The works of Shakespeare have spawned some great operas. Verdi’s trilogy of Macbeth, Otello and Falstaff soar high in the operatic firmament, although he never got round to setting King Lear. Romeo and Juliet has fuelled masterpieces by Gounod, Bellini and Bernstein, and Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is probably the finest setting of the Bard by an English composer. Although there’s a terrific ballet version of The Winter’s Tale, I struggle to recall an operatic one… until now. Ryan Wigglesworth’s first opera opens at English National Opera on Monday and I met him at the Coliseum during rehearsals to discuss the work's genesis.

Ryan Wigglesworth in rehearsals for <i>The Winter's Tale</i> © Johan Persson
Ryan Wigglesworth in rehearsals for The Winter's Tale
© Johan Persson

MP: What drew you to this particular play?

RW: It's been on my back-burner for a good fifteen years since I was a student. It always struck me that the set pieces in the play are asking for operatic treatment: Hermione's trial, the storm, the fast-forwarding of 16 years, the statue scene. Architecturally, it has big enough bones for an opera. The moments of crisis are so clear. One of the things I’ve always felt about the play is that it's kind of unstageable. I've never seen a production which knows what to do with Bohemia.

Did you see the recent Kenneth Branagh production?

I've been deliberately avoiding seeing it like the plague, the same with the ballet. I didn't want anything interfering with what I was trying to do.

In Bohemia, the figure of Autolycus is one of those aspects of Shakespeare that doesn't translate so well over the years. He obviously had an actor who was brilliantly funny and the jokes were understandable, but I'm not sure it would register today; the jokes wouldn't land and you'd spend so much time setting them up. You'd be shooting yourself in the foot, so I was very clear from the start that I wanted the young couple Florizel and Perdita to be the focus in Act 2.

There's still a sense of the space and lightness for Bohemia having come from the claustrophobia and intensity and psychodrama of that first act, which is really slick and Greek and tragic in its trajectory. It really burns. Suddenly you have the sense of the world turning upside down. Musically, it becomes very light and airy and although we've got rid of Autolycus altogether, he isn't lost entirely in that quite a bit of text ends up with the chorus.

That's another big dramaturgical issue one has to grapple with: what role should the chorus have? I hate it when there is no strong reason for a chorus to be on stage. It's wonderful to have them as a colour to utilise but I'm very happy our solution. We needed a sense of the citizenship of Sicilia and then the rural community of Bohemia. The chorus then has an off-stage function in the final act, announcing that the oracle has been fulflled and the king's daughter has been found.

Ryan Wigglesworth with Richard Peirson in rehearsals for <i>The Winter's Tale</i> © Johan Persson
Ryan Wigglesworth with Richard Peirson in rehearsals for The Winter's Tale
© Johan Persson

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears stuck faithfully with Shakespeare's text, whereas for The Tempest, Thomas Adès brought in Meredith Oakes to rewrite Shakespeare. You've tackled the libretto yourself. How do you approach rewriting - or reshaping - Shakespeare? Iambic pentameter isn't ideal for voice-setting.

The pentameter is too long to be singable. By the time you get to the end of the line, you've lost the beginning of the thought. As well as cutting whole swathes of text and boiling the action down to a manageable size there was lots of internal cutting within lines.

The game I played was that I wouldn't add, unless it was absolutely necessary to make an action clear, but what became my guiding principle was trying to make it as intelligible as I could, to make it understandable without entirely losing the colour of the language. You come to Shakespeare for the language. I wanted to retain as much of that as possible. But I cut some text that might be thought of as a dream to set – "I have drunk and seen the spider" all that wonderful Leontes stuff, which in the end had to go simply because I was only keeping it because it was great poetry and not because it was dramaturgically necessary.

Of course, Shakespeare’s poetry informs my music and the colour I'm trying to achieve. You have to get beyond the stage where you're dealing with the play and it has to become a proper libretto which serves its function. In a curious way, in order to be faithful to the play, you have to be more radical and brutal than you'd ever imagine because you have to strip back enough to allow space for music to function. A libretto on the page should look incomplete.

I love Britten’s Dream – indeed, I'm conducting it at Aldeburgh this summer – but I'm not sure they were brutal enough with the text. I find it a very wordy opera. They could have been less respectful.

Is it the greatest Shakespearean opera?

No, Falstaff. I adore Falstaff because in a sense – although Falstaff is a great character – The Merry Wives of Windsor is not Shakespeare's finest play by any stretch so it lends itself better to operatic adaptation. There's not an ounce of fat on Verdi’s score, it's just glorious. Boito and Verdi had the great advantage, of course, of being able to sidestep the issue of setting Shakespeare in English! They didn’t have an audience sitting there waiting for their favourite lines to show up.

