Joby Talbot © Johan Persson
Joby Talbot
© Johan Persson
The output of composer Joby Talbot is diverse, ranging from concertos, film scores and song arrangements to a cappella works. In 2011, he composed the score to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the first full-length narrative ballet score to be commissioned by The Royal Ballet in 20 years. This was swiftly followed by a second Royal Ballet commission – and another collaboration with choreographer Christopher Wheeldon – for The Winter’s Tale, premièred last spring. This season sees the première of Talbot’s first opera  – Everest – for Dallas Opera. As part our Contemporary Month, we wanted to ask Talbot more about his writing for the stage and how collaborations with choreographers and librettists work, in particular.

You have written scores for concert hall, stage and screen. How does your approach differ in dealing with these different mediums? What challenges do these mediums present to you as a composer?

That's a big question! Well – my approach differs according to the needs of the project. In film scoring, the music usually takes a back seat, supporting the emotion of the picture while subtly enhancing structure and direction. Only occasionally does it come to the fore and lead the way. In ballet it's very different. The music creates the framework. The dancers are literally dancing to its tune. Even the person who's calling the show will be reading the cues from a copy of the score. And yet - conversely - it's the dancing that people have come to see. So you have to be careful not to overwhelm the choreography and get in the way.

In opera it's different again: now it's the singers people want to hear. And they want to see them act, so you have to leave room for that, and enable it to happen. A concert piece, meanwhile, is more fully about the music. The music must attempt to demand all the attention. But that doesn't necessarily mean it's more demanding to write, or more rewarding. Every genre has its challenges. Sometimes it's harder to play a supportive role than to take centre stage.

You’ve recently composed your second full-length work for the Royal Ballet. What degree of freedom are you given in composing a ballet? Describe your working relationship with the choreographer Christopher Wheeldon – was there much ‘writing to order’ or can you decide how long a particular section should last?

Edward Watson as Leontes in <i>The Winter's Tale</i> © Johan Persson
Edward Watson as Leontes in The Winter's Tale
© Johan Persson
Well I guess it's all 'writing to order' in one sense. My primary role is to serve the project, and do my very best to ensure that the show will work. But I figure that if the musical structure functions well, then the whole thing stands a good chance of succeeding. However, creating cogent musical structures that last for several hours and also happen to tell an entirely non-musical story is no easy task. It's important, then, to be involved in the creative process from the very start, and Chris Wheeldon and I will typically sit down (sometimes with a dramaturge, sometimes without) and work out the scenography – the basic structure of the piece – together before anything else is done. That way we can decide how we intend to present the narrative through both dance and music from the off, making sure we're both on the same page from the beginning.

A detailed, scene-by-scene breakdown of the piece is the result – the equivalent of a story board in movies. This will have quite accurate timings that we've agreed upon together – yes.  It's understood that they'll remain flexible, but in practice they rarely change, and we are often surprised by how close to our original conception the finished show turns out to be. A certain amount of rewriting is inevitable, but so far in my working relationship with Chris, he has never asked me to redo anything that I didn't feel was helping the show develop, and I think that's a good sign of a very healthy collaboration. I love working with Chris – he is brilliant.

In writing a ballet for such a huge company, did you feel you had to alter your style at all to make it ‘accessible’ to a wider public than would normally consider attending contemporary music concerts?

Not in the slightest. The Royal Ballet has a sophisticated audience who I'm sure are quite capable of dealing with any difficulties I can throw at them. Having said that, I do think that with ballet – and especially with narrative ballet – it does pay to try to be very clear. Subtle nuances which might play well in the concert hall tend to get lost on the big stage with hundreds of dancers flying about, so I try to make the emotional beats big and strong. But there is no sense of 'dumbing down', no. I'm being as emotionally and artistically honest in the music for Alice and The Winter's Tale as I have been in anything I've written.

