How we made Silver Birch
Roxanna Panufnik and I first met in 1994 or 1995, thanks to our mutual friend Tasmin Little, who introduced us one day at the Purcell Room. We had an unusual thing in common: in our twenties we were each dealing with the death of a parent. My mother died in February 1994 and Rox's father, the great composer Andrzej Panufnik, had been gone since October 1991. At that age most of your friends have not been through that experience, and it can be a lonely matter: some people stand by you, others run for their lives. The bond, therefore, was special from the start.
We've written several pieces together in the last few years. I adapted the words of the Padre Pio Prayer for a choral piece that the Genesis Foundation commissioned from Rox, and later created a sort of narrative poem for a commission from Chanticleer in San Francisco. This piece is called Let Me In and is a story derived from the Gnostic Somethingorothers in which the young boy Jesus restores a dead baby to life. I wrote part of the poem in iambic pentameter and focused on the images of mourning traditions in the ancient Jewish community in which the tale was set. Next came the Dance of Life: Tallinn Mass, for which Rox devoted months of care, effort and sensitivity to getting to grips with the Estonian language and setting it like a native - only to find that they wanted to do the recording in English. My job was to take the existing music, words and rough translation and make a singable English adaptation. (In two weeks.)
But the peach project would, of course, be an opera. First we latched onto a famous novel we both loved, made an outline...and found someone else had already nabbed the stage rights. Then we picked another classic book that would make a still more amazing opera, one that would attract punters from all over place. Could we get a commission? "Oh darlings, we love it, but our commissioning schedule is full up with [delete as appropriate] Famous Bloke, More Famous Bloke and Humongously Famous Bloke..." Worse still: "Yes! We adore it! We're going to commission it. ...We are going to commission it... We are definitely going to commission it... well, we'd love to commission it, maybe in three years if.....er...." [the rest is silence].
One day the phone rings and there's Rox. "You're not going to believe this," she says, "but Garsington just called."
This wasn't to be any usual opera, though. Nor was it precisely a community opera. It had to be more than that: it had to be for everyone, with everyone - from a professional cast of rising opera stars to a group of primary school children, and for an audience of both seasoned opera-goers and complete newbies, aged 8 to 108. It needed to have a connection to World War I - but with 2017 a more practical choice of year than 2016, we wondered if perhaps everyone would be fed up to the back teeth with World War I pieces by then. That shifted the focus to the present day, yet the Siegfried Sassoon connection needed to be there, as Sassoon spent a lot of time at the original Garsington in Oxfordshire.
I came up with a story, but our doughty director Karen Gillingham came round and spent a gentle hour explaining to me, over tea and a purring kitten, why it wasn't going to work in the proverbial month of Sundays. So I threw it out and went back to the writing board. There was only one way to approach this new and demanding project: with a completely open mind. To go with the flow of collaborative energy. To see where it took us.
First it took us into schools to work on the Siegfried Sassoon poems and ideas about war, separation and challenge with teenagers and primary school children. Karen is an expert at getting huge groups of rowdy youngsters working together, listening to her and carrying out instructions. I watched it all, with writer-antennae at the ready. We wanted to find out what mattered most to them. What would they want in an opera? What would they miss if they went away to war? What might induce them to join up?
It was clear, very quickly, that they didn't want loads of soppy love duets. They wanted action. I also asked my nephew Luca, who was about 9, what he'd want to see in an opera about World War I, and he said, "Dog-fights in the air", which of course is easier said than done - but he is coming to the show on the Sunday and I hope he won't be disappointed with the battle scene, brought to life not least by the team of Foley artists - sound-effects - from Pinewood Studios.
|The professional cast in rehearsal: Sarah Redgwick sings Mrs Morrell, Jack's former teacher|
Most of all, though, all these young people said that their families were everything to them. What we needed was a family-based story. And one little boy in the primary school team said he would miss the silver birch tree outside his family's home, because his parents had planted it as a sapling and watched it grow up. The antennae began to buzz.
We spent an evening with the adult community chorus, again with our chosen poems. At this point a gentleman from Henley-on-Thames quietly explained that he is Siegfried Sassoon's great-nephew and offered to introduce me to his mother and aunt, who remembered Uncle Siegfried extremely well. I spent a fascinating morning with them, listening to reminiscences of Sassoon himself: how he spoke, how he dressed, how he drove, why he was withdrawn and remote by the time they knew him, and how he had found spiritual peace at last in his conversion to Catholicism. We read some of his poems together - there, he had said, one would find the best of him. And we discussed why he went back into World War I - having survived crazy exploits at first that saw him nicknamed 'Mad Jack', then speaking out in the Declaration Against War about how the campaign was being conducted. He was confined to a mental asylum in Scotland for his pains. Yet then he returned to the war, because his men were suffering and dying and he felt the need to go back and help them through it. He belonged with those whose suffering he shared.
|The adult community chorus in rehearsal. (Photo: Luke Delahunty)|
But that wasn't enough. We have a present-day story. We need present-day soldiers. We found some.
