Composer Tom Coult, 33, is one of the most distinctive and admired composers of his generation. In 2021, he was made Composer-in-Association with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra and he has enjoyed further associations with ensembles such as Britten Sinfonia and London Sinfonietta.
Violet is Tom’s first opera, which he created with acclaimed writer Alice Birch. Known for her powerful female-centred writing, her credits include Anatomy of a Suicide (Royal Court) and story editing for Succession (HBO).
Violet opens at the 2022 Aldeburgh Festival, with two performances on 3 & 5 June. The production embarks on a short tour this month, including dates at the Sherman Theatre on 8 June and Theatre Clwyd on 19 June.
Alice and I first met in 2014 at the Opera Creation Academy at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in France, which was a week of discussing opera with composers, writers, and directors. Neither Alice nor I had written an opera before, but we became interested in collaborating and started exchanging our work. Alice sent me her plays –such as ‘Revolt She Said. Revolt Again’, and I sent her some of my music.
Alice is the most extraordinary writer, and I knew that she would write superb text for music. She has a real precision and concision in the way that she selects words. There’s a real tightness to how things operate in her writing, but also a kind of unpredictability and things will take flight into some dazzling imagery as well. For us both, it was important to trust one another – which is why we exchanged our work before we started collaborating – so that we could work out how each other’s brains work. I think that she trusts me as a composer and knows that I’ll be excited by the words she gives me and that I can bring her words to life through my music.
Image Patrick Young
Image, The Other Richard courtesy Britten Pears Arts
I became very excited about writing an opera – one of the main reasons for this was that I knew it would be interesting to be working with so many extra elements. I’m usually curating a listeners’ time and filling it with as many wonderous things as I can and, when you’re working on an opera, you have much longer to do this. You have words that you may find exciting, and which leads you to compose the music in a different way. Scenes have shapes, characters have motivations, and they have reasons for what their character is feeling, and this influences how they might be singing.
All these extra things are helpful and provocative in the composition process. When you write an orchestral piece, you’re collaborating with the conductor and musicians but the new collaborations that come into play when you’re writing an opera took me to a new space. There’s loads of artistry of the other people involved in the production – such as the artistry of a director and, of course, the set, costume, lighting, and sound designers, and this is a wonderful new experience.
I’ve been enjoying the rehearsal process very much. The cast – Anna Dennis (Violet), Richard Burkhard (Felix), Frances Gregory (Laura) and Andrew MacKenzie-Wicks (The Clockkeeper) and are fantastic. The Conductor, Andrew Gourlay is phenomenal – he knows the score inside out; and seeing Violet’s Director, Jude Christian, bringing her intelligence and emotional literacy to the room and how she’s working this through with such clarity is amazing to watch.
Because of the delays due to Covid, it’s been a long time since we finished writing Violet – it was originally meant to premiere in 2020 – so it’s going to be an amazing thing to see it coming to life on the stage at last.
Alice Birch and Tom Coult
Violet is a co-production by Britten Pears Arts and Music Theatre Wales, staged in association with the London Sinfonietta.
Aldeburgh Festival, Snape Maltings Concert Hall, 3, 5, June https://brittenpearsarts.org/events/violet
Sherman Theatre, Cardiff, 8 June
Hackney Theatre, London, 23 June https://hackneyempire.co.uk/whats-on/violet/
Buxton International Festival, 18 July https://buxtonfestival.co.uk/whats-on/violet
Theatr Clwyd, Mold, 19 June 2022