How to be a Flourish Competition Winner: Guy Harries

With the Flourish Submission Deadline fast approaching, we got in touch with our inaugural winners to find out what advice they had for this year's competitors. Here's what composer, Guy Harries, had to say...

2012 Flourish Competition Winner
Two Caravans
Composed by Guy Harries
Libretto by Ace McCarron

What were your reasons for wanting to submit an opera to OUC’s 2012 Flourish Competition?
We had the dream of turning the novel Two Caravans by Marina Lewycka into opera – it had all the ingredients: larger than life characters, comedy, action and drama. Initially we worked on the first stages of this opera at Kameroperahuis in the Netherlands together with Ilonka van den Bercken (initiator and director) and saw the huge potential of developing it further into a full production. OperaUpClose, with its fresh approach to opera, seemed like the perfect production company to do this with, so we decided to apply and see if we might win. We believed in the concept and the power of our material, so put in a lot of work into the application.

What was your professional background before entering the competition – had you written an opera before?
I’ve worked as a composer for many years with a focus on vocal music and drama-based multi-media works. I had composed the music for the opera Jasser (based on a play by Abdelkader Benali, with libretto adaptation and stage direction by David Prins), and produced it together with Ilonka van den Bercken, via the independent production house that I co-founded in the Netherlands – Bodylab Arts Foundation. Jasser was also a socio-politically engaged piece combining some musical traditions from around the world, and Two Caravans drew on these ideas and aesthetics as well.

How did the two of you meet? If you’d worked together before the competition, in what capacity?
Ace was the brilliant lighting designer on the previous opera production I mentioned, Jasser. We got to know each other during work on that production, and I was impressed by Ace’s deep understanding of contemporary opera. Ace mentioned that he’d written a libretto before, and sent it to me to read. When Ilonka and I were looking for someone to adapt Marina Lewycka’s novel Two Caravans into a libretto, Ace was clearly the right creative partner.

For librettists/composers wanting to submit a new opera to this year’s competition, what advice would you give them?
It’s important to think about the production as a whole, and not focus only on separate elements (music, text, stage design etc). Opera is truly a multi-media form and all of these elements need to work well together. Also, I’d recommend selecting excerpts that really reflect the whole gamut of emotions and musical language that your opera explores. Another important thing is to ask yourself who the audience is. Who is going to come and see your opera? What interests them? How are you going to speak to them via your work? Also, as Flourish is a platform for small-scale chamber opera with a limited number of performers, you need to think about how you will be able to create a piece that will work within these limitations. We can all dream of a symphony orchestra, ten singers, a choir and a lavish set, but that’s not the reality in this case. You need to create something powerful taking this into account. There are of course advantages to small scale: an intimate proximity to the world of the characters and their emotional journey, and a strong team that knows each other well.

Describe the stages of collaboration for Two Caravans?
We were quite lucky, as the first stages had already happened in the Netherlands a couple of years previously and we had a chance to see what worked well in terms of pacing, comic effect and drama. The starting point was the story, and very much inspired by the original novel Two Caravans by Marina Lewycka. The novel is quite intricate and includes many characters. We needed to strip it down a bit (less characters and scenes) to fit within 1.5 hours. Marina was also very encouraging and generous with her time and occasionally came over to see the reheraslas and gave us useful feedback and encouragement. Then we got Vincent van den Elshout the director on board, and after casting the excellent singers, started a few days of workshops. Vincent worked with the set and costume designers on the visual aspects of the performance (the colours white and red were to be a central theme, along with tables and chairs that doubled as cars and an astroturf covered catwalk). More intensive rehearsals – both stage-focused and musical – and we were ready to go!

What was important for you as a composer in regards to the processes leading up to submitting Two Caravans
It was important for me to keep the dramatic thrust of the piece going via music. This was achieved via change of pace and atmosphere in the music, with fast switches as well as moving arias. I did a lot of research into the musical traditions of the countries that the characters of the piece come from (Poland, Malawi, the Ukraine and England) and then tried to create a combination that wasn’t a pastiche of these musical styles but a musical world in its own right.

What about after winning the competition, you had a year to develop the opera into a full-length production, care to expand on how that went?
This was a very busy year indeed! We needed to revise the first half of the opera that was already written and create the rest of it! Ace and I met several times to discuss the libretto and we were also in contact with the director Vincent van den Elshout to give him as much information in preparation for his staging plans. The last two months were the most intense, with the last scenes still being composed, and daily rehearsals. It was such a joy seeing it all come together, with Vincent and the wonderful singers coming up with comical and dramatic ideas and putting the whole thing together.

What are you up to now? Has Flourish helped your career in anyway? If so how and would you recommend others to submit an opera to this competition?
Currently I am working on my solo project based on the life of Alan Turing. The album is in the final mixing stages and should be released soon along with some live performances. I am also performing with an experimental sound project called Sonic Rituals (with musician Yumi Hara), and collaborating with visual artist Nicko Straniero on creating a musical alter-ego called Guy XY. There are also plans for two new chamber operas in development. Flourish gave me the opportunity to work with musicians and artists in a very intensive and holistic way and gain new insights into dramaturgical collaboration. I plan to continue working with the brilliant director Vincent van den Elshout on further production.