Alba Arikha on the birth of an opera

For the last few years author Alba Arikha has been working on BLUE ELECTRIC, an opera based on her memoir Major/Minor. Here she tells IAM about her life growing up around Samuel Beckett, putting on an opera in COVID conditions, and the healing power of art. 

In 2000, my mother, the poet Anne Atik, wrote a wonderful book called How it was. It was about her and my father’s friendship with Samuel Beckett. The evenings they spent together in our Parisian flat: the meals, the conversations, and the bond that united them until Beckett’s death in 1989. As my mother wrote, “After fifteen years of memorable conversations with Beckett, I realised that I could not depend on my memory. The unforgettable was becoming the irretrievable.”

My mother’s book became a bestseller in France. At the launch, a woman came up to me. “What was it like for you, growing up in that atmosphere?” she asked.

I told her. About the evenings and the lunches and the atmosphere of creativity and high-mindedness that reigned throughout my sister‘s and my childhood. About the fact that although my father’s life was ruled by art and nothing else, my life was ruled by very different matters. I had been a rebel. An unhappy child. One who longed to belong, far from the musings on art and intellect.

“You should put it down on paper,” the woman suggested.

And so I did. Like my mother, I too found myself searching for and retrieving those past memories. The first attempt became an article, published in Tatler magazine in 2005. That grew into a memoir, which became Major/Minor. I wrote it in the present tense, in short rhythmic sentences, that somehow brought my adolescent anger back to the fore – an outcome which took me by surprise.

The book was published a year after my father’s death, in 2011. It is mainly about my adolescence in Paris and wanting to fit in. Displacement, a search for identity, and redemption are recurrent themes. But it is also about the war, my father’s adolescence in an Eastern Europe concentration camp, and how this affected him and our relationship. Somewhere in between there is the matter of Samuel Beckett and how his godfatherly presence influenced my life. There is also quite a bit about Parisian cafés and unsuitable boyfriends.

BLUE ELECTRIC as a work in progress at Tête a Tête opera festival
BLUE ELECTRIC as a work in progress at Tête a Tête opera festival

Without my knowing it, the memoir would set the tone for my future work: the collisions between past and present, family dynamics and how they play out in our lives. It is a subject I still find fascinating.

Major/Minor has been translated into several languages and in 2017, six years after its initial publication, was printed as a paperback. That was when my husband, composer Tom Smail, read it again. He found himself particularly drawn to the what he called the “lyricism and anger” of the text, which he said lent itself very well to music.

From there on, things picked up quickly. Tom wrote the score after reading my libretto. In 2018, the Tête a Tête opera invited us to take part in their summer festival. We showed the work-in-progress to Hugh Hudson, of Chariots of Fire fame, who agreed to direct it. We chose Mimi Doulton, the very talented singer, for the lead role. The other equally talented soloists include Jonathan Brown, Helen Charlston and Camilla Seale. Christopher Bowen recently joined to play/sing Samuel Beckett.

The performance was a success, and also an eye opener: hearing my own words being set to music was a very interesting experience – almost as if the book had been written by someone else, and was about someone else.

That distance enabled me to finish the libretto while Tom worked on the final operatic score. When it was done, we approached The Playground Theatre who agreed to a June 2020 premiere. Eleven musicians would be sharing the stage with the six soloists, a chorus of eight and four Parisian café tables. By this stage Hugh had asked the wonderful set designer Madeleine Boyd to be part of the production.

BLUE ELECTRIC as a work in progress at Tête a Tête opera festival
BLUE ELECTRIC as a work in progress at Tête a Tête opera festival

Then COVID-19 hit and the performance was postponed. It wasn’t until recently that we were able to envisage discussing it again – but under very new and very different circumstances.

A group of us convened at the theatre in September, in order to find an alternative strategy: gone were the four café tables. Gone too were the eleven musicians, now replaced by a recorded backing track. The singers were going to have to maintain social distancing. Lighting became a crucial part of the production. Sheets, gauze and a screen were mooted. Costumes were paired down.

Then, very sadly, Hugh Hudson pulled out for health reasons. We were incredibly lucky to find acclaimed opera director Orpha Phelan who stepped into his shoes. Suddenly, there were the soloists standing in our sitting room, filling it with song.

They were clearly as happy as we were to be making music in these dark and difficult days.

On 27 October Blue Electric will have its first performance. It has been a long trek from Eastern Europe via the Parisian cafés to a London Theatre. And the current pandemic has somehow made it all the more resonant: art is here to heal us. We hope this opera will do so too.

BLUE ELECTRIC will be at London’s The Playground Theatre on 27-28 and 30-31 October. |