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Making an opera from scratch in 24 hours

They’re starting an opera marathon tonight at the Purcell School. Here’s a preview from Alison Cox OBE, Head of Composition:

purcell opera


FRIDAY 26th APRIL – at 7 p.m., five young composers aged 17/18 (Lucie Treacher, Sophie Sparkes, Michael Hope, Joshua Hagley and Jordan Stockdale) will begin work composing a brand-new 5 act opera in the Purcell School’s Composition Department. They have already drafted a plot and a rough libretto and will work on the opera all night, supported by drinks, snacks and masses of encouragement from myself and Danyal Dhondy, one of my former pupils who is coming to help.
SATURDAY 27th APRIL  - At 8 a.m. tomorrow morning, Johnny Ramster, Opera Lecturer and Choreographer from the RAM will arrive at the school with talented young postgrad conductor Karin Hendrikson and emerging young pianist/singer Joachim Badia Arumi from the RCM to work with a pupil-led team of Purcell School singers, instrumentalists, set designers, lighting technicians, etc
Johnny, Karin and Joachim will collect the finished material from the exhausted composers and launch straight into rehearsals with the players and singers! The exhausted composers will all flop into bed and sleep for a few hours, then wake up to hear the final rehearsals later in the day.
The young performers are all excellent sightreaders, but they will have to work VERY hard and VERY fast to learn and memorise the material. No easy feat for them!
There will be a Dress Rehearsal at 4.30 p.m. tomorrow and the performance will be at 7 p.m. All welcome!
We’ll try to keep you posted.
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  1. The closest we’ve ever come to this at Summer Sonatina International Piano Camp is 4 days, thanks to the guidance of my sister, Tasha, with the students, ages 7 – 14. Usually, the entire cast would write their own songs. If they wanted an “aria,” they’d have to incorporate it into the loosely fitting story and then quickly write the libretto and piano part. Staging sometimes didn’t take place until the very last day. Performances were rough around the edges, but, always full of fun.

    This post has inspired me to find the old VHS tapes and put them on DVD. We must have about 8 operas out there somewhere!

    Good luck with this project!

  2. What a wonderful project. I could even visualize it with younger students.

  3. Peter Klatzow says:

    I can hardly find anything to say in favour of this project. Firstly it discriminates against people who don’t naturally work fast, and favours those who just fling down the first idea that comes into their heads. None of this is real composition. I would suggest that time would be better spent teaching students how to edit their work meticulously (Schoenberg pointing to the eraser – “THIS is the working part”) and leave it to those who have flawless techniques to produce at whatever speed they wish to. In the end, no one cares whether you wrote a piece in 5 hours or five months. It should just be good.

  4. Good Lord!!
    Contact Guinnes. But, seriously, what an amazing idea and challenge. Not for the faint of heart.

  5. Thanks for this, Polly! Well, amazingly – the composers managed to prop eyelids open and write their pieces overnight, and the singers and instrumentalists have worked incredibly hard putting it all together!

    It’s all coming together nicely now as I write this – due to the efforts and enthusiasm of so many wonderful people who are helping!

  6. The 24-Hour Opera was a wonderful experience for those involved.

    Many thanks to some excellent people who helped pull it together – the up-and-coming opera composer Danyal Dhondy who mentored the young composers all night, helping them to shape their ideas and working methods to fit the timescale of the commission; to the Royal Academy of Music’s excellent Johnny Ramster who oversaw the rehearsals and choreography; to the absolutely astonishing young postgraduate conductor Karin Hendricksen (also from the Royal Academy of Music) who pulled together five challenging contemporary scores with the talented Purcell School instrumentalists and singers in such a short time; to another emerging musical entrepreneur Joachim Badia Arumi from the Royal College of Music who coached young singers with such care and sensitivity, and gave them the confidence to stand up and perform with energy, spirit and enjoyment.

    I should also mention the supporting team of set designers, programmers, stage managers, costume consultants, parents and friends, all of whom were inspired and motivated by the project, and helped us so much in their various ways.

    We were fortunate indeed to have with us all day the legendary photographer of musicians Malcolm Crowthers. Expect to see some really outstanding photographs of the event on Youtube, Facebook and on the Purcell School’s own website –

    The performance itself was moving, accomplished and imaginative. It lasted just over 30 minutes. For Peter Klatzow and others who may have reservations about the project, I can only say that you should ask all those involved, from the seasoned professional musicians right down to the youngest singer (who was 12 years old) what kind of learning experience it was for them. I think you will receive an overwhelmingly positive response!

    In this day and age, I believe that young composers have to be ready to accept all kinds of compositional challenges – including those where the timescale for completing work is limited and specific. Our duty is to teach them to become useful, versatile composers, so that there will be some prospect of employment for them in future. It’s not an easy profession to enter at the best of times!!

    Norman – I’m really grateful to you for featuring the 24-Hour Opera on Slipped Disc

  7. Rosalind says:

    Of course it is nice to have a long time to prepare something, but we grown-ups all know that life doesn’t usually work out that way, so I think this was a brilliant idea! Not just from the creative music side but also in teaching young people how to organise, delegate, work with older professional people from different specialities, cope with stress and tiredness, support one another and so on… I hope they sleep well after all their hard work.

    Peter, don’t be such a spoilsport…!

  8. Karin Hendrickson says:

    From an insider’s perspective, it was phenomenal all the way around. The time constraint forced the students not to waffle – they had to make decisions quickly, had to write clearly, and had to have a very focused line throughout their compositions – in fact a major part of the learning was that there is no slow work, only slow decision making. The orchestra players also became very quick to ask succinct questions of the composers to get clear answers, and the composers learned what information the players really needed in the orchestral part and to answer directly. There isn’t a curriculum in the world that could achieve the learning outcomes in a complete day found alone in this 24-hour exercise. These students wrote themselves this challenge, and more than rose to the occasion – the music was intelligently written with good compositional choices in terms of color, pitch content, and rhythmic atmosphere – they even wrote their own libretto. It’s amazing what the Purcell School composers, orchestra members, and singers achieved in a 24-hour period. Were there mistakes in the performance – of course. Were there some parts of the compositions the composers would have liked to revise – I would imagine. But was the creative output worth the exchange of a few piddly mistakes and tough decisions – absolutely. There are times to have long academic conversations over the minute details of whether or not a note should have a double-dotted decrescendo – but this project was about something completely different, and frankly, more immediately important – it was about getting mentally ready, and then allowing the creative flood-gates to burst forth. The result was instinctive composition, performance, and musicality from every person involved overtop of their intellectual background, and it had complete validity. Good? Forget good. Impressive? Beyond it. Excellent? Too general. To fully describe the success of the project is impossible. But I am so grateful I was a part of it. It has literally inspired me beyond words.

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