On Saturday 25 June in Milan a new opera will get its world premiere at Milan's prestigious Piccolo Teatro Studio Melato. Love Hurts is written by Italian composer Nicola Moro with a libretto by Lisa Hilton and will be conducted by James Ross.
The opera is a project of contemporary opera targeted at young opera singers, brought together by the association SoloCanto, in cooperation with the Center for Contemporary Opera (CCO) in New York. Its Italian director, Federica Santambrogio, says,
We would like this to be the first of a series of many workshops and presentations of unreleased operas. We have taken inspiration from the CCO with which we cooperate, that spreads the passion for contemporary opera in the United States.
The blurb for the new work reads,
The opera is set in the mental asylum of Charenton, in France, where Marquis de Sade was incarcerated from 1803 until his death, in 1814, and where he was given the opportunity to perform theatre shows featuring the mentally ill as actors. Love Hurts imagines Marquis de Sade performing the trial to Gilles de Rais, known as Bluebeard, in the mental asylum. The opera explores the relationship between Marquis de Sade, who was incarcerated and locked up in a mental asylum for what he wrote, not for what he did, and Gilles de Rais, who was a savage murderer.
I asked the composer, Moro, how it came about.
I had the idea for the libretto in 1998, and tried to write a first draft myself with horrible results.
This is where his ex-wife, the author Lisa Hilton, came in.
Lisa did her research for quite a long time – she is very meticulous in this – and did not write a word until she had a pile of notebooks filled with her notes. Then I received the text perfectly formed to be honest, I had to make only minute alterations.
Hilton is more widely known as LS Hilton who wrote this year's greatly talked about thriller Maestra: a “bestselling bonkbuster by the Oxford-educated historical novelist”, said The Times. Though the same paper's review of her book explained,
LS Hilton is the alias of Lisa Hilton, the historian and academic who has, up to this point, been known for her biographies on Elizabeth I and Nancy Mitford. Now she's trying her hand at erotica. What's a nice historian like Hilton doing in a genre like this? you might ask. Well… it's not a simple bonkbuster. Maestra is an art-world thriller about a 27-year-old woman… who goes from being a lowly assistant at a major London auction house, to uncovering an in-house art world conspiracy, which costs her her job. And along the way she has a lot of sex.
Well, there's not a lot of sex in Love Hurts, even though its title might conjure up some raunchy scenes, probably between a sultry mezzo and a barihunk. I asked Hilton about the writing process to create her libretto.
It was quite difficult to write, given the notorious reputation of one of its subjects and the virtual disappearance from history of the other.
De Rais was a man who straddled his century, de Sade has been reduced to a dirty joke, but de Sade's fascination with de Rais is hugely important to our understanding of the eighteenth century.
Researching the libretto made me realise quite how vast the gulf in morality and sensibility is, not only between us and the medieval, but between the twenty-first century and the end of the Enlightenment. That de Rais could be a paedophilic mass murderer who became a saint venerated by mothers did not actually seem all that surprising to de Sade himself.
I am greatly looking forward to the performance in New York on the 28th October as it is an opportunity to insert a large Trigger Warning on the programme.
The opera makes its American debut at New York's Symphony Space in the autumn.
A story in brushstrokes
Husband and wives collaborating might lead to an intimate shorthand meaning that a work gets created with ease, though, of course, there's the danger of the same intimacy creating tensions resulting in an uphill struggle to reach that final page. Didn't the fact of being an ex-husband and wife make the collaboration even more tricky?
It was all very smooth sailing – says Moro. I would say we have great respect for each other's work and try to accommodate the other person's artistic views rather than fight them and impose our own.
After their twelve years together they remain close and have a ten-year-old daughter.
How would Moro describe his musical style?
It is contemporary, but not modernist. I think Babbitt's “Who Cares if You Listen?” is a thing of the past. I care deeply about the listener. That said, I think the easier way to describe my language would be to cite a few major influences: Stravinsky, Ligeti, Dalbavie, Berio, Donatoni, Dallapiccola, and of course my teacher George Benjamin.
The ensemble is made of four singers – soprano, a buffo tenor, baritone and bass – flute, cor anglais, clarinet, trombone, two violins (though no viola as I did not want end up with a string quartet sound), cello and double bass. We tried to have an internal justification for many, many aspects of the opera. For instance, I chose the trombone for the brass section, instead of the more appropriate chamber ensemble horn, as at the time of the story it would have been a more popular – and affordable – instrument, so more convincing to be found in a lunatic asylum. Or the costumes: the soprano switches between many roles, and a change of costume can be as simple as putting a feather in her hair.
Hilton says of the score,
Nicola's music is so haunting, so dynamic, so precise. I hope that the libretto will guide the audience's thoughts in relation to the music, help to take them into it. That's what I think words in opera are for, a background: the main event is what happens when the music finds the ideas of the audience.
And it may not be the end of her career as an opera librettist:
Technically, writing a libretto was wonderfully different than anything I had attempted before. I can't paint, but if I could, I think that's how it might feel, a story in brushstrokes.
The world premiere of Love Hurts is on Saturday 25 June at 7.30pm at the Piccolo Teatro Studio Melato in Milan.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.