Opera Scotland

Monster

Music

Sally Beamish (born London, 26 August 1956)

Text

Janice Galloway (born Saltcoats 1955)

Source

Historical events.

 

Premieres

First performance: Glasgow (Theatre Royal), 28 February 2002.

First performance in UK: As above.

First performance in Scotland: As above.

Scottish Opera premiere: As above.

 

Background

Sally Beamish is one of a number of successful English-born composers to make a home in Scotland. Beamish, once a viola player with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, had a lifelong bent to composition and made herself a composer of interesting chamber pieces, progressing to the status of full-time composer of a wide range of works including concertos and theatrical music.

The creation of new operatic work, the most demanding of all the arts, must be given priority and welcomed.  Monster! with its larger than life themes and characters seemed an immediately appealing topic for operatic treatmen. The idea for the work - exploring the nature of creativity by tracing events in the background and life of Mary Shelley which led to the writing of her great novel Frankenstein - sounds a fascinating basis.

The librettist was Janice Galloway, a leading member of the Scottish literary community and a successful novelist.  However the fact that both were working on an opera for the first time may have led to problems in bringing its complexity to a manageable form. Two acts, each over an hour long, contained 25 scenes and involved fourteen characters, some of whom appeared to be of minor importance to the drama.  As with David Horne's Friend of the People in 1999, there was much interesting music in the work that deserves another hearing, not least as elements of the libretto were stronger than the one for Friend.

Main Characters

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, later Mary Shelley (soprano)

William Godwin, her father (tenor)

Mary Wollstonecraft, her mother (mezzo-soprano)

Jane Clairmont, Godwin's step-daughter (mezzo-soprano)

Percy Bysshe Shelley (tenor)

Lord Byron (baritone)

 

Plot Summary

Mary Shelley is disturbed by memories of seminal events at the Villa Diodati near Geneva, in 1816. The weather was stormy and the group of visitors - Byron, Shelley, Mary, her step-sister Jane, and Byron's physician Polidori are challenged to write suitable ghost stories. Her next dream is of her mother, who died shortly after giving birth, again accompanied by stormy weather. During her adolescence her family consists of her father, step-mother and step-sister, Jane Clairmont. Her father has many political and literary friends, including Charles and Mary Lamb and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. During a visit by these three, Coleridge recites his latest poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which Mary finds an inspiring experience. She and her father sometimes have time alone together, reading poetry at her mother's tomb. An invitation arrives for her to spend time with friends in Dundee, the Baxters, who have been sympathetic towards Godwin. She finds the stay in the north also fires her imagination. After some months in Scotland, she returns to London, where her father introduces her to a new friend he has made, a young poet, Shelley. In spite of the fact that he is already married, Mary and Shelley are immediately attracted to one another. His marriage is already unhappy, though his wife is pregnant. Godwin is infuriated by these events, in spite of which Mary elopes to France with Shelley, and Jane goes with them.

Shelley's favourite reading seems to be the writings of Mary's mother. While travelling on the Rhine, the trio fall in with one Frankpierre, a doctor and man of science. He tells Mary of scientific developments in Switzerland, and of the history of a castle they can see above them, once owned by the family Frankenstein. When they return to England, Mary is ostracised by her father, though Coleridge tries to persuade him to relent. Mary is miserable and pregnant. Jane tells her that Shelley has gone to his wife, who has herself just given birth to a son. While Shelley suffers nightmares about drowning, Mary goes into labour, thinking of her own mother's death in childbirth. She then dreams of her mother taking the new-born baby, who has died. When she writes to her father he doesn't reply. Byron and Polidori are now seen on their way to Switzerland, Byron's reputation in tatters. Shelley, sickened by Godwin's behaviour, decides to leave England. Jane announces that Byron has invited them to Switzerland, to the Villa Diodati. At the villa, as in the beginning, the party discuss their stories as lightning flashes around them. They think particularly of Galvani's unsuccessful experiments with the harnessing of electricity to create life. This finally gives Mary the basis of an idea for her story.

The Cast

Charles Lamb
 friend of William Godwin
First Italian Servant
 
Jane Clairmont
 step-sister to Mary Godwin
John Polidori
 Lord Byron's physician
Lord Byron
 poet
Mary Lamb
 sister to Charles Lamb
Mary Wollstonecraft
 author, Mary's mother
Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin
 later Mary Shelley
Percy Bysshe Shelley
 poet and reformer
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
 poet and friend of William Godwin
Second Italian Servant
 
Second Mrs Godwin
 mother of Jane Clairmont and step-mother to Mary
Victor Frankpierre
 a doctor of medical science at Ingolstadt
William Godwin
 philosopher & political reformer, Mary's father

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