In the build-up to The Barber Opera, Raising Icarus, and our BCMG NEXT performance of his works on Thurs 28 April, we have asked composer Michael Zev Gordon a few questions on composing for an opera, musical voices, and the story of Icarus itself.

Q. When composing an opera, how much of the staging and dramatisation side of the music’s realisation do you consider and envisage?

A. I don’t think my role is to do the staging itself. But it is to provide a detailed understanding for the director and designers of the concepts behind the action and the characters. Watching these developments, in terms of physical and facial gesture, stagecraft, set, lighting, and costume, has been one of the many pleasures of seeing Raising Icarus come to fruition.


Q.  Did you find the topic of dysfunctional relationships within Raising Icarus a difficult one to work with personally? Being a parent, and a son yourself, how do you feel about the balance of freedom and responsibility that comes with it?

A. If anything, the answer to the first part of this question is the other way around: the experience of my own relationships – dysfunctional or not! – made the opera easier to write. Certainly, what we are trying to explore in the opera – and what as a parent I continue to wrestle with – are the opposing tugs of parental ‘responsibility’ and the child’s need to find their own path.


Q. What do you find are the key differences/similarities when writing for voice, and writing purely instrumental music?

A. The basic difference between writing for voice and writing for instruments is the text. The right words are such a powerful, inspiring springboard for the composer towards shaping lines, colours, tensions, ebb, and flow. Yet, if you follow every word, structure and indeed expression can suffer too. Sometimes it is necessary to think of the voice as a ‘pure instrument’.


Q. What drew you to the myth of Icarus? The story of Icarus has been told many times in many ways – what new insights do you hope your opera will bring?

A. I was drawn to the myth of Icarus in my mid-20s. What an extraordinarily powerful image of over-reach it was for me of what can happen if you don’t find your own 'middle path'.

It was only much later, when turning it into this opera, did I, along with the librettist Stephen Plaice, start to see how the true tragic figure in the myth is Daedalus, the parent, not Icarus. This is at the heart of our re-evaluation. As we see it, Daedalus repeatedly casts his son in his own image. He cannot begin to understand that Icarus must find his own path. It is this which leads to downfall.


Q. How do you view the contemporary role of the composer within society – do you believe composers should be socially engaged, and should this be reflected in their work? Is it in yours?

A. All composers are different: some are driven by external subjects; others prefer to write ‘abstract’ string quartets. What matters simply to me is that the music that results is vital and rich.

In my own case, extra-musical inspiration is rooted most often in the expression of emotions. So, even though Raising Icarus is to do with the ‘social subject’ of child-rearing, what principally drives me is the wish to depict, as intensely as possible, the individual characters’ strivings, desires, failings, and so on.

At the same time, many of my works end with the emotionally turbulent turning towards meditative abstraction. This happens here too, as the opera’s subsidiary characters transform into a kind of Greek chorus in the latter stages of the third act. Perhaps, then, if I am ‘engaged’, it is within a more spiritual orbit: seeking to lead the listener, at these points in a piece, beyond struggle towards serenity.


Join us in Birmingham on 28 April for two exciting events