'The Albatross': From Rime to opera

by Sinéad O’Neill
Melville was right when he wrote, of the Albatross, ‘that white phantom sails in all imaginations.’ It sailed then, and it sails still. Coleridge’s poem on the same subject also haunts the collective imagination. It has certainly caught my fancy, enough to make me want to create an opera. Even people unfamiliar with the Rime of the Ancient Mariner get a certain sort of chill down the spine when it’s mentioned, along with a feeling that it somehow deals with fate, wildness, the merciless emptiness of wide seas, and the terrible, haunting burden of one’s former actions. This eerie atmosphere that coalesces around the poem makes it perfect for operatic treatment. Like Poe’s The Raven (which I also made into an opera) the Rime has a life of its own. We don’t need to bring the poem to our audience; we can play (and sing!) into the place it already occupies in the audience’s imagination.
The albatross
For a start, we don’t have to begin by trying to set the whole text to music. To my mind, that would miss the point: the Rime already has a textual life. A stage, though, is made out of space, not words. An opera is made out of music, singing, and movement; yes, there might be words too (there usually are!), but an essential feature of live opera – and what differentiates the form from an audio recording, a radio performance, a book, a film, a photograph – is that it uses movement through space as an expressive tool.
To make an opera out of Coleridge’s poem, then, I started by thinking about spatial imagery. The poem is full of it. The masts dropping down and down; the direction of sunrise and sunset; relentless southward progression; the impersonal, driving winds; ice dwarfing the ship; the vastness of the lonely oceans; the individual imprisoned on his tiny vessel; sea-going creatures swarming in savage freedom. Distance and closeness, changing perspectives, speed and stillness all imbue the poem with a constant feeling of movement. The mariner is at the mercy of the forces that move him, right up until the moment he grabs the oars of the pilot’s boat and rows like the devil for land.
The albatross, of course, is completely free and at home in this shifting landscape of sea and air. The winds that coldly command the mariner’s course are freely ridden by the albatross, which can come and go as it chooses. The ocean-treading wanderer is as thoroughly at home in this wilderness as the sailor is at sea.
Movement, then, is the first kernel at the heart of this new opera. How does the sea move? How does the ship ride the sea? How does the bird use the air?
Wanderer Angus Wilson
Artists, scientists and seafarers throughout the ages have found their souls struck by the shocking strangeness and beauty of these great birds striding free in their element: ‘I now belong to that higher cult of mortals, for I have seen the Albatross’ wrote Robert Cushman Murphy, in Logbook for Grace. Thus, I imagine, the mariner. The moment of encounter is surely key in his journey, as much as it was for ‘Ishmael’ in Moby Dick: ‘I remember the first Albatross I ever saw… Through its inexpressible, strange eyes, methought I peeped to secrets that took hold of God.’
Here is the second kernel: the moment of encounter. Imagine that first eye-contact between the strange, black eyes of the albatross and those keen, glittering eyes that so entranced the Wedding Guest. It’s the stuff of dreams, which makes it the stuff of opera. The encounter will furnish a ‘memory’ aria: ‘I remember the first Albatross I ever saw…’ It’s a memory that haunts the mariner; part of what compels him to tell and retell his tale.
Albatross photo
I’m about to delve into these ideas during two days of workshops and exploration with composer Kim Ashton, countertenor Christopher Ainslie, actor Jofre Carabén van der Meer, and accordionist Bartosz Glowacki. We will also have the following: some sheets of paper, some fine wooden batons, and some wire. Our task during the two days is to develop stage images that will use movement and music to evoke my ‘kernels’ in the minds of the audience.
Alb music
On 11 August, at RADA Studios in Central London, we’ll show these images to the public as part of Tête-à-tête The Opera Festival. That is the first step; then we move on to the meat of the writing and composition process, building up to a finished opera in about a year’s time. I’ll keep you posted…!
There will be a work-in-progress performance on 11 August 2017 at RADA Studios, London, as part of Tête-à-tête The Opera Festival.
Sinéad O’Neill is Founder and Director of Cambridge City Opera, which she created to commission and produce new opera. As well as The Albatross, she is currently developing The Barrington Hippo (Kate Whitley) a piece for children about a fossilised hippo from the Cambridgeshire countryside. Cambridge City Opera’s first work was On the Axis of this World (Matt Rogers) a meditation on Antarctic Sineadexploration developed with the Scott Polar Research Institute. In 2016, Sinéad directed And London Burned (Matt Rogers), a new opera about the Great Fire of London commissioned by the Temple Music Foundation. In Autumn 2017, Sinéad will direct the revival of Il Barbiere di Siviglia for Glyndebourne Tour.