Alice Birch has Written an OperaStories
Britain's most talked about new writer, Alice Birch, has written the libretto for a brand new opera. We reveal an exclusive extract of the text, and talk to her collaborators Tom Coult and Jude Christian about Violet: the work bringing opera to a new generation.
Writer of the moment Alice Birch is unveiling a new project this summer, and it's something you may not expect from the writer of hit TV shows Normal People and Conversations with Friends. The two series, based on novels by Sally Rooney, have become cult viewing, and they are just one of many highlights in Alice's career, which also boasts the BIFA award winning and BAFTA nominated film Lady Macbeth, Susan Smith Blackburn Award winning play Anatomy of a Suicide, and a stint in the writing room for HBO's Succession.
She had, unbeknownst to her, developed a style that seemed to map directly on what I’d look for in an operatic collaborator... a terseness and strict economy of words, allied with a propensity to take flight in extended and dazzling imagery
Tom Coult, Violet composer
In 2019, Alice began work on a somewhat different, very specific kind of writing project: a libretto (or, words) for a brand new opera, Violet, premiering at this year's Aldeburgh Festival. Composer Tom Coult met Alice in 2014. "She had, unbeknownst to her, developed a style that seemed to map directly on what I’d look for in an operatic collaborator: a terseness and strict economy of words, allied with a propensity to take flight in extended and dazzling imagery; a unique approach to form that has both the most unpredictable, capricious sense of freedom but also the tightest, most disciplined of precision; and finally, such a sense of humanity, even amongst the intense darkness that can characterise her work".
The Opera is the story of the eponymous Violet, who has been depressed for as long as she can remember. She lives in the largest house in the village with her husband, Felix and their maid – Laura. At the centre of the village is a clocktower. Lights go on at six, bread rises in the ovens at seven and the front doors are opened at eight. Men work in fields and offices and women cook and sew, clean and raise their children. Roses are grown in front gardens, chickens and cats wander the village, and everything runs like clockwork. Or at least, that is how it used to be. When time begins to disappear – at first imperceptible to everyone but Violet – it seems that their world has not been what they thought it was for some time. And, just as the world looks to be ending, Violet’s depression ebbs away and a violent, desperate yearning to suddenly live takes over. The mechanics of time being lost are reflected in the form of the storytelling – each scene takes place on a different day, as more and more time begins to fall away. Day One – when the change is noticed by no one but Violet, and then Day Three when three hours are lost, Day Five when five hours are gone, and so on, until light is lost and hope is vanishing.
There was a moment while working on the narrative in Alice’s flat, where the idea of ‘reversing the polarity’ suddenly came to us, and opened up the whole process – what if there was no ‘extra hour’, or ‘witching hour’, but instead fewer and fewer hours in the day?
Tom Coult, Violet composer
Director Jude Christian describes Violet as "the story of a person for whom existence itself relentlessly fails to hold any coherent meaning whatsoever, for whom consciousness is a cruel absurdity relayed through a collation of objects and actions, and for whom freedom only comes at last in the cosmic, steamrolling obliteration of every single last physical thing on earth."
"There was a moment" says Coult, "while working on the narrative in Alice’s flat, where the idea of ‘reversing the polarity’ suddenly came to us, and opened up the whole process – what if there was no ‘extra hour’, or ‘witching hour’, but instead fewer and fewer hours in the day? Violet herself is fascinating – if the status quo is hidebound, patriarchal, then those who are subjugated yearn for something different, even if that something is terrifying and unpredictable. When I first read the section where characters in the opera set sail in a rickety raft – knowing they probably won’t survive the journey but nonetheless clinging to some kind of hope for a better world somewhere – I found it, and its obvious political parallels, very moving."
Below, we present an exclusive extract of the libretto, which whilst no substitute the experience of an operatic performance, is every bit the electrifying read you'd expect from one of Britain's most exciting new talents.
VIOLET stands for a long time. A ball of dough is on the kitchen worktop in front of her. She wears a nightdress. Mud is on the hem. She stands. Sways a little.
A MAID, LAURA, is busy moving in and out of he room, bringing things on trays and removing other items - flowers, food, a laptop etc. She is busy, neat, precise and quiet.
FELIX enters. He stands in the doorway. He watches her. She doesn’t notice him. LAURA does.
VIOLET Minutes and Seconds and Hours take Centuries to fall into days.
Last night. Last night I thought I felt it quicken.
