The Grace of Todd

1969 libretto for one-act opera by Gordon Crosse commissioned by the Aldeburgh Festivalpublishers: Oxford University Press

National Service, mid-50s. Private Todd is the ‘moonman’ of his troop. Unlike the others, fit athletic physical achievers, he’s a fat shambolic heap who can’t do press-ups, climb a rope, take a running jump... Now, on a training exercise, he’s wobbled off a narrow pipe across a stream, and fallen in. Drenched and shivering, in shame and misery at the merry laughter of his mates, the fury of his spluttering sergeant and ranting junior officer, he is left floundering in the water as they march off about yet more wondrous physical exertions. All Todd can do is stick out his tongue and blow a raspberry after them. It echoes like the blast of a farting trombone. As Todd sorrows at his size and clumsiness, again in his mortification he thrusts out his tongue, and mouth-farts after where the others have gone: but around him is darkening a mysterious wood, and the vision of a lovely Lady comes, enchanted by his clownish faces. To her, these are ‘grace’ of a kind, something he can supremely do. She has him entertain her with his hideous ‘girnings’ and contortions: echoing to her silvery laughter, the forest fades away. When the others return, they can mock and rail at him, the sergeant and officer can threaten him, punish him all they like: Todd’s antic faces and insolent gestures reduce their authority to gibbering chaos. Clownish, anarchic, Todd has found his ‘grace’, and he is free.

Unusual setting and language for an opera - especially in the rather precious ambience of Aldeburgh. The first night was a disaster for the composer and myself: turning up with our wives for the post-performance reception, we found the house in Thorpeness empty and silent, and only a stunned and speechless Lady Harewood there to greet us. Her embarrassment was manifest. Gordon and I had never fooled ourselves Todd was a masterpiece; we each had his reservations about aspects of it: but surely it couldn’t have been so bad a piece that no one could face the prospect of meeting us... After a desolate halfhour or so of sherry and sporadic small-talk, we left. Not until next morning did we learn that, during the performance, another Festival venue had mysteriously burned down; that was where everyone had gone. The good Lady Harewood had not wished, by telling us of this, to ‘ruin our evening’.

I did not like the ethos of Aldeburgh. The music-making was one thing; but socially it was a côterie culture, presided over by a rococo trinity of Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears and Imogen Holst. If one was a visitor or creative individual of first rank, one would be introduced to ‘Ben’. Those of middle rank were granted a charming and courteous sentence or two from Peter Pears. The rest of us rated a nod of acknowledgment from Imogen Holst in her box at the performance. I rated the nod.