'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.
 

Coleridge in Wales at the Hay Literary Festival: Walking with Coleridge, Wordsworth and Thelwall

by Elsa Hammond

‘What has Coleridge got to do with Wales?’ This was the question most frequently posed by interested audience members, participants, walkers, and passers-by during the Coleridge in Wales events at the Hay Literary Festival this year.
In June 1794 Coleridge departed Cambridge to spend the summer on a walking tour of Wales. He stopped off in Oxford, and left buoyed after three weeks with his new friend Robert Southey, hatching Pantisocratic plans and dreaming of a new, just society together. Covering more than 600 miles in under two months, Coleridge and his walking companion, Joseph Hucks, climbed mountains, drank and discussed politics with the locals. Coleridge wrote poetry, notebook entries and letters along the way, and Hucks published an account of the journey in A Pedestrian Tour through North Wales in a Series of Letters the next year. Coleridge would “dart into Wales” again in 1798, to visit John Thelwall with Dorothy and William Wordsworth. However, he was particularly struck by this first uninterrupted experience of the Welsh landscape in 1794, and, as Richard Holmes observes in his biography, “for the first time [he] showed his passionate response to wild nature”.
Coleridge in Wales is an ambitious, exciting project, involving an 80-day journey around Wales and an extensive (and growing) programme of talks, events, conferences, collaborations, performances, readings, walks and swims. Inspired by Coleridge’s own travels through Wales and masterminded by classical singer and facilitator Richard Parry, it is a celebration of community, landscape and culture, and an ongoing conversation about Coleridge’s life and works. I joined the project as a journey-maker and travel writer with a personal and academic interest in Coleridge, and arrived in Pandy (16 miles from Hay-on-Wye on the English-Welsh border) to speak about my own experiences of solitude at sea in relation to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and to co-lead a walk over Hay Bluff as part of the Hay Festival.

Descending Hay Bluff (Coleridge in Wales)

Descending Hay Bluff (Coleridge in Wales)

After a rich evening of stories, discussion, poetry and song in Pandy, the morning of the walk saw an eclectic group – including a clockmaker, singers, poets, students, academics and Cardiff Metropolitan University artists Chris Glynn and Dan Peterson meet to hike the 16 miles to Hay along the Offa’s Dyke Path. One of the UK national trails, Offa’s Dyke path is 177 miles long, named after the dyke ordered by King Offa in the 8th century, and thought to have been built to divide his Kingdom of Mercia from rival kingdoms.
It was a hazy day, sunny but not too bright, and just right for walking. After crossing a rough field we had a steepish ascent up a small road, then a trackway, before arriving at the top of the ridge, which we stayed with throughout the day. The heather was not yet in bloom, but at one point we saw a red kite, and a little later a skylark sang loudly above us. In true Coleridgean diversity, conversation ranged from mountain navigation, to art, to ornithology, to humanitarian crises.
Foolishly, I had not taken quite as much water with me as I ended up needing (the day being particularly dry), but I reminded myself that Coleridge himself had encountered the same problem more than once during his tour of Wales. One of these episodes apparently inspired the gruesome moment of quenching intense thirst in Part III of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, after the ship has become becalmed in the doldrums:

With throats unslaked, with black lips baked,
We could nor laugh nor wail;
Through utter drought all dumb we stood!
I bit my arm, I sucked the blood,
And cried, A sail! a sail!

With throats unslaked, with black lips baked,
Agape they heard me call:
Gramercy! they for joy did grin,
And all at once their breath drew in.
As they were drinking all.

Years later, in 1830, Coleridge would recall the incident: “I took the thought of ‘grinning for joy’ in that poem from a friend’s remark to me, when we had climbed to the top of Plinlimmon [Penmaenmawr] and were nearly dead with thirst. We could not speak from the constriction, till we found a little puddle under a stone”. Earlier in the tour, he had written of a similar instance (in a letter to Southey on July 13, 1794): “From Llanvunnog we walked over the mountains to Bala – most sublimely terrible! It was scorchingly hot – I applied my mouth ever and anon to the side of the Rocks and sucked in drafts of Water cold as Ice”. Rather more prosaically, I accepted some extra water from kindly walking companions.
Coming down from Hay Bluff (677m) we followed the path through a few more miles of farmland, negotiating groups of cows with young calves, and wading through fields full of buttercups, which covered my boots with a yellowish-green veneer. It had been a long day, and we only just made it to the festival in time for the Coleridge in Wales talk; without stopping, we walked into Hay village, along the road to the festival site and onto the stage, with all the sweat and dust of the mountain to add an authentic element to the event.

