A Life of Buddy Bolden, legendary New Orleans cornettist
and the “First Man of Jazz”.
Scored for seven singers, string quartet and valve trombone.
Libretto by Michael Morris, based on the novel by Michael Ondaatje.
Script consultant Kate Westbrook
“Michael Ondaatje gives us a Buddy Bolden for the modern world and liberates
him from ’trad’ nostalgia, in all the passion of his reckless and tragic life, – the
First Man of the Jazz Century.” Mike Westbrook
Coming Through Slaughter, the opera, was premiered in a concert version at the
Queen Elizabeth Hall, London on 12th August 1994, with tenor Wills Morgan as
Bolden, and conducted by Odaline de la Martinez. There were subsequent
performances on November 18th and 19th 1994 at the Royal Northern College of
Music in Manchester, where it was recorded live for BBC Radio 3.
Reviewing the London premiere, Times critic Rodney Milnes wrote:
GLORY FROM A MUTE CORNET
A chamber opera about a jazz musician in which the accompaniment is for string
quartet is not in principle the likeliest of prospects, but then Mike Westbrook’s new
piece, premiered as part of Cultural Industry’s “Now You See It” series at the QEH, is
unlikely in other aspects as well. It is also a notable success, a new opera you want
to hear again, and soon.
‘Based on Michael Ondaatje’s novel of the same title and with a libretto by
Michael Morris (who also directs) it is a poetic reconstruction of the life of the New
Orleans cornet player Buddy Bolden, whose playing was never recorded and about
whose career little is known. He died in a mental hospital in 1931.
The fluid, dreamlike scenario treats Bolden as a Wozzeck figure, nudged towards
his end by those around him: his wife, a pimp he may (or may not) have killed, a
married couple with whom he enjoys a brief rustic idyll, a lowlife photographer, a
schoolroom friend who becomes a policeman and follows rather than tracks him
down. With a nod to history, we never hear him play, but the valve-trombonist who
moves in with his wife adds a startling extra texture to the string-quartet
accompaniment in the second of the two hour‐long acts.
Westbrook’s lyrical, instantly communicative post-modern score wisely declines
to ape jazz elements, although blues and ragtime obviously colour it, and to
stirring effect. Words, music and structure pay little heed to operatic orthodoxies.
The piece is composed of 16 separate, self-sufficient scenes: in some respects it is
almost a meditative song‐cycle or dramatic madrigal, and there are plenty of
precedents for this in the immediate pre‐history of an art form that was “invented” in 1600.
The action can stop in the middle of a scene, even of a conversation, for the
instruments to take over – the music is given something to do other than
accompany, and precedents for that are perhaps less plentiful in contemporary
music-theatre. There is much intricate virtuoso writing for solo strings,
enthusiastically played under Odaline de la Martinez’s direction.
In terms of a one-off, semi-staged performance (music stands and scores
strategically placed for those who needed them) Friday’s premiere maybe
accounted a success, but it is easy to imagine Coming Through Slaughter making
an even greater impact in a space more intimate than the dear old QEH, and freed
from amplification of both voices and instruments. A fully staged, properly
prepared run is urgently needed.
It is not easy to imagine a better cast for such a run which, apart from anything
else, would provide opportunities for some gifted black singers who still seem to
find little work in the mainstream companies (the litany of Porgy and Carmen
Jones in the programme biographies makes depressing reading).
The Yorkshire-born tenor Wills Morgan gave a performance of glowing intensity
and poetic truth as Bolden, his lyric voice clearly projected and fluid, his diction
quite exemplary. He made you care desperately about the protagonist’s fate.
Denise Hector’s gorgeous singing of the wife’s bluesy solo in the first act made one
want an instant encore, and Dorothy Ross used her vibrant, smoky tone to fine
effect as the female element in the ménage à trois idyll.
Douglas Park, an amazing tenor‐coming‐on‐soprano, sang the photographer, and
Ismail Taylor-Kamara discreetly underlined the Sporting Life aspect of the pimp.
With a few more consonants and less wayward pitch. Keel Watson (the policeman)
would surely be in demand for heroic baritone roles; his voice is magnificent.
Oh, and you come out humming the tunes. Its not every new opera of which that
can be said.’
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