I found one at Barnes station. We were waiting for a train late one night and he was on the platform. Weaving around, appearing semi-deranged. Wearing dark glasses, in the dark. He'd been in Iraq, and come back. His chief aid in readjusting, if you can call it that, was clearly alcohol. No help from anyone, he said. He took off his glasses. His eyes were red with blood, and I can still see now their wild, disconnected gaze. Sand, he said. You can't get all the sand out of your eyes. But he was proud, he said, of what he'd done to serve his country. He'd do it all again.
When we went on holiday in January 2015, a former armed forces guy was in the next hotel room. He was retired, but he'd been in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, driving army vans. He told me his story: a broken and bereaved family, a hopeless town where he was expected simply to spend his life working in the carpet factory, the longing for something more, to get away and see the world and do something bigger and better. The armed forces offered him both a salary and that opportunity. He saw plenty of terrifying things in Northern Ireland. What would be his advice to young people considering joining up, I asked. "Remember, there's no turning back," he said. "It's not a video game - you can't just press a reset button. There's no reset button on your life."
Then I met Jay Wheeler.
Jay is married to a friend of Karen's. He lives in Birmingham and now runs a military fitness company. But in 2003 he was a lance corporal during the invasion of Iraq. We got in touch and explained what we were doing. I went up to Birmingham to visit him and across one extraordinary afternoon he told me his story from start to present. Much of it has fed into Jack's story in Silver Birch. Again, there was the difficult family situation, the young people's dreams of escape and adventure, the need to prove yourself, to push yourself, to aim higher than life seemed to want you to. His brother had joined up too. Neither of them expected to see action, but it was the luck of the draw: their division was the one whose turn it was to be primed and ready to go if occasion demanded. And occasion did.
There was much in Jay's story that we couldn't possibly include in a family-oriented piece: unfolding in front of my ears was an X-rated, Oscar-winning movie, structure and all. What he had been through, what he had endured, what he had had to do, the decisions he had had to make, the violence and horror of the taking of Basra, the aftermath that so many soldiers endured of PTSD, all of this is unimaginable to most of us. Many elements of his history have gone into Silver Birch: the motivating needs to prove himself to his father, to look after his younger brother ("Got to look after my brother. Always look after my brother," says Jack. That's Jay) and then the all-but-impossible matter of returning and adjusting to civilian life: all this came from our talk. Moreover, Jay, receiving the post intended for his brother, who was in another camp, used to run across the desert by night to deliver it quietly. That became a scene in the opera too.
|Rehearsing the homecoming|
Jay has been to hell - and come back. He has turned his life around. He has a successful business and a young family. He told me that everything he is today has been made possible by the experiences he had in the army. He's proved his own strength, not only to his father but to himself. Many are not as strong as he is mentally. Many of them fall apart after the horrors they've been in, become addicted to drink or drugs, end up on the streets or in jail. Despite everything, Jay has turned all the grit, all the determination, into a force for good. I have no greater respect for anybody I have ever met than I have for him. It is with more than merely enormous gratitude that we took him up on his offer of using his own army number for Jack in the drill scene.
|Our two Chloes. Jack's little sister is the voice of hope,
and gets to sing duets with Sam Furness
I don't believe that people are built for war. Human minds and bodies are not designed to withstand attacking, destruction, chemicals, psychological breaking, fear at every moment. And we cannot solve our problems with weapons. To have been through all this physical and mental shattering and come through to the other side is something almost miraculous. Jack and his brother Davey return to their family needing to make sense of what has happened to them. It is only love that can save them in the end, not war. It's their connection to their family - especially their indomitable mother Anna and little sister Chloe - that sustains them. And it's their connection to their "brothers" in arms, whom they decide they must learn to help, that stands some chance of keeping them on the rails.
The other day I saw another Jack. I was walking to the Barbican past one of those little City public gardens, on a sunny July afternoon. A tall bloke in camouflage trousers with cropped hair and a can of beer. He was sitting on a bench, staring into space. And I wondered what he had seen, could still see and may be seeing forever.