Lauren Cuthbertson in <i>Alice's Adventures in Wonderland</i> © Johan Persson
Lauren Cuthbertson in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
© Johan Persson

Do you approach composition differently when the work is going to be choreographed? How did the composition of your second ballet, The Winter’s Tale, differ from Alice in Wonderland?

Much of my music that was not originally composed with dance in mind has subsequently been choreographed to (for example Wayne McGregor's Chroma used a selection of reworked concert pieces) so I guess my music is danceable whether I mean it to be or not. Dancers are extraordinarily good at dealing  with all kinds of tricky rhythms (or – harder still – a tricky lack of rhythms) so there are no restrictions on what I can throw at them. My music always tends towards a strong rhythmic underpinning – even when slow and sparse - and I guess that's something that choreographers respond favourably to.

The basic methodology of composing Alice and The Winter's Tale was the same, but obviously I was dealing with hugely different subjects and needed to tell the two stories in quite different ways. Alice is necessarily episodic (though we worked hard to draw the episodes together and provide a strong through-line) whereas The Winter's Tale has longer musical paragraphs with more time to chart the emotional development of the characters and narrative.

What is your reaction to the success of Alice, which has just played in New York?

Well - unsurprisingly I'm thrilled at the success of Alice, a piece of which I'm immensely proud. It was such a labour of love for Chris and I – you can't imagine how fantastic an experience it is to witness audiences all around the world enjoying it again and again.

Catalani's <i>La Wally</i> at the Grand Théâtre, Geneva © Carole Parodi
Catalani's La Wally at the Grand Théâtre, Geneva
© Carole Parodi

You have composed your first opera for a fascinating double bill at Dallas Opera next year. To partner Act IV of Catalani’s La Wally, who perishes in an avalanche, you’ve composed Everest, based on the events of the 1996 mountaineering disaster. How did the concept come about?

Yes – the orchestrations for Everest are what I'm working on now. The idea to do an opera based on the events of 10-11 May 1996 came from Gene Scheer, who had long been fascinated with the story of the eight people who died that night on Mt Everest (and of those who survived). The story seems to have all the ingredients of an operatic libretto – love, hubris, self-sacrifice, pride, redemption... It's a one act  piece of 70-or-so minutes, and it was decided by Dallas Opera to partner it with a rare performance of the final act of La Wally. Two composers reacting to similar tragedies across 125 years...

What was the collaboration process like with librettist Gene Scheer? Is the compositional process different for opera than ballet? Are there any particular challenges which writing an opera brings?

This is my first opera whereas Gene is a very experienced and successful librettist. I put myself very much in his and Dallas Opera's hands on this project. Having agreed on the subject matter (which, as I say, was originally Gene's idea), Gene and I had in-depth discussions, spread over about a year, where we tried to figure out how to fit the story into an opera-sized box. As usual, my first concern was to create a strong architecture for the piece, (more important than ever in opera I think, which, with all its many and varied parts, can easily turn into a bit of a mess - and nothing is more boring than a mess) and the structure of Gene's libretto is brilliantly conceived in its tightness and concision.

What would you say is the driving force behind your artistic voice - do you have an overriding artistic aesthetic that you wish to impart, or is it different for every piece?

I wouldn't say it's different for every piece. Hopefully my music always sounds like me, and I have a very clear idea of what I want to express musically. Lately I've been very much enjoying trying to apply those musical concerns to narrative collaborations of various sorts. But that's not to say that I'm not looking forward to writing some unprogrammatic music sometime soon. I'm not a composer who seeks to draw myself into the foreground and make it all about me. As far as I'm concerned I make these pieces as a means of expressing myself to others  and hopefully to give them a unique and profoundly entertaining experience. To be fortunate enough to be able to sit back and watch the work go out there into the world and have a life of its own, is, for me, the best part of it all.

Everest opens at Dallas Opera on 30 January 2015

Alice in Wonderland is back at The Royal Ballet from 6 December