Huw Watkins © Benjamin Ealovega
Huw Watkins
© Benjamin Ealovega
Welsh composer Huw Watkins is among the most established figures working in British contemporary music. His opera In the Locked Room, created in partnership with David Harsent and premiered six years ago, is set for a fresh interpretation in a couple of months’ time, in a production designed by theatre director Stephen Unwin. Based on Thomas Hardy’s 1894 short story An Imaginative Woman, the opera is being performed as part of a double-bill at the Royal College of Music, where Watkins was once a student. Our discussion began by looking at the nature and implications of setting Hardy’s psychologically-charged story to music.

SC: The librettist for In the Locked Room, David Harsent, has said that it was you who suggested the subject for the opera.

HW: Yes indeed. 

So what led you to choose this particular story of Hardy’s? What do you believe the opera has to say to us today?

There was something about the bleakness of the story that stuck in my mind since reading it as a teenager. I also knew that David would use it as a starting point, and not some slavish adaptation. I think the claustrophobic unhappiness of Ella’s marriage struck us both as something worth exploring. I didn’t set out with the intention of saying something relevant, but hoped that since the story struck a chord with me, it might also with today’s listeners.

How was the working relationship with David Harsent? Was it collaborative in terms of deciding how to edit and amend the story, or did he simply present you with a completed libretto and you then set to work?

David was a joy to work with. He’s much more experienced writing operas than me, so after we’d chosen the Hardy, I was happy to let him get on with it. Of course, having now written an opera, if I were ever to write another one, I would know better what kind of things to ask for from a librettist, but there was almost nothing I needed to ask David to change when he sent me his completed first draft. (We had to remove the phrase “shades of grey” when the novel became famous...) 

We know well from works like Britten’s Turn of the Screw and, of course, Maxwell Davies’ The Lighthouse (being performed alongside your opera) the extent to which chamber operas can establish an overwhelming sense of intimacy; and also in operas such as Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle and Henze’s Boulevard Solitude that the use of just a single act creates a particularly intense kind of drama. Being a single-act chamber opera, In the Locked Room is therefore something of a “double whammy”, and the same is true of Crime Fiction, the half-hour chamber opera you composed in 2008. Are you particularly drawn to this kind of heightened, small-scale operatic narrative?

© Benjamin Ealovega
© Benjamin Ealovega
You’re quite right, and indeed, those works – particularly the Bartók, Britten and Maxwell Davies – made big impressions on me early on. The obsessive, almost pathological, fascination Ella has for Pascoe, seemed to me perfect for a piece of this length and size. I should also say that Ruby Hughes, the original Ella, was a singer who I knew would be able to communicate these qualities powerfully.

Do you have aspirations to compose an opera on a much larger scale?

Yes, if the opportunity ever arose, I would like to write something larger scale, but only when I’ve found absolutely the right subject for me. 

Was the decision to change Hardy’s story in order to remove Ella’s death a way of seeking to reduce some of the bleakness which in such an intense, intimate context as this might have proved too desolate for an audience? Alternatively, do you regard this decision as a means of empowering Ella?

I think we changed it so that the focus of the opera would be Ella’s reaction to Pascoe’s death/suicide. I think any attempt to somehow empower her would have been dishonest.

Is she a figure to be pitied or admired – or, perhaps, empathised with?

Her obsession with Pascoe, I think, was the only way she could find relief from her miserable marriage – perhaps that’s something with which listeners may be able to empathise.

You said before that you didn’t set out with the intention of saying something relevant, but it seems to me that certain aspects of the opera are highly relevant to contemporary society. Ella’s retreat into fantasy, focused on the figure of Pascoe, involves both escapism from an unhappy marriage as well as a form of unbridled celebrity-worship – not exactly unknown in society today! So perhaps the opera reflects that there’s something of Ella’s obsessiveness in all of us, and the piece can thereby act as something of a warning, highlighting the dangers and implications of such flights of fantasy?

I think what I should have said was that I didn’t want to write an opera that was self-consciously about some “relevant” contemporary theme. Not that that hasn’t worked very successfully for several composers; my worry would have been that very quickly such a subject might lose its relevance. In fact, the way you have described the relevance of certain aspects of the opera sets out exactly what I was hoping for from the story. David suggested that we update the story’s Victorian setting, and make Ella’s husband someone who works in the City, rather than a gunmaker, but I agree that themes of obsession and escapism are indeed particularly relevant today. 

From the 2012 world première of <i>In The Locked Room</i>
From the 2012 world première of In The Locked Room
It’s nearly six years since In the Locked Room was first performed. Has your view of the work changed during that time?

I certainly think I would write a different piece today. When it was put on a couple of years ago by Staatsoper Hamburg I was struck by the different elements of the piece that were brought into focus by the new production, and I look forward to having that experience again at the Royal College of Music.

In the Locked Room is being performed in conjunction with Maxwell Davies’ The Lighthouse. Is this a fortuitous pairing? Are there connections between the pieces; do they complement or even inform each other?

The Lighthouse is a piece that I’m keen to hear again. I remember hearing it first on television, probably over 20 years ago, and I still think there aren’t many operas that convey a sense of fear and dread so effectively. Max’s language is, I think, quite different from mine, but I hope the two operas will be worth hearing alongside each other.

How does it feel to be having the opera staged at the Royal College of Music, your own former college?

I’m really honoured that they decided to put it on. I’ve been very lucky to work closely as a pianist with some sensational musicians from the Royal College of Music over the years, so I can’t wait to go back there and work with some of the next generation.

What do you feel those young performers will bring to this particular production of In the Locked Room?

That’s hard to answer specifically, because I don’t yet know the singers, but I do remember going to operas at Royal College of Music as a student, so what I’m pretty sure I will get is enormously committed performances, and a really classy, tight instrumental ensemble.   


Find out more about the performance of In The Locked Room at the Royal College of Music. 

This article was sponsored by Royal College of Music.