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8.8.04

Opera and Collage

Michael NymanMichael Nyman (b. 1944)—composer of the strange, postmodern opera The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (1986)—premiered a new opera this summer in London. Man and Boy: Dada, set to a libretto by Michael Hastings on the life of the Dada artist Kurt Schwitters, was performed on July 15, 17, and 18 at the Almeida Theatre Festival. I just discovered Nyman's own article (Collector's items, July 10) for The Guardian, in which he explains the genesis of the work:

Where do opera subjects come from? My latest work, Man and Boy: Dada, was inspired by a small rectangular piece of coloured sugar paper - a bus ticket. There were four number sequences printed on it: a serial number, the bus number, and a miniature travel guide, with each fare stage numbered so that it could be punched with a hole to show your destination, overprinted with the price (and in the mid-1940s backed with an ad for Watneys or Bryant & May matches, maybe). [...]

As a child in South Chingford in the early 1950s, I hoarded bus tickets as part of a collecting mania that included cigarette cards, triangular cheese labels, matchbox labels, coins and lollipop wrappers. In addition to these objects there was the collection of car registration numbers, train and bus numbers - all meticulously registered in books published by Ian Allan that still bring a lump to my throat. Many a Sunday morning I would skip Hebrew classes and buy a Red Rover ticket, which would take me, unknown to my parents, to the further reaches of the London Transport bus network, to bring new blood, fresh numbers, into my collection.

But the real origins of the opera go back to an extraordinary exhibition of Schwitters' work, which I stumbled on while roaming around Dusseldorf before a concert in January 2001. [...] Bus tickets remained a recurring feature in his work: in 1919 they were tickets from his home town, Hanover; in 1944 he was pasting the same London bus tickets into his collages that I remembered from my childhood. By chance, the following day Michael Hastings rang to suggest working together on a radio play about a young boy in London collecting bus tickets after the war. I gushingly recounted my experiences the previous day in Dusseldorf and the opera was born.
It's a cool story, in which an English teenager named Michael (presumably the young Nyman himself) finds himself in competition with Schwitters for bus tickets. What kind of opera does this make? You can get one person's idea in the review of the premiere by Ivan Hewitt (Frayed ticket to a bygone age, July 20) for The Telegraph:
What's new about this opera is the way obsessiveness has been given a tender, nostalgic tone. Writing this opera has clearly been a trip down memory lane for Nyman and his librettist Michael Hastings, who were both avid collectors of bus tickets and football cards in the post-war years. But there's a patterned formality about the back-projected images and the set design (rows of cubes that can be bus seats or a sitting room), which keeps sentimentality at bay.

When Michael introduces Schwitters to his mother an unlikely romance blossoms between the lonely and rather prim Englishwoman and the eccentric German artist with a penchant for giving hilarious impromptu imitations of the sound and flight of a doodlebug. William Sheldon gives an astonishingly assured performance as the 13-year-old Michael, negotiating Nyman's often wilfully awkward lines with total aplomb.
Even those readers who do not regularly listen to modern operas probably know Michael Nyman's music, from the scores he composed for films like Gattaca (1997), Carrington (1995), The Piano (1993), and The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover (1989).

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