How did you become a composer? What is your musical background?
I’d started my degree in playwriting, aiming towards creating the serious musical theatre practised by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim. I think you’ll hear the influence of theatre lyric-writing in this piece; there are songs in Little Women just as there are songs in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. Then I pursued my composition degree with, still, the limited goal of becoming overqualified as a theatre songwriter. Except I so much loved doing everything composers did that my ambition kept expanding. It was only completing my first orchestral piece – which led directly to the commission of Little Women – that I began to think I might have a home in the concert hall.

What was the process of creating something new from a story that is so well known?
I asked myself the question: if this novel didn’t exist, why would we have written it? What does it tell us that we need to know that isn’t told to us, more eloquently, elsewhere? None of Little Women‘s previous adaptations answered that question to my satisfaction. And it’s telling, I think, that the more the story was pressed into service to tell other narratives of a family struggling to survive a war, or of a young woman striving to be a writer, the more new material the later authors needed to add to Alcott’s text. All the earlier versions, no matter what their agenda, saw fit to include from the novel four signal episodes: Meg’s betrothal, Laurie’s passion for Jo, Beth’s death, and Jo’s encounter with Bhaer. So I wondered, if you assume that these four scenes comprise the compass-points of the book, what emotional terrain do they map? I was so excited when I found the theme of first growing with, and then growing away from, the ones you love that I immediately returned to Alcott to make sure I wasn’t completely making it up. But there the theme was, gleaming on every page.

Why do you think these characters are so timeless?
I think there are two answers to this question: one dealing with form, and one with sensibility. We are accustomed now to a narrative template in which three or four sisters, or near-sisters, form something of a society of their own and develop contrasting ways of living in the world. Think, on television, of Girls, or Sex in the City; or in fiction, Mary McCarthy’s The Group from 1963. We may not always remember that it was Alcott who forged that mould, but she did. That was Little Women’s formal innovation.
In sensibility, though, what remains startlingly modern about Little Women is its clear-eyed acceptance that every new phase of life involves a kind of death – of childhood, of innocence, of a moment in time – of which Beth’s death in Act Two is only the most literal example. Meg’s signature aria is introduced by the lines, “I can’t explain it, Jo: I love you; things end.” She then sings “Things change, Jo”, which Kitty Whately is singing absolutely magnificently, by the way. But the truth is, Meg could have stopped after those two lines and still have told the entire truth. “I love you; things end.” Who hasn’t heard, or uttered, those words?

For someone who doesn’t know the opera, how would you describe your music?
The score is a skein of melodies embedded in an ever-changing matrix of storytelling music. Two arias – Jo’s “Perfect as we are” and Meg’s “Things change, Jo,” which, as the titles suggest, outline the conflict of the opera – form the basis of the score, varying, combining, shifting from character to character. Aunt Cecilia has an imperious minuet, Professor Bhaer, a lied that traces the stencil of Brahms. Brooke sings a lilting quasi-medieval courtship aria that develops into its own theme, and Jo opens the piece with a tempestuous cabaletta that, at one point, tosses off as many notes in its vocal line as anything by Rossini.

The variety of Alcott’s narrative led me to use a wider range of music than I ever had before. I’ve always believed an audience doesn’t resist the unusual so much as the arbitrary; if it makes sense, they’ll go with you. Little Women was the first score in which I was able to follow the American composer Virgil Thomson’s dictum: “Everything is possible as long as it is enough so.” So, when the truth of a moment in Little Women demands the simple, the songful, the music is as warm and as clear as I can make it. When it demands the surreal, or the chaotic, the score goes there too.

Little Women is a modern classic in the US. How do you think this will appeal to a UK audience?
New York has long embraced the plays of Churchill and Pinter and Stoppard just as warmly as the West End has welcomed Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller and any number of American musicals. Also, the works of composers like Thomas Adès, Judith Weir, George Benjamin, and Benjamin Britten are frequently staged by American opera companies. What I can say is that working with the sterling company here hasn’t felt at all different from working with American artists. In my collaborations with these singers, conductors, and director, no translations, emotional or otherwise, have been required. I’m hoping the same will hold true for our audiences.

Why is Little Women a good opera to watch if you haven’t seen a lot of other operas?
Because I think that its libretto is as clear and succinct as a traditional musical play while its score takes you far beyond where most musicals care to go. I have been highly appreciative when musical colleagues have come up to me after a performance of this opera with admiring comments on this or that motivic development or orchestrational idea. But my heart sings when I hear someone tell me, “I’ve never known, and/or liked, opera, but I loved this.” That is our rôle as artists, yes? To push our forms forward whilst taking your audience with you? That’s what I’ve tried to do with Little Women.



Little Women runs until 5 August. Join us for this exciting premiere, and get your tickets here.