The opera has been composed by Tim Benjamin who is also the artistic director of Radius Opera. As the driving force behind this project, I asked if he could spare a little time to answer a few questions and he kindly shared his insight with us.
1. The Fire of Olympus is a new opera, what inspired you to pick this subject?
In 2016 I wrote an oratorio, “Herakles”, for choir, large orchestra, 5 solo singers, and a narrator (spoken)
At the very end, the narrator, who plays the part of “Time”, a kind of mystical storyteller, says: “Perhaps now I shall tell you the story of Prometheus… but no, that can wait for another time.” The oratorio was a big success, especially with the choral society that performed it, and lots of people asked when they were going to get a sequel about Prometheus. And so the idea for this opera, “The Fire of Olympus” came about! While the opera is a very different style of piece, two of my collaborators are the same; Anthony Peter my librettist, and Professor Emma Stafford, of Leeds University, our resident Ancient Greece expert.
2. What musical influences have you used when creating the opera?
The main musical influence is Handel, specifically his “Italian” operas such as Giulio Cesare and Serse. However, rather than a pastiche (i.e. trying to make something exactly like a Handel), I have actively tried to “steal” Handel, to make it my own, in a similar way that one could accuse Stravinsky of “stealing” Pergolesi, or Britten of Purcell. So I think the end result sounds initially a bit like Handel, but on closer inspection, it’s something quite different…
There is also a strong personal, non-musical inspiration from Handel: his opera company in 18th century London, with which he directed many of his operas at the Queen’s Theatre, and practically defined the fashion for musical drama at the time. I would love to achieve something along those lines, in the modern world and context, with my company Radius Opera! So we are filming “The Fire”, in a very artistic way, and hope to use this popular contemporary art form (film) with the style of 18th-century popular opera, to forge something new and with broad appeal.
3. I think it was an amazing idea to use technology and pre-record large choir choruses, have you seen this done before? Or was it a completely new direction for you?
I have never seen or done this before, although I’ve created one or two large choral pieces. What appealed to me is the kind of person who joins their local choral society, then enjoys a wide variety of choral pieces from African Sanctus to The Messiah, performing alongside professional soloists, and develops a really fun-loving approach to music-making. I wanted to create something with those people, and give them back this new opera. And so we went and did numerous workshops, all over the north of England, and created this Chorus for “The Fire of Olympus”. It was huge fun and I can’t wait for them to hear what we’ve done!
4. What qualities do you think an opera company director needs to bring a project from inception to life?
Well, it’s hard, really really hard. There is basically no public funding for this – the Arts Council fund the big companies, but they have little money and many people competing for a slice of a diminishing pie, so they fund things like creative street festivals where the “bang for your buck” is greatest. It’s an inescapable fact that opera is expensive – perhaps the most expensive art form, particularly difficult at the “indie” level at which I’m working. I would say its only comparison (in respect of cost and difficulty) is film, which is also really hard to do well, and for which it’s also really hard to raise money for. However, with film, there are revenue streams – licensing deals, cinemas, TV – which don’t exist for opera, which really can only count on a theatre audience. And so, if opera is not subsidised somehow, ticket prices have to be high in order to pay for the work; so opera sometimes ends up accessible only to those who will pay the price. I hate that, as opera is truly an art intended for ordinary people to enjoy, much more so than (for example) chamber music or symphonic music.
I’m not sure if that answers your question! But for me, the hardest part has been trying, on one hand, to raise money and on the other hand to persuade people to donate things to us, while with my other hands, I try to create work of originality and high quality. So what does an opera director need to be? I would say an octopus. You need to have many hands…
5. Can you sum up the story, was it daunting to bring Greek mythology into a modern setting?
Zeus is a horrid, overbearing, manipulative man-child, President of Olympus and all-powerful. Prankster-activists Prometheus and Epimetheus accidentally steal his Fire, an ancient artefact that is the root of Zeus’ might. He despatches his minions Hephaestus and Pandora to recover the Fire, but they plot against him. So we end up with tragedy, comedy, passion, and politics that I think are really resonant with our present “interesting times”.
I did not think it was very daunting, though – the stories from ancient Greece are so fundamental to our culture, they almost can’t help but be familiar, yet teach us something new each time we hear them!
6. Did you remain true to the Greek legends and myths? If not, what changes have you incorporated?
The dystopian modern setting and characterisation are of course new, but apart from that, we have remained true to the myths. We have been assisted by Professor Emma Stafford from Leeds University, who is an expert on ancient Greece, but perhaps, more importantly, is a very keen amateur singer and actor!
7. When I storyboarded my role in preparation for rehearsals, I imagined Pandora as a Miss Sloane, Ivanka Trump, Karen Brady type woman, how do you see her?
She reminds me, a bit, of Claire Underwood in “House of Cards”, but really she’s a super-ambitious self-made ice queen, who has risen to the very top and has designs on Zeus’ position.
OK, that is not strictly true to the original Greek myth. Pandora was “created” by the gods as a punishment for stealing fire – in order to punish the first man, gods sent the first woman, effectively!! – but we felt it would be more interesting to interpret this as a powerful career woman who is flippantly destroyed by the man she helped secure in his position of power.
Nonetheless, she is still sent with her “jar” (the word “box” is a mistranslation!) to punish Epimetheus; and it is true to the Greek that she and Epimetheus end up as an item, confounding the gods’ intentions, and found the race of men from whom we all descend…