Tapestry Opera’s upcoming show is a new opera based on DH Lawrence’s short story Rocking Horse Winner. The music is by Gareth Williams and the libretto by Anna Chatterton. It’s co-commissioned with Scottish Opera but this time, unlike The Devil Inside, seen earlier this season, it’s a Canadian production with a Canadian cast. I spoke with director Michael Mori and librettist Anna Chatterton to find out what it was all about.
Lawrence’s original story is set in a privileged but cash strapped English family just after the First World War. Chatterton’s libretto updates this to contemporary Toronto while retaining as much of the original flavour as possible. Mostly, this isn’t too hard but the English obsession with betting on the nags that is so central to the original does seem to have been a challenge. I couldn’t name a single Canadian horse race but I know when the Grand National is. Anyway, operas have been worked around far bigger problems than that. The concept of the rather sheltered boy and his relationship with the house he lives in and the gardener who places his bets are handled in an ingenious way. The boy is on the autism spectrum and processes what goes on around him in a non-linear way allowing the house to become the incubator of what he hears around him.
Besides the narrative, what intrigues Chatterton about the story is the relationship between the mother and the boy. It’s distant, even loveless, and there is guilt involved. This is perhaps one area where the contemporary setting adds a bit of edge because a minimally affective parental relationship is hardly a rarity in the English upper classes! What drew Mori to it is that, unlike most operas, it’s not in any way a romance. The “supernatural” element too is a natural and organic reason for the use of music to tell the story. It has also got strong themes around how entitlement and greed work, usually to the detriment of those involved, on both conscious and subconscious levels. Could there be a section of the opera audience that finds this somewhat uncomfortable?
Last, but certainly not least, Mori promises that Rocking Horse Winner will be “the most beautiful thing we have done in a while”. Both Mori and Chatterton used the word “lyrical” to describe Williams’ music and I think the word “poetic” came up as well. So, strong psychological themes, lyrical though thoroughly modern music and a poetic libretto. If it lives up to all that it should be quite exciting.
Rocking Horse Winner plays at the Berkeley Street Theatre from May 27th to June 4th. Cast details, ticketing etc here.