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The Secret Agent

What was it Really Like?

Bombs, circles and men at war

We are reluctant to believe that major events can have trivial causes, and are even more disinclined to accept that great wickedness can be the work of the weak or stupid.  Nevertheless, history teaches that in many cases not only is evil banal, it is often pointless as well.  I am sure that today, somewhere in the world some poor devil will fall victim to a casual bomb, and I am equally certain that nothing worthwhile will be achieved by the suffering caused thereby.  Many years ago, I narrowly missed being blown up by terrorists.  A bomb was left outside a theatre; two Irish nationalists hoped to kill the audience as they left.  It would have been a futile barbarity had they succeeded, but the bomb went off early and annihilated them both.  I was close enough to feel the concussion and to see the flash but, physically at least, was not touched.  Later I learned that one of the dead had been a child of eighteen. The Secret Agent is not about those bombers, nor any other specific anarchist movement.  There is no Nechayev here, still less an Osama bin Laden or a Donald Rumsfeld.  Indeed, there is no political discourse worthy of the name: it is a domestic tragedy, and the characters are mostly like us, ordinary imperfect people who are destroyed by their failure to imagine, failure to communicate, failure to love.  It could not have been otherwise: the fanatic who thinks you can get to Heaven by creating Hell on Earth stands outside my capacity for imagining.  I can try, however, make some attempt to imagine the journey of a simple, uneducated young person from an ordinary life to the destruction that I witnessed all those years ago and it was from this point that I began the adaptation of Joseph Conrad's novel.

The emotional journey and emotional confrontation are the proper business of opera.  When I was a child, I drove adults to distraction with the reiterated question what was it REALLY like? I still do.  It is the most important thing that a composer can ask.  One can fit relatively few events into a music drama, and the process must be one of sharp and narrow focus on the experience of the situation on stage: music deals with things that are too precise for words and complexity often equals dilution.

For this reason, Conrad's novel was not an obvious choice.  It is a lugubrious piece of work and has never been especially popular.  It is complex, has a great many transient characters - seldom a good thing under the operatic microscope - and much of the book is a long description of a police investigation.  The most demanding aspect of the libretto, however, was not the diffuseness of the novel.  To be sure, it is very literary in form and preoccupied with internal dialogue, but the central catastrophe is operatic enough in character.  No, the issue that occupied most thought was the fact that two important characters are silent - because they are abstractions. These are The Great Game - as realpolitik was called in 19th century England - and sexual denial, which aches through the book.  There is a horrible logic to Winnie's destruction of her husband in response to a request for physical comfort.  

Realpolitik and the police investigation were soon sidelined as distractions from the main thrust of the story.  Other solutions were found during the process of condensing the novel's thirty or so characters into five. I made considerable changes.  The least altered is Verloc himself; he becomes lighter, a little more comical and sympathetic.  One can believe that in different circumstances he might have made a decent life and I am not sure this is true of the original.  The Professor has grown from a nasty cypher into something akin to a diabolus ex machina - with more than a touch of Sparafucil about him.  In the book, Winnie is unknowable; emotionally shut down and damaged in some way.  This aspect of her character has been preserved in my version by leaving her silent for much of the action in the early part of the work.  Silent but present, and she only fully finds her voice when her destruction is under way.  Chief Inspector Heat is largely my own invention.  In the book, he is a methodical, stolid, mostly unimaginative man, with a certain integrity about him.  In the opera he is a little demon, obsessed with power, an amoral bully whose consideralbe human insight is used to wicked ends.  This transformation was needed to increase dramatic tensions and to provide me with another dimension to the musical vocabulary.  Others find their way into the orchestral texture if not the stage.  The terrorist boss, Mr Vladimir (whom we never see) has a leitmotif and has a lengthy speech in quotation during Verloc's extended esprit d'escalier in scene 5.

I never considered writing a vocal part for Stevie.  Post facto, I realised that this instinctive decision was right.  One of the ironies of our version - absent in the Conrad - is that the most overtly damaged character is actually the only one with emotional  insight.  The other characters sing their self-delusion all around him, but his perceptions are mute. After all, the loudest sound in music is a sudden silence.

Alfred Hitchcock (who made a rather unsuccessful film of this story) famously said In cinema, the pictures tell the story.  Dialogue is no more than atmosphere. It is essential advice for a screenwriter: substitute "music" for "pictures" and it is equally true for a librettist.  For this reason I donít think it matters that the libretto is in English. German is a late-acquired fourth language for me and though I understand it well enough, I do so without very much in the way of nuance; certainly a libretto of the emotional precision that I required would have been impossible for me.  But I think Hitchcock's dictum holds for opera as well as movies if the composer does his job well.

The care with which the libretto was constructed imposed a formal precision on the music.  As a composer my instincts are baroque, by which I mean that I prefer to establish bold structure within which the more expressive elements of the music are free to play.  From this naturally flows that fact that each of the twenty short scenes that make up the opera is a dance or other baroque form of some sort - a canonic trio over a ground, the Professor's sarabande, Heat's minuet. During rehearsals, someone pointed out how many lullabies there are in the piece, a fact I found faintly disturbing. It is perhaps not surprising that a composer reared in the English song tradition should include so many arias.  The opera falls naturally into numbers, but there is also an overall form which holds the 3500-odd bars of the score together.

In both versions of the story, Stevie obsessively draws circles (and we should not forget that Dante makes his Hell circular).  In musical terms the form is a circle.  It is, with modifications, a symphonic development whose recapitulations come close in places to a palindrome.  I love puzzles and symbolism in music; these things make excellent servants but poor masters and there is always the risk that a leitmotif for every event or idea can become pedantic.  I was very firm with myself and though there are leitmotifs, they are few in number and bold in character.  Some of them describe physical things.  Charles Verloc has a gloomy little tune, and the melody which Winnie sings to the words Oh Stevie, whatever shall I do with you sticks to the poor boy reliably throughout the piece.  But for the most part, the motifs are abstract.  In the Quartet for Two Voices Winnie has a line he is a good man, Stevie which returns often throughout the action, usually in mockery.  A sliding, ascending chord progression generally associated with betrayal was shamelessly lifted from Die Brück am Tay (ich komm vom Meer) and I hope the Feldkirch Festival will forgive this small auto-plagiarism. Even the "ticking bomb" motif, first heard in the Prologue has a wider meaning, and as work progressed I noticed it creeping into the music whenever a character stiffens emotionally, whenever empathy is absent.  Not surprisingly, it is most often heard when the Professor is there.  

In the end, however, it is the journey and the emotion that matter, not the thought by which they are structured.  The year I spent writing this piece has been turbulent; living with these characters and this moral universe has not always been easy and the fact that I was composing the music for the Professor's bomb making aria on July 7th, as the real bombs went off in London, was upsetting in the extreme.  For all that, to my great surprise I find myself hungry to write another opera, and even have a story for it, which emerged as I watched the staging of The Secret Agent evolve.  At the end of the process, I have a keener sense of the pity of our brutalities to each other, but am no nearer to grasping why our political generals, our latter-day Mr Vladimirs, should wish so fervently to convince us that we are at war with such a chimerical creature as terrorism.  For it is, in the Professor's words not an army but someone beside you in disguise - it could be me.  As Clemenceau observed War is too important to be left to generals.  His premise was wrong (though it is certainly too important to be left to politicians).  War, such as it is, is left to the small lives, the anonymous creatures of whom Chief Inspector Heat sings:

The world is full of harmless people.
Were we to admit it
What need would there be for policemen?

©Simon Wills 2006

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