|Stephen McNeff & Aoife Mannix: Beyond the Garden - Susan Bickley at premiere of the work (Photo Slovenian Chamber Music Theatre)|
Stephen McNeff and Aoife Mannix' opera Beyond the Garden (subtitled When the past is not how you want to remember it…) was commissioned by Slovenian Chamber Music Theatre and premiered by them in Slovenia in 2019, but prior to then Stephen had presented excerpts in a workshop that I was lucky enough to be able to attend.
Now the work is receiving its UK premiere, with performances at the Lichfield Festival on 14 July [ticket details] and at the Three Choirs Festival on 25 July [ticket details], with mezzo-soprano Susan Bickley as Ottilia (a role she created at the opera's premiere), and soprano Alison Rose as Klara, with Gemini, conducted by Dominic Wheeler.
Stephen McNeff and Aoife Mannix have made some changes to the opera since its first performance, and in this article, Stephen explores the processes by which they developed the work.
South Moravian Winter Landscape (Photo Stephen McNeff)
It’s to the great credit of Slovenian Chamber Music Theatre that two years ago in the middle of the pandemic they took advantage of a lull at the end of August to push ahead – under strict social distancing conditions – with the premiere of Beyond the Garden. Since then, the opera has been performed several times, each time subtly developing as the experience of performance sharpened the emphasis. Most recently in the Czech Republic in Brno, Olomouc and Prague, audiences and critics (and of course the fantastic contribution of the performers) helped Aoife Mannix (the librettist) and I discover more about what we wanted to say. They helped to pin down what the work is really about.
We had begun work on the opera in 2019 and presented scenes in a workshop format in London during August that year. The feedback we had from our small audience was very useful, especially in helping to discover how allusive we could be with the narrative. We started out by telling a story based on Alma Mahler’s relationship with her daughter, Manon in a series of fantasy flashbacks. We refined that idea, and within that structure this is how it reached the premiere audience two years ago. Many people very much liked the amorphous timeline because it allowed them to construct their own narrative. The critics in Ljubljana - whilst allowing for the very restricted nature of the lockdown staging - ‘got’ the dislocation of time and the dual reality.
Even so, after repeated watching I wanted to go back to the dramaturgy and clarify two points which I now knew needed work. The first and most obvious one was to make clear that Beyond the Garden is not a biographical opera. Alma Mahler is its starting point, but it is really about aging and memory; as the subtitle says, When the past is not how you want to remember it… The other major revision was to ‘straighten’ the narrative and creative an illusion of a linear development. It is only as the opera progresses that we start to wonder how much of this is actually real and whether the whole thing is not some elaborate mind game that the lonely Ottila is allowing herself to play
The commentator in Opera+ (the Czech Republic’s largest classical music magazine) remarked of the Olomouc Opera Festival performance, "the theme of the work - unfulfilled interpersonal relationships and loneliness - is completely universal and would stand up on its own, even if we were not familiar with the real inspiration of the opera". In Prague, the cultural fortnightly Divadelní Noviny said the backstory "was only an incentive to evoke a decadent refined European turn-of-the-century culture in which the romantic 19th century was dying, partly surviving World War I to be destroyed by Hitler and post-World War II." These insights (as well as the fulsome praise for the work - "I definitely count Stephen McNeff's opera Beyond the Garden in Venus in Švehlovka as a decoration of the festival") - allowed Aoife and I to sharpen the focus of the work and to concentrate on the complexities of a relationship – one both incredibly close, but also now distant and perhaps misremembered.
This is what one orders in Brno (Photo Stephen McNeff)
We spent a lot of time sampling Slovenian and Czech coffee and beer (do not ask for Pilsner in Brno - "it’s not what we have here. Ours is better."), and I spent useful reflection time travelling by train through the Czech winter landscape. This and the experience of the work moving from a modern theatre in Ljubljana during lockdown to a Jesuit monastery chapel, via the Janacek Academy and ending up in a political variety theatre in Prague (shut down by the Nazis and later the Communists – so they must have been doing something right) helped the opera transform and now go on another part of the journey as it plays on English stages.
Beyond the Garden: When the past is not how you want to remember it… - Stephen McNeff's programme note
Stephen McNeff, Susan Bickely and Katja Konvalinka,
director of Slovenian Chamber Music Theatre, in Brno with Leoš Janáček
The inspiration forBeyond the Garden came from a conversation in Ljubljana, Slovenia in 2018 where I was talking about ideas for a new chamber opera with Katya Konvalinka director of Slovenian Chamber Music Theatre. They had recently produced my opera Gentle Giant and we were sitting near the opera house in Ljubljana where Gustav Mahler had spent a season in 1881. Katja remarked that she had always found the relationship between Alma Mahler and her daughter Manon Gropius a fascinating one as it was full of the complexities that often exist between parents and children. Exacerbated in Manon’s case by Alma’s unorthodox attitudes to child-rearing, her display of Manon as an object of perfection – almost a trophy - was a parental love at times claustrophobic but also distant. When Manon tragically died at the age of 18 after contracting polio in Venice, Alma did not even go to the funeral in Vienna.
Taking the idea away, I spoke with my friend and colleague, the poet Aoife Mannix who confirmed that the relationship between mothers and daughters can be fraught with contradictions. Aoife thought that Alma must have been haunted by the memory of Manon for the rest of her life – and so the idea for the opera was conceived. Aoife and I visited Ljubljana and the house in Venice - now an hotel - where Alma and Manon spent Easter 1934. It was December when we were there, but the magnolia tree in the garden was already showing signs of life. Venice as we know, is full of mysteries and astonishments, and the fact that there was a garden at all in the city dedicated to water was a surprise. The hotel was called Oltre il Giardino – beyond the garden – and we realised we had a title for the opera.
Aoife and I did not want to write a biographical work – it is too fraught with the pedestrian nature of dates and places. Besides, we wanted a more universal theme – that of aging and memory - and preferred an imaginary world where time and space are pliant, and where we could draw on our own imaginations to create places inhabited by half-remembered realities and solid seeming illusions. We changed the names of the characters so that we would be freed from historical reality (although the characters never actually address each other by name), but we did stick to the broad contour of Alma’s life in a structure that takes the form of a series of interviews. That led us into a territory of recall, what memory is and how we often manufacture the past in a way that suits us.
My own experience of a person with a failing memory allowed me to understand that the knowledge of something that happened an hour ago may quickly evaporate while an event from sixty or more years ago can be recalled in vivid detail. People in black and white photos from eighty years ago are instantly recognised while something very recent is forgotten. Personal losses half century ago are ever present. In our story, Ottilia – now a grande dame living with her memories – is interviewed by Klara, a young woman keen to dig into the past. Klara challenges Ottilia’s recollections, having done her research in peculiar detail. However, Klara is oddly spooked by an unwanted gift from Ottilia, and, as the narrative plays out, we begin to question the reality and deceptions of Ottilia’s encounters with the past. The women seem to have a complex relationship beyond that of journalistic happenstance, and at times an almost Bergmanesque insight into each other’s thoughts. In the end we wonder if the longing to remember confronted by the terror of forgetting is creating its own ghosts and deceptions.
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