Secondly, this was the last scene of the opera I had, as I hadn’t had the final third of the libretto from Adam yet. The Atlantic crossing scene is humorous, and I love it, but it came directly after the seduction duet which was also humorous. I was a bit worried by the fact that there wasn’t enough serious stuff in the opera to balance things out, put simply. But this was completely solved when I saw the final third of the opera, which is a wonderfully passionate, expansive aria for Amy. This reassured me that I could follow my instincts on how to set the Atlantic crossing, as there would be music of greater depth to provide contrast and balance in the remaining part of the opera.
So, that was that aspect of the problem solved. But I still didn’t really know how to set it, until David Attenborough came to my rescue.