“I didn’t want an off-the-shelf story,” says Tom Coult of his new opera. “A Greek myth or a Shakespeare or whatever. But I’m no good at making up stories – it’s not what I do.” The 33-year-old composer is drinking coffee in the sun outside a rehearsal room where he is preparing for the premiere of Violet, the opening event of this year’s Aldeburgh festival. And he’s extolling the work of his librettist, the playwright Alice Birch, who has also recently created screenplays for the TV adaptations of Sally Rooney’s Normal People and Conversations With Friends and for the 2016 film Lady Macbeth. “I’m in awe of writers. Getting the most perfect sentence, the most perfect phrase, a resonant way with words. The idea of writing an opera with someone who has that particular quality is very exciting, and Alice has it in spades.”
For someone who says he is no good at making things up, Coult’s work so far seems to suggest an enduring interest in made-up things. I Find Planets, written last year, sets words generated by a Twitterbot that announces a new imaginary planet every hour; both Codex (Homage to Serafini) and Rainbow-Shooting Cloud Contraption, written in 2013, drew on his fascination with the Italian artist Luigi Serafini and his lavishly illustrated compendium of imagined things, an encyclopedia from a parallel universe. Another inspiration has been Heath Robinson, whose mechanical contraptions aren’t entirely fantastical but might as well be. And in St John’s Dance – a BBC commission that opened the 2017 Proms – his starting point was the unexplained medieval phenomenon of groups of people spontaneously dancing themselves into a frenzy until they collapsed.
Violet is the first opera for both Coult and Birch – “so it’s not a first language for either of us – I’m excited by that”. Coult has been preparing for it for several years, however. As a postgraduate student at King’s College London, he studied with George Benjamin, who had just finished his own, internationally successful opera Written on Skin. What did he take away from those studies? “Knowing where things sit in someone’s voice, and what is intelligible in different ranges of the voice. That was stuff I tried to think about a lot while writing Violet.”
The premise of Violet’s story fits in with Coult’s earlier works, in that it’s a subversion of objective rationality: the residents of a small, inward-looking village find that time itself is “developing holes”, at a rate of one more hour each day. “The first hour to go is midnight to one, then midnight to two,” he says. “By about day 20 there are no more daylight hours left. Day 23 is just one hour long. There’s something terrifying about it as a concept: when something that is supposed to be objective starts to decay.” As for the title role, “Violet is the only character who, rather than being merely terrified, is sort of elated. She’s in a stultifying marriage in a stultifying village, and the way she sees this, at least something is happening.”
Around Violet, however, things quickly begin to fall apart – which made the story seem oddly prescient when Coult realised that the opera’s planned premiere in summer 2020 would be indefinitely postponed. “There’s a lot in Violet about just how quickly society can break down. It was very odd to see that happening and have that as the reason our production was cancelled.” Coult looked on as 2020 went from being his big year to being a year of next to no performances.
Another big 2020 work, his violin concerto Pleasure Garden, was belatedly premiered by Daniel Pioro and the BBC Philharmonic last year (the London Philharmonic brings it to the Royal Festival Hall in October). That was the first of three big commissions Coult has lined up as composer-in-association with the BBC Phil, a role he’s clearly enjoying. “After the pandemic and after having to write for solo players or for Zoom performances, the absolute privilege to be able to think about orchestral music and get into a room with 80 of the most highly trained musicians is properly magical.”
So too is being able to connect once again with an audience in the concert hall. “I like the idea of curating the audience’s time. They’re giving me their ears for 15 minutes or half an hour or whatever, so how can I curate that time as wonderfully as possible? I like that artisan-y quality; that you should be a maker of wonderful things.”
Violet inhabits darker territory than many of Coult’s works, but it still has the qualities of mischievousness and playfulness that characterise so much of his music. “I always think of composing as play – which doesn’t mean it’s always making jokes or anything like that, but that you’re trying stuff out, you’re not necessarily goal-oriented all the time. Whatever I’m writing for, whether it’s a solo piano or a big orchestra, I think of it as a box of toys. What interesting things can I put together? Imagining the most wonderful sounds that I possibly can – that’s what gets me out of bed in the morning.”