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James MacMillan discusses the genesis of his new opera The Sacrifice premiered by Welsh National Opera on 22 September.

How did you and librettist Michael Symmons Roberts first discover the story for the opera?
We were aware that The Mabinogion is one of the great mythic tales of these isles, kept alive by the Welsh but generally unknown outside Wales. I suppose I have always been on the lookout for parallel mythic tales other than the famous Greco-Roman canon, so discovering such a rich seam of narrative and mystery here was a great revelation. The Tale of Branwen provided a kind of root from which Michael grew a brand new story.

How did you collaborate on creating the opera?
I had already set Michael’s words for oratorio, song-cycle, music-theatre and motet but this is the first opera we have written together. In The Sacrifice, he has changed poetic pace from Quickening or Parthenogenesis, so the text is much more immediate. Well-established as a poet, Michael has also had a wide experience of writing in different media. He recently published his first novel and is also an award-winning documentary writer for television and radio, so this experience and versatility proved invaluable for the necessary change in approach that was required for the opera.

How did Katie Mitchell’s input as director feed into the final opera?
Katie was there at the very beginning when Anthony Freud, the previous intendant at WNO, approached me with the suggestion of a new opera. Therefore she was involved throughout in the process of decision-making and creative thought. She workshopped the opera in a series of three sessions over the last few years, probing the dramaturgical potential at every stage. These workshops proved invaluable, not just for the completion of the opera, but also for Katie’s dramatic vision in action.

How do the mythic and the contemporary interact?
The story we have culled from The Mabinogion has a timeless quality which resonates with the King Arthur story, the Fisher-King myth, and Tristan. There is a common source to all of these tales but, because the heart of this story examines core issues of love and communal conflict, we find certain universals which are as contemporary as they are eternal.

The opera’s setting in a semi-derelict hotel reflects the contrast between public and private events. How is this mirrored dramatically?
There is a conflict and a continuum between the public and the private in this piece. Some scenes are very intimate, domestic even, and yet the characters at the centre of these scenes are public figures and leaders who have profound influence in their societies. The private and the personal are therefore inescapably public and political.

How has your vocal writing evolved since your earlier opera Inés de Castro
The writing for the soloists has become more immediate as I’ve explored ways to communicate the story more directly. The choral style has evolved from a couple of different strands: my interest in liturgy has partly informed my approach, as it did in Inés de Castro, but there is also a different kind of range and power possible from an operatic chorus that was a delight to exploit.

What special role does the orchestra play? Does it have a dramatic life in its own right?
It has always been important in my dramatic and theatrical works to find a special sound palette. It is as if the orchestra provides another dimension to the narrative and to the drama which allows the imagination to travel deeper or in a different direction. There are important orchestral interludes in this opera, providing reflection points during the narrative, and I have extracted three of these to make a symphonic suite which may be performed as a separate orchestral work.

How has the creation of the new opera influenced your thinking about the genre’s possible future?
People will always want to have stories told to them. There will always be new ways of telling the oldest stories. When these are combined with music and song one reaches towards a heightened expression of drama. Opera is part of our culture; it has grown out of its liturgical roots and continues to develop in various different directions. In my view, there will always be a need to continue to refresh the operatic literature.

James MacMillan
The Sacrifice (2005-06)
Opera in three acts

Libretto by Michael Symmons Roberts

Katie Mitchell  Director
James MacMillan  Conductor
Welsh National Opera

22/26 September/6 October  
Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff

16 October     
Empire Theatre, Liverpool

24 October    
The Mayflower, Southampton

31 October    
Venue Cymru, Llandudno

7 November    
Hippodrome, Bristol

14 November    
New Theatre, Oxford

21 November    
Hippodrome, Birmingham

26 November    
Sadler’s Wells, London

>  Further information on Work: The Sacrifice

Image: courtesy of Welsh National Opera

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