Pass the Spoon - How David Shrigley's opera took shape
Director Nicholas Bone on collaborating with artist David Shrigley and composer David Fennessy
Last Monday morning I found myself standing in a rehearsal room welcoming a company that included an opera singer, four actors, a puppeteer, a composer, a visual artist and a pianist, to the first day of rehearsals for a project that began with a conversation in a cafe on Sauchiehall Street three and a half years ago.
In early 2008, the composer David Fennessy and I had been invited to submit a proposal for a new 15 minute opera to Scottish Opera. As we chatted about what on earth we might try and do, Dave mentioned that he really liked David Shrigley’s work and wondered if he might be interested in doing something with us. As I was also a fan of David’s work, this seemed like a good place to start. Through a mutual friend, I contacted David and asked him if the idea of working on an opera sounded at all interesting. He replied that it sounded like a completely mad idea and he’d be very interested When we met up, David had conveniently just been to a concert in Stirling featuring some of Dave’s music and had loved it (luckily, as the project would have died a rapid death if he’d hated it).
In the end, we decided that the fifteen minute form wasn’t the right one for what we were thinking of, so Dave Fennessy and I did something else for Scottish Opera (an adaptation of a Peter Carey short story, since you ask). The three of us carried on talking but the difficulty was that all we had was the idea of a collaboration rather than anything more concrete. Then, in 2009, Creative Scotland announced its Vital Spark award for cross-artform collaborations. Unusually, and very enlightenedly, this was a funding scheme which was more interested in the potential of a collaboration than a finished idea. We applied and were one of only 12 projects to be funded out of the 109 entries.
Now all we had to do was work out what we were actually going to do…
The vague outline was we would make a piece of work for the stage that would perhaps resemble an opera. The strength of the collaboration was that it took experience we already had individually (David Shrigley had made a number of short animated films, so was already familiar with narrative; Dave Fennessy had previously written two short operas as well as incidental music for plays; and I had directed quite a few large-scale operas), but then stretched it into new areas (David S had never worked in live theatre before; Dave F had never written a full length stage work before; and my experience of developing new work was in theatre rather than opera).
What we did know was that we wanted to collaborate as closely as possible on all aspects of the project – so although David has led on the text, Dave on the music and me on the staging, we’ve all contributed to all areas. The area of closest collaboration was the text: David wrote some early sketches in Summer 2010 and we did some development work on it with actors. At this stage there were two characters who were television chefs, but no sense of a story.
One of the biggest questions for us as the project developed was where to find space for the music. In theatre, music is often used incidentally – perhaps to add mood or atmosphere – but in opera and music-theatre it can operate at a more dramaturgical level, developing character and sub-text. A skilful composer can anticipate the way the action of a text will work on stage, incorporating changes of pace and moments of revelation. When Dave was setting the text, he’d often suggest places where music could do the job of the words, and so the writing process was one of editing and re-writing the text in response to the music and vice versa. The final text is about half the length of the first draft.
So, back in the rehearsal room on day one, the critical question was ‘does it work?’ There was lots of laughter (some of it slightly nervous, as actors grappled with quite complex contemporary music, rapidly changing time signatures and sequences where they have to sound out of tune). The astonished laugh from those in the room who were hearing the piece for the first time at the moment when June Spoon meets her large, smelly nemesis (and I’m not going to spoil the surprise, but let’s just say that Gavin Mitchell will look astonishing in the costume) was a hint at how it could work if we can pull it off.