Opera Scotland

Julian Wagstaff and his chamber operas

Posted 27 Apr

Julian Wagstaff is one of the few Scottish contemporary composers to have mounted three stage works - a musical, John Paul Jones, and two chamber operas, the Turing Test and Breathe Freely. Julian was for some time a translator before developing his musical career, studying music in general and composition in particular.

Having just heard the news that there is to be a recording made of his most recent chamber opera, Breathe Freely, OperaScotland recently invited Julian to talk about his work. 

Julian, what was your first experience of opera?

My earliest recollections are of light opera. My parents were Gilbert and Sullivan fans. My father was chairman of the light opera society at Leeds University. Light opera was always part of my sound world as I grew up - there was always music in the house. My mother looked after me and my brother and then my sister. I particularly remember her playing her favourite Clementi sonata on the piano and my father sang a lot around the house. I grew up thinking it was normal to have music around.

Tell us about your first staged work.

Staged in 2001 in a large scale community production, it was a musical called John Paul Jones (not the bass player in Led Zeppelin!). It was a biographical work about the father of the American navy, a Scot who'd fought on the American side in the War of Independence. Even at that time, the debate about Scotland's future was coming more to the fore, something that has continued.

The Turing Test was my second, a one hour staged production with Edinburgh Studio Opera in the 2007 Edinburgh Festival Fringe.  It sold out every performance. I was quite gratified by notices in the London press and it provided a pathway to future work.

What are your plans for the future?

I have quite a few things in the pipeline. One is a Fringe show for 2015, called provisionally Almost You which features some of my chamber music, some of my songs from John Paul Jones and other pieces up to and including Breathe Freely. I hope it will be accessible and an entertaining evening.

How do you see the future of opera?

I think the really interesting voices are the strong ones - for example, those of John Adams and Alice Goodman. We have to know about the characters, their struggles and their stories - which need to be clear.  In the best operas the stories will be organically linked to the inner characters of the individuals.  There will always be space for experimental opera taking us to the edge of what is possible - Nigel Osborne's operas provide examples of this.

What reaction have you had from the younger generation for your work?

Pleased and encouraged that with for example its technology-based story, the Turing Test attracted a young audience - not that I don't welcome older audience members too!

What do you see yourself doing in, say, five years time?

I'm always going to be composing music. The theatre has always been a draw for me as all the component parts come together in the theatre. There is nothing comparable to the first night of a piece of music theatre. I'm an addict and I don't think I'll ever come off it!

Thank you Julian, and best wishes for the future!

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