James MacMillan tells Michael White that he would rather leave the world of opera than have to compose a piece about Diana Years ago, when I first met the composer James MacMillan, he was swarthily unshaven, wore an earring, and looked like an advertisement for Gitanes. As for his music, it was searingly political and played for high stakes, reaching out with strong and sweeping gestures to embrace the world. Impactful, pungent, it attached itself to causes like the Mothers of the Disappeared in Argentina (the theatrepiece Busqueda), massacres in El Salvador (The Exorcism of Rio Sumpul), and the Piper Alpha tragedy (Tuireadh).
To his critics it seemed like the creative equivalent of ambulance-chasing: making art from other people’s traumas. But to his fans – and they soared in number after the 1990 Proms premiere of his breakthrough score The Confession of Isobel Gowdie – it was an open door to the world of contemporary music that no one else was offering on such graphic terms. With technical facility that kept the scores coming at speed, three or four in progress at a time, he conquered audiences that wouldn’t normally stray too far from Brahms and Bach. And he did it without compromise. MacMillan’s work had an immediacy and beauty, but it wasn’t easy. It had rigour. It could be formidable and complex.
That it came attached to vivid, extra-musical ideas appeared to help: they hooked the broader audience. “But I wouldn’t use that word myself,” MacMillan told me. “The ideas aren’t there to hook people. It’s more that they fulfil my need to share something in common with the rest of the world. I want my music to resonate with my fellows.” Speaking then as now with a quiet, focused and slightly disarming Scottish particularity, he insisted that “being connected is essential to musical experience. It’s why Beethoven means so much to me, because he single-mindedly pursued a social and political vision. It’s all there in the fibre of his music, and that makes it more than entertainment. More than divertissement.” James MacMillan’s music is no divertissement either. It comes with high moral tone and an earnestness that betrays what he calls “something of the dour Scottish miserabilist” in his character. But there’s a settled, sorted likeability about him. Now approaching 52 and with a grandchild, he has long abandoned the Gitanes look; and the “causes” that his music took for inspiration have largely reduced to one: Catholicism.
Born into a staunchly Catholic Socialist family – his father a joiner, his grandfather a miner – he was brought up to believe, and his faith is there in every composition. Which is why his percussion concerto – hugely successful, championed by Evelyn Glennie, and one of the most frequently performed new scores of the past halfcentury – is called Veni, Veni, Emmanuel. Why his trumpet concerto bears the theological designation Epiclesis. Why his cor anglais concerto is entitled The World’s Ransoming.
He considers music “the most spiritual of the arts” and says that “if pushed” he could write Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam on all his scores – a stand that allies him not just with Bach but with the socalled Holy Minimalists of our own time, Arvo Pärt, Górecki and Tavener.
But what MacMillan writes is not minimal. It’s maximal. It sweats – as anyone who’s watched Dame Evelyn attack everything in striking distance during Veni,Veni (audience beware) will know. His attitude to “spirit” isn’t Tavener’s serene transcendence. It’s more down to earth. Engaged. Disturbing.
“I find spirit in the dirt and mire of existence,” he told me once, “in the archetypes of suffering that great art has always addressed”. It was a comment that I thought at the time commended him as a composer for the opera stage, a place where the dirt and mire of existence finds a natural home. So it’s been no surprise, over the years, to see that stage becoming central to his output. “Opera” is a big word that gets stretched to cover a lot of ground, including music theatre and choral works with dramatic potential. But according to the definition used by his publishers, he has just premiered his sixth opera: a piece called Clemency that runs in the Linbury auditorium, downstairs at the Royal Opera House, until mid-May.
Looking back over the previous five, they range across what he describes as “very different ways of working, with no obviously straight line of development as they came out: maybe I’m going round in circles”. Some are chamber-scale, experimental, unconventional. But two, Ines de Castro (1996) and The Sacrifice (2007), are ambitious large-scale works that sit comfortably in the grand tradition from Verdi to Britten.
