PRS for Music Foundation: What impact will New Music 20×12 have on your work?
Conor Mitchell: Lots. This is a national stage to be playing on and a chance to bring new opera to Northern Ireland. Us composers can be clandestine and work in relative vacuums sometimes. It feels special to be participating in such a visible, vibrant event. It’s also a chance to take time over the composition itself. I plan on taking very slow, careful steps while writing it. This will leave a more polished piece and can only be good for my overall development as a music inventor!
PRSF: Tell us the story of how and why you joined forces with the performers you are working with on this project.
CM: I first worked with the librettist Mark Ravenhill a few years ago on a play. This was quickly followed by a song cycle for the pop singer Marc Almond and a further short opera – still being developed. I find Mark’s voice to be unique in the UK. He tells important stories and ‘says’ things about us, here, now. That, for me, is very important because the story I want to tell in the opera is a reminder of the dangers faced in contemporary Northern Ireland: the return to violence.
PRSF: How are you going to approach creating your new work? What kinds of creative input will the performers and community you are working with have on your work?
CM: I would like to workshop the libretto of the opera without music first. This would be done with actors from the local area. Once I am happy with the dramatic arc of the piece I will begin to score it. Before this can happen I need detailed conversations with the librettist about where the story is ‘going’.
PRSF: Who do you hope to reach through the creation and performance of this work and what do you hope they’ll take away with them?
CM: I hope to reach as many people as possible, especially in my home country of Northern Ireland. I don’t want them to see opera as something ‘beyond’ them. Opera is, in its simplest terms, a story told in a different way. I’d like people to embrace that. The traditional audience interests me as much as the non-traditional. I’d like people to ask themselves ‘why did that story need to be told with music?’ That is a question many composers don’t even ask themselves! Not every story has the dramatic ‘unsaid’ or the need for music. Many modern operas should have stayed as plays or books or stories. If the opera works, the audience should be able to say ‘yes, that could only have been an opera’. If they can say that then I believe they will return to opera in the future.
PRSF: Where do you draw your inspiration and influences? Which creator – musical or otherwise – do you most admire?
CM: I always draw upon the words. The composers I’ve been influenced by are the ones who engage with text and scenario. I see myself as a theatre person – not an opera house person – and like to listen to other composers who felt the same – Glass, Britten, Adams, Mozart. I use music to tell a story and have little interest in music for music’s sake. I see it as a tool.
PRSF: Which Olympic and/or Paralympic Games will you be seeing in 2012? What was your best/favourite sport when you were growing up?
CM: I loved tennis when I was a kid. I’ll be seeing the Dressage teams. I wrote a piece for the British team once – bizarre – and fell in love with the sport. It is incredibly skilled, timed and takes hundreds of hours of practice and training.
Our Day will be a new opera set against a backdrop of events in Northern Ireland in 1972. That year, as well as being the bloodiest of the troubles, marked the gold medal win for local girl, Mary Peters. Her achievement at the Munich Olympics briefly unified a country at war with itself and created a much-welcomed respite from the daily cycle of violence. It also allowed the country to pause for a moment to cheer Peters to victory. In 2012 it will be 40 years since that win and Northern Ireland is a very different place but still there are people determined to drag us back into conflict. More, now than ever, we need to remember that sense of achievement and national pride on the international stage. We need to remember our day in 1972.