And I willed it on.
FELIX You’re falling asleep
FELIX Standing up
FELIX You’ll fall Asleep
VIOLET You startled me
FELIX You crept out of bed so early
VIOLET The light woke me
FELIX The light
VIOLET Yes the light
FELIX There are trees outside the window
VIOLET The light through the trees landing on the roses below woke me.
FELIX It’s still dark. When you wake it’s still dark.
VIOLET I like to greet it. The light. I like to stand in the bay window with the shutters open and let the light crawl in and hit my body. Work its way up. From bone to bone.
Vertebrae to vertebrae.
FELIX I hear you flicking light switches. I see bulbs twitch. I hear wine being drunk. I see cigarette burns on wood. I hear glass cut skin. I see mascara on sleeves. I hear doors click open and breezes fall in.
I see scratches on your arm. Running along the white/black. Leaving tracks.
Like ticker tape.
VIOLET I’m making bread
FELIX You’re covered in mud
VIOLET I’m making bread
FELIX That’s not your job
VIOLET I’m going to make bread and jam
FELIX That’s her job - stay inside today.
VIOLET Do you mind people talking
FELIX I mind people talking about you
VIOLET I want to walk
FELIX Stay inside
VIOLET I want to walk through the woods
FELIX Stay inside
VIOLET By the river
FELIX Inside is warm
VIOLET Over mountains
FELIX You belong here
VIOLET Towards the sea
FELIX That’s not safe. That isn’t safe.
VIOLET Across the market and round and round the clocktower then. Where you can Watch me. Like always. Like you always do.
FELIX Stay inside.
VIOLET You keep me locked up. Locked up like your little birds. When I want seas.
FELIX I love you.
I love you.
I only want you to stop hurting.
He kisses her. He leaves.
VIOLET remains standing.
VIOLET(quiet) to stop wanting.
Whilst the next exchange happens, LAURA gives her medicine, removes her nightdress and dresses her in clothes.
VIOLET Did you notice it. Can you feel it. Did you notice it can you feel it did you See The Clock?
LAURA Open your mouth.
VIOLET Last night. Last night, the clock stopped.
LAURA Stick out your tongue.
LAURA Your tongue.
VIOLET I stood in the garden with the moon full and the foxes stretched out under the fruit trees and time stuttered forward.
VIOLET The hour between midnight and one just Disappeared.
LAURA You are tired today.
VIOLET I am alive today.
LAURA Turn around.
VIOLET I Saw It. I Saw It. Something is Happening. Something is finally going to Happen to me.
Are you Excited.
LAURA Lift your arms.
VIOLET You don’t believe me.
LAURA Breathe in.
VIOLET I stood beneath the clocktower and watched the hand move from 11.59 to one. And the light altered in a split second. Like a switch. Being flicked.
LAURA I thought you were in the garden. With the fruit trees and the foxes.
VIOLET I was.
Then I walked further.
LAURA Open your mouth.
VIOLET I’ve already had it.
LAURA One more today.
VIOLET keeps her mouth shut. She smiles.
Kitchen. 7am. FELIX, VIOLET and LAURA. VIOLET is full of excited energy. LAURA is trying not to cry. FELIX is furious, terrified, full of emotion. Breakfast things are on the table.
VIOLET I told you.
FELIX storms out of the house, door slamming. LAURA jumps. VIOLET begins to eat.
VIOLET I told you. I told All of you. I wasn’t fucking lying.
His hands were shaking. His face was so pale. His knees gave way. He doesn’t know what to do. How funny. How funny that he doesn’t know what to do.
Can you hear the people shouting
VIOLET Can you hear them Wailing
VIOLET They’re Demanding that he Fix it
VIOLET As though he could Fix it
VIOLET As though he could Mend Time
VIOLET As though he could Give them back Time
VIOLET He always wanted them to look at him like he was God
LAURA I feel
VIOLET Like he was their God and Saviour
LAURA I feel a little
VIOLET This bread that I made is absolutely delicious
LAURA My stomach is in knots
VIOLET You’re frightened.
VIOLET You’re terrified.
VIOLET smiles. Bites.
VIOLET Pass me the butter. The jam. And the apricots. I want to Eat. And then I will Walk.
LAURA picks up a dish. She drops it. It shatters.
Violet premieres at the Aldeburgh Festival on 3 June. BOOK NOW.
Portrait by Lauren Maccabee
Watch the Violet trailer
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