Ryan Wigglesworth © Benjamin Ealovega
Ryan Wigglesworth
© Benjamin Ealovega

At what point does composing the music come into this? Do you have ideas for musical phrases as you sketch the libretto?

During the labour of getting a libretto into shape, I was always sketching ideas as they came to me. I’d been accruing a sound world without necessarily knowing it. When it came to those great dramatic pillars, the set pieces, certain moments were there with great clarity.

What are the challenges of writing for the human voice and what is your compositional process? Do you work at a piano, or a computer, or do you go for long walks in the countryside?

I live in rural Oxfordshire – that's the only way I could ever find the space and time to take on a project like this. You need the dog walks and the space.

But I have to write for specific voices. I have to know who the performers are. The casting was absolutely in place before I wrote any of it. I've heard Iain Paterson do so much over the years, sitting in the Coliseum and hearing his first Hans Sachs. It was so beautifully sung, just exquisite and a masterclass in pacing. He sounded as fresh as a daisy at the end! He is one of our great bass-baritones.

He was a shoo-in for Leontes?

Absolutely. It's pretty much the same with all the cast.

You have to sketch quickly to get the shape of a scene, the shape of an act. It's a great learning process when you look at the sketches of Wagner or Strauss and see they're sketching in two parts all the time. You ask yourself where all the counterpoint comes in! It's a shorthand. You've just got to get it down and for someone as anal and as obsessive as I am, that's a great shift. It's much more akin to painting, throwing paint at the canvas.

At what point does the orchestation come in?

From the very beginning. If I’m sketching in the early stages, I try to do as much away from the piano as I can, again just so I don't get bogged down in detail, so I can throw down the arc, the shape, the trajectory of a scene. I had three hours with the orchestra a year ago and that was very useful for me to try out my pallette. With the orchestration, you've got to be careful to leave enough space in the tessitura of the given voice, so it has room. It's a fairly standard romantic orchestra, Straussian, triple winds, the significant addition being a piano, but I'm pretty sparing.

Ryan Wigglesworth in rehearsals for <i>The Winter's Tale</i> © Johan Persson
Ryan Wigglesworth in rehearsals for The Winter's Tale
© Johan Persson

Do you write stage action into the libretto like Puccini would have done?

Only the most important things – entrances, exits…

Pursued by a bear?

Well that's an interesting one because the bear I've always seen as a kind of emblem – it’s the flipping of the coin, it's the point that the play switches from being tragic to comic. I see that as my job as the composer to do that and not necessarily the bear’s! Of course you're playing with people's potential disappointment of not seeing a hairy creature on stage.

I've been blessed with this incredible team of Vicky Mortimer having designed this beautiful set. I could never have imagined such elegant solutions. And Rory Kinnear is directing his first opera. I knew Rory through Mark Padmore and we spent some time together at the Endellion Festival. Rory did the best narration of A Soldier's Tale I've ever witnessed. He played all the parts, a tour de force. I knew then that he was incredibly musical. I knew he hadn't directed anything before and I put it to him slightly nervously, not knowing what his reaction would be. It took at day or two for him to say "Why the hell not?"

Ryan Wigglesworth © Benjamin Ealovega
Ryan Wigglesworth
© Benjamin Ealovega
You never know how it's going to turn out until that first production rehearsal. It was such a thrilling first week in the studio up in West Hampstead. This fantastic cast doesn't need to be told the nuts and bolts of how an opera works – they're all great singing actors – but having Rory working with them has played out better than I could have imagined. Rory already knew the score backwards.

You can't come into an opera rehearsal preparing to workshop a scene.

Exactly. It's the complete opposite of a play, spending two weeks hacking through the text. His first chorus rehearsal was a masterclass becasue he understood that the worst possible thing for a chorus is standing around waiting for a director to make up his or her mind about what they want. He had a strong clear vision and if something didn't work, he was quick to change.

Presenting new opera is one of things this company does so well and I hope there's going to a be a lot more of it. They give a new work the right support. It's a huge commitment. We all know the going's been tough but this feels like a great moment for the company to come together. There's a great sense of shared investment which is overwhelming for me - it's so humbling how much every person is committing.

ENO has such an important role to play in the cultural life of this enormous city. There should be no question of whether London can have two opera houses. I hope it can continue to lead on this front. There's no sense now of composers being able to serve an apprenticeship when it comes to writing operas. It's not like Verdi could spend his "years in the galley" – today you can't write your five duds before you get it right. If you're lucky to get your commission, it might be your one and only chance so we have to think carefully about how we enable young composers to feel excited about the prospect of writing an opera and not feeling overwhelmed or frightened. I think it is the most wonderful experience.