The CD of music from my opera Jesse Owens, together with some preludes for piano are to be released shortly by Stone Records. This will be the second in a series of three, the first CD being released in January 2016. It has been somewhat strange how the music has evolved since its conception, firstly written as an opera, then modified as a song cycle (The Sharecropper’s Son), completing with Incidental Music from the Opera Jesse Owens, for full orchestra. It is the incidental music, and a collection of the songs, arranged for soprano, baritone, and piano, which will be on the new CD.
I found the story of the iconic athlete Jesse Owens ideal for an opera, it encompassed so many of the elements needed for such a medium. It was originally conceived for the London Olympics of 2012 and I would have to say that the two years of writing marked the most desperate period of my writing life. Shortly after completing the work, the company for which I was writing the opera collapsed the project - a brutal lesson in who to work with.
Aside from this I have no doubt that a full length opera, for soli, chorus and full orchestra stretched my creative mind way beyond where it was, even though some large-scale works for that combination had already been written. What was the most challenging was dealing with the minuscule detail while having the conception of the whole work within my grasp - yes, the shape of a work is fundamental, but building a coherent libretto, added, I would say, more than just the addition of words as in a choral work. For the opera I used the wonderful poems of John Agard and Grace Nichols, especially written for the libretto, and I then spread them across the opera.
The result was four acts, two before the interval and two after. The first is by far the most tense and for much of this act I took dialogue from the Women’s league of the Ku Klux Klan, ending with a lynching of a preacher who worshiped on the farm where Jesse was brought up. The words are viscious, encapsulating the hatred of the KKK (and providing a poignant comparison to Nazi Germany (act 3), where Jesse won his four Olympic gold medals). Interesting that the words were from the Women’s League, and the use of just the female chorus for the setting, sung softly, seemed to me to increase the menace. So act two had to be lighter, embracing that period of the US (20’s and 30’s) which allowed a jazz influence over the word. John and Grace wrote, for the scene where Jesse first flirts with his future wife… ‘Hey, Ruth Minnie, what’s up? You talking to me Jesse Owens? Mind if I call you Minnie? Don’t mind if I do!’ - such a delicate humour. Following shortly is a classic love song sung by Ruth Minnie, what I think of as my Lloyd Weber moment!
I set the third act as a series of film scenes after a moving poem about Leni Riefenstahl by John and Grace (Leni Riefenstahl directed the famous film of the 1936 Berlin Olympics). But rather than use all the poem at once, I decided to split the verses so that in between each, gradually the story of the 1936 Berlin Olympics could be told. Ironically, Jesse found the racism less in Nazi Germany than in the USA although I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry with the scene where Jesse replaces the Jewish athlete in the 4x100 relay - an athlete prejudiced by the colour of his skin, replacing an athlete prejudiced because of his religion.
The fourth act deals with what really brought me to Jesse Owens for the opera, the fact that Jesse was banned by the USA athletic authorities shortly after winning his four gold medals. He even ended up racing horses and motorbikes to make a living. Just after I completed the draft of this final act I was diagnosed with a large brain tumour. I completed the opera two days before I was operated on and I am convinced I did the final act better as a result of what was happening to me (health all very good now). Perhaps this is why I went for a gentle, choral feel to the end in 'The Empty Stadium'.
Over the years it has become clear to me that I like a certain type of idea, event or story to have in my mind when writing the music, I don’t think I could have found better for an opera.
Incidental Music from the Opera 'Jesse Owens': The Empty Stadium