Walking into Hay (Coleridge in Wales)

Walking into Hay (Coleridge in Wales)

The second day of Coleridge in Wales at the Hay Festival saw Richard Parry and eighteenth-century historian Penelope Corfield (Royal Holloway, London University) lead a walk from Glasbury, near Hay-on-Wye, to Llyswen in the steps of Wordsworth, Coleridge and John Thelwall. After visiting Coleridge and Wordsworth in Somerset in the summer of 1797, Thelwall went in search of his own simple retreat, finally settling at Ty Mawr in Llyswen where he lived, farmed and wrote between 1797 and 1801. He was visited there by Coleridge and the Wordsworths in 1798.
A mile or so into the walk our small band of writers, artists and academics were treated to an impromptu reading of Thelwall’s ‘The Phenomena of the Wye during the Winter of 1797-8’ by Steve Poole, Professor of History and Heritage at the University of the West of England.

 Steve Poole reading Thelwall on the banks of the Wye (Steve Poole)

Steve Poole reading Thelwall on the banks of the Wye (Steve Poole)

Thelwall had written this essay for the Monthly Magazine in March 1798, reflecting on his first winter at Llyswen and on the beauty of the Wye: “you might even fell every tree, and exterminate every shrub, without destroying the sublimity, or even the beauty of the scene; for the river and the mountains would still remain, the solid features of the landscape would be yet unaltered”.

The Wye (Steve Poole)

The Wye (Steve Poole)

Sitting on the banks of the Wye amid the green lushness of May, we found it difficult to imagine the landscape stripped of all vegetation. Richard decided to follow the reading with a powerful rendition of ‘Rolling in foaming billows’ from Haydn’s Creation, which describes the emergence of rocks and mountains on the earth before the existence of any flora.
On our arrival at Ty Mawr Penelope described how the house had been changed and extended since Thelwall had lived there. The current occupant kindly allowed us all to tramp through the old timber front door, which, despite having been moved from the other side of the house, was the door that would have been used by Thelwall, as well as by Coleridge and the Wordsworths when they visited.
The owner of Ty Mawr had also told Coleridge in Wales that this was the best place on the Wye for swimming, so I thought that it would be a shame not to test it out. Refreshing and not too cold (I estimated it to be around 12 degrees), we could swim to the shingle beach on the other side and look back at the steep bank and up towards the house. Two of us swam, and others dipped their feet in the fresh but cloudy water, which had been stirred up by a dramatic thunderstorm the night before. After swimming we were even treated to a shower in (the extended part of) Thelwall’s house, before heading back to the village hall for lunch and drinks (generously sponsored by the John Thelwall Society).

The swim (Steve Poole)

The swim (Steve Poole)

Over the remains of our picnic, we heard poetry declaimed in character by ‘Coleridge’ (Richard Parry), ‘Thelwall’ (Steve Poole), and ‘Wordsworth’ (Penelope Corfield), which complemented the conversations that we had been having. At the end of the event, Richard left on his bicycle to continue with Day 16 of the Coleridge in Wales journey and the rest of us headed back to Hay before dispersing back to normality.
Although the ostensible reason that walk participants might have chosen to get involved with Coleridge in Wales at the Hay Festival was to find more about Coleridge and to experience the type of landscape through which he travelled when visiting Wales, it also provided space for wide-ranging discussion. It was a fascinating event to be part of, and I look forward to the further collaborative events, research and writing that are likely to grow out of the connections that were established in the fields and rivers of Wales.

You can follow a good deal of the walk by following the relevant parts of the Offa’s Dyke Path here
Elsa HammondElsa Hammond is a PhD candidate at the University of Bristol, working on breath and death in the poetry of Coleridge, Tennyson and Hardy. She also writes poetry and is an award-winning travel writer, and journey-maker. She tweets about literature, nature, education and adventure @ElsaAHammond