The music of the opera does not stick to one style, it embraces many of them, which is one of the ideas of my work - to reflect present times. And now, as we see and feel, a time when boundaries are blurring, when good and evil become something in between, something that moves our history forward.

How to write an opera

by Andrei Maksimov

The most important thing for me when writing music is that I like it myself. Every motif, every harmony has to be such that it makes me smile, or even cry. As a result of my approach to composition, when listening to my music we inevitably fall into the realm of my musical upbringing, which, ultimately, has inspired all of the music I write. I have no professional background in composition, apart from a few private lessons. My teachers were the composers who wrote the music that reached my ears.

I was born into a family of musicians: my mother, grandmother, aunt and uncle all graduated from a conservatory: my mother and grandmother as music theorists, my aunt and uncle as violinists. Having been brought up in the Soviet Union, they all had a rather conservative view of music and the kind of musical landscape that should be shaped for a child. There was music in the house all the time; on cassettes and also played by my mother on the piano. I would wake up and fall asleep to Chopin waltzes, I would start my day with Mozart and end with Bach.

My musical horizon was precisely laid out and did not allow for any changes. Once, as a child, I found an audiocassette with music by Carl Orff - Carmina Burana, on top of which was partially recorded something related to my mother's work. I listened to it all day, but in the evening my mother came back and took the cassette away, saying it was bad music and that I should continue listening to Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin and Scriabin. Of course, there was no opera in the house until a certain point, nor was there any chamber vocal music. This music was considered too difficult for a child by her mother. That all changed from the moment I began to show an aptitude for singing.

I felt that singing was the perfect expression of my musical experiences from an early age. I had perfect hearing, and I remember very well how I cried at the age of 4 because I couldn't hit the right note with my voice; my vocal apparatus simply wasn't mature enough yet. I studied piano at music school and the teachers scolded me for constantly singing along to a tune during exams. I was inspired by Glenn Gould, but it turned out he was the only one who could do that. After a series of arguments with my mother and trying to play the violin, I transferred to the conservatory’s choir department, where it became much easier for me to express my musical feelings. I had a high treble and everyone loved and appreciated me in the new ensemble.

One day we visited my choir director's house and she played me a video production of Bizet's Carmen so I could listen to something while the adults were having tea. I hadn't heard the opera before and was struck by the beauty and richness of the expressive colours of this musical genre. Two hours later they found me conducting the final act of the opera - I was eight years old. From then on, I asked my mother to take me to the theatre and buy me vocal music cassettes. Three years later I became principal soloist of the largest children's choir in St Petersburg, and I was determined to tie my life down to opera, but how exactly - I'm still figuring that out.

I graduated from the conducting department of the Rimsky-Korsakov College of Music, where I did a lot of choral singing and conducting. It was there that I began to write my first adult works, mostly for chorus. It wasn't a major compositional breakthrough, but colleagues encouraged me in these endeavours and I never stopped writing something, exploring my brain's ability to sublimate information into a musical text.

The abundance of choral music surrounding me at that time gave me the opportunity to hear and separate voices within a musical texture, something I practiced at every symphony concert I listened to, picking out the melody of the flutes, the double basses, and the French horns. I heard even more orchestral textures, this time in conjunction with the voice through the Mariinsky Theatre, where I joined the youth opera programme at the age of 17. At the Mariinsky I wrote my first opera for children, Kolobok, based on a Russian folk tale that was never performed, but in which I tried to find my own style of musical dramaturgy.

In opera I have always wanted simplicity mixed with complexity. This harmony accompanies all the great operas that are often performed at world venues, from Mozart's trilogy to Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier. But many of the lesser-known operas lack that piercing clarity, without which the fragile and complex fabric of musical theatre drama falls apart.

From the very start of my career as a composer I have tried to tell a story in a clear but profound way, using the means available to me. My first opera was not so successful, mainly because I had to write the libretto myself, for want of a librettist, and that affected the quality of the text and the overall impression of the music. Ever since then I have been dreaming of writing my own opera to a professional libretto. This finally worked out when my partner’s father commissioned me to write an opera to the text of his play Barabbas.

I started the opera in St. Petersburg and finished it in a short time in Bern. I was concerned that the amount of musical material I had written would be unable to retain the initial impulse and excitement I had to create, but I think I have succeeded. Moreover, if you listen carefully to the opera, you will notice that towards the end it becomes clearer and more complex at the same time - that's what I wanted to achieve, and that is one way in which I've finally succeeded. The music of the opera does not stick to one style, it embraces many of them, which is one of the ideas of my work - to reflect present times. And now, as we see and feel, a time when boundaries are blurring, when good and evil become something in between, something that moves our history forward. In the music of the opera Barabbas, I have shown the uncertainty and pain of a people who had to live in such a difficult time, the plot of which very much overlaps and resonates with the current events of political life in Europe.

The librettist Vladimir Alkhovik and English translator Helen Daniels will tell us more about the plot and the idea of the text.