Broken Strings


Dramatic text for a one-act ‘opera’, originally intended by composer Param Vir as companion-piece in a double-bill with his earlier one-act Snatched by the Gods (text, William Radice); but now beginning an independent existence. (I put ‘opera’ in quotes because it’s a word that ‘P.V.’ and I both feel has cultural resonances that are alien to what we’re trying to achieve; we think more in terms of ‘music theatre’.)
Publishers: Novello

The old musician Guttil (Richard Suart) surrounded by the magical creatures - Elephant, Peacock, Fish - that his music has conjured. The Judges drawn in to the vision. Foreground, at silent instrument, the discountenanced Musil. 
From the original production by Pierre Audi (Amsterdam and Munich, 1992). Costumes and masks by Chloe Obolensky, lighting Jean Kalman.
Photograph: Param Vir.

The post of Player to the King is vacant. Musicians throughout the Kingdom have been summoned and heard; and all found wanting. But at last the young Musil is called forward, and it would seem the search must be over. Brilliant, versatile, Musil is secure in one simple conviction: he has heard, in all the contest, no talent to equal his; he will surely be chosen. To his surprise the Judges reject him; and a mysterious old man appears - Guttil, almost blind; stammering, out of practice, fumbling on his instrument: a beggar, he seems, but with a strange authority, and compelling respect. Barely waiting for the command, he begins to play.

Yet hardly has the old man begun, when one of his strings breaks. Distressed, and faltering at first, he yet plays on; and from his instrument an extraordinary new note begins to sound. Then a second string breaks; then a third... For pity, the Judges try to stop him; but more and more intensely the old man plays on, with less and less. His music becomes even more extraordinary, and magical creatures begin to appear, delighting in this miraculous music. Even the three Judges will begin to see and wonder. Only the young Musil is unaffected. Impressed but unmoved, he can only interpret the old man’s magic as some external trick effect, that can be taught - and imitated. To achieve the same magic, he breaks his own strings; but now no music comes from them at all. He has destroyed his own instrument.

This strange story, originally an ancient Buddhist legend, is here adapted and framed operatically as a ‘play within a play’, performed by court actors for their own King. It is a play that he has never seen before: and as one by one the old musician’s strings break, the Spectator King becomes increasingly disturbed, and interrupts the actors; tries to stop the play...Param Vir is rare among living composers: his music is neither calculated, nor originated in some abstract process, but humanly meaningful. Austerely ordered it certainly is, but passionate, and rooted in issues of existence. Its emotional accuracy in this piece, its beauty, intensity, mystery, are here to be experienced, and cannot be described in words. Collaboration with P.V. is a severe business, severe in a good cause.

Because in this piece the action on the space is itself centred on musical performance, and on questions of excellence, and because also of the revelationary nature of the story, the dramaturgy was particularly difficult to achieve. There are three distinct ‘frames’ of music in play: the outer music of our ‘opera’ itself; the inner music of the play within our ‘opera’; then, gradually burning these away, the transcending music that, as each string breaks, the intensifying visions bring... And what is one to do when the last string breaks? After seven complete re-workings, the Broken Strings dramaturgy can boast the most hard-won quality of all: it looks as obvious and simple as falling off a log. (No marks to the British music critic who asserted that it is ‘wrong’ to begin the action of an opera before the music starts.)

Commissioned by Hans Werner Henze for the Munich Music Theatre Festival in 1992, the double-bill was directed by Pierre Audi for Nederlandse Oper, Amsterdam, and first presented there and subsequently at the Munich festival that same year. It has since enjoyed several further productions - at the Almeida Music Festival, London, and at Scottish Opera. It has also been seen in other productions in Belgium and Vienna, and in a revival of Audi’s original production in Holland again. In Berlin in 1996, Broken Strings was paired with Holst’s Savitri. In 2001, the original production was again revived, and toured to Rotterdam, Antwerp and Rouen.

The libretto is published, in programme booklet form, by Scottish Opera, Glasgow, G2 4PT.

Currently in development with Param Vir, a full-length music-theatre piece, seeking support from a major opera-house; also, in one act, Black Feather Rising, commissioned by the Netherlands ensemble Stichting Octopus, and scheduled for production in October 2008.