MacMillan calls them his “real operas: the ones that seem to me to work best”. Concerned with murder, bloodlust and revenge, they pack a punch and stand out from the sometimes untouchable world of contemporary music in that they communicate directly, at gut-level. As one critic wrote of The Sacrifice, it’s modern opera for people who dislike modern opera. And armed with the ability to cross that hurdle, MacMillan now ranks among the most successful composers for the lyric stage anywhere in the world.
But Ines has another attribute that you might not associate with opera except in the token way of what happens in Act I of Tosca: it betrays an interest in liturgy and ritual.
MacMillan’s interest in liturgy has periodically consumed his stage works – to a degree that narrowfocused opera-lovers might find disconcerting. Visitatio Sepulchrae, for example, sets a 14th-century liturgical drama for Easter Sunday of extreme austerity and ritualised stasis. The first scene has no text at all, just instrumental reflections on the past events of Passiontide. And so unlike standard theatre is the rest that the piece has a double life as a choral work for concert performance.
“I’m fascinated by the ritual of liturgy,” he says, “and always have been, since I was an undergraduate and got involved with Mary Berry, the pioneering authority on plainsong. She was the one who introduced me to the Visitatio text. And historically there’s a strong connection between these early church dramas and the origins of opera.
“Ritual is important because it takes us out of ourselves and points to something other than we are: it opens up a depth, a spiritual hinterland. I’ve become an activist for ritual in the Church, and I feel much the same about it in the theatre, which for me is a related world: I feel comfortable in both and find a lot of overlap between them.” Clemency, the latest opera, overlaps the two main genres in MacMillan’s stage works: grand-dramatic on the one hand, small-reflective on the other. It’s a 50minute chamber piece for just five singers and reduced accompaniment but with a stronger narrative thrust than Visitatio, and what MacMillan calls “traditional operatic interaction between the characters. I think of it as a mini-grand opera.” The story is biblical, based on an Old Testament account of Abraham – though not Abraham and Isaac, as tends to be the case when musicians move in on this territory, but Abraham and Sarah.
“Isaac does feature but only by reference,” says MacMillan. “It’s the story of the three mysterious figures who visit Abraham and Sarah and tell them that despite their advanced ages they’ll have a child. The child will turn out to be Isaac, and Sarah sings an aria about him at the end, so it’s partly an annunciation narrative.
“But at its heart is the deep ambiguity of who the mysterious figures are. They bring joyful news but at the same time they have murder in mind: they’re on their way to destroy two cities. Abraham bargains with them for clemency – the title of the piece – but isn’t able to stop them.
“It’s a disturbing story because the suggestion is that these people are angels who in some way represent the Godhead: the Old Testament idea of God as jealous, destructive, thuggish, in conflict with the modern, post-Victorian idea of him as somebody like Father Christmas.
“As we were writing the piece, Michael [Symmons Roberts, the librettist] and I were drawn into the complexity of this image of God, and the human response to it as a moral problem, illustrated by Abraham’s attempt at bargaining. But as the libretto stresses, there are no answers here. It’s a mystery, which the opera contemplates with poetry and music.” When you get to your sixth opera there’s an expectation of momentum that will carry on indefinitely – to a seventh, eighth and ninth. But Clemency, according to Macmillan, “may be it: I’m not sure there will be another”. And the reason is the spiritual hinterland that haunts his work.
“If I did return to opera it would almost certainly be with Michael because we’ve been regular collaborators for a while now. We work well together and we’re certainly both interested in the world of opera. But I’m not sure the world of opera is interested in us any more.
“It looks too much towards the American model of John Adams: there’s a Gadarene rush in the direction of docu-operas, biogoperas, operas based on film and TV stories. People say to us, how about Princess Diana for a subject? That will pull an audience. Well, perhaps it will, and good luck; but it’s not for us. So we’re probably going to have to re-channel our energies in some other direction. I can’t say what it will be, because I don’t know. But we’re looking.” Clemency continues at the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Studio Theatre until May 14. For tickets call 020 7304 4000