Back in June 1988, Sian Edwards conducted the world première of Mark Anthony Turnage's gritty first opera, Greek, which transports Sophocles' Oedipus Rex to the East End of London in the 1980s. Thirty years on, she's conducting Turnage's latest operatic work, Coraline, based on Neil Gaiman's teen novella. We met between performances at the Barbican Theatre, to reflect on the score and the challenges of writing new opera.

Sian Edwards © Katie Vandyck
Sian Edwards
© Katie Vandyck

MP: Thinking back to Greek, do you notice a difference in Mark's compositional language?

SE: Not enormously. I think he's probably more sparing now with the instrumen­tation and the way he uses the orchestra to get this incredibly resonant sound. As soon as we started playing it with the Britten Sinfonia, we found that the score rang; it had a presence which, I think, comes from experience. But the rhythmic complexities that he loves are all there even if the orchestration is a bit lighter. I seem to remember in Greek we struggled a bit in getting the balance right for the singers and here in the Barbican Theatre, because the pit is so low, we have been able to control the balance. Giles Cadle's set is brilliant for sound. It reminds me a bit of that fabulous Jonathan Miller Mikado – a box with a floor and a roof.

Every word can be heard

Greek has the bigger dimensions than this, but Mark has still gone for flute, oboe, clarinet, bass clarinet and bassoon, and one violin, one viola, two cellos and bass, so he still loves those darker, oaken colours. What he's done brilliantly is give it all the energy and punch that Greek has, but he's made this wonderful setting for the singers so that what they do is in relation to the orchestra rather than over it.

Mary Bevan (Coraline) and Kitty Whately (Other Mother) © ROH | Stephen Cummiskey
Mary Bevan (Coraline) and Kitty Whately (Other Mother)
© ROH | Stephen Cummiskey

As conductor, do you have any involvement in the rehearsal process?

Not immediately, but Aletta Collins is just one of the most creative directors I've ever worked with. Ideas just pour out, all the time working to elucidate the story to make things clear for an audience of nine- and ten-year olds – as well as everybody else. There were moments where she would need just a few more seconds to make a set change or to get a character on and what's been a lot of fun is how theatrical Mark Turnage is in the way he thinks about the music. In the early days, I remember with Greek we just did one or two repeats of things when we needed a bit more time but he's been a lot more subtle about how to add time while nevertheless being completely sensitive to what the actors need. It's been a lot of fun to negotiate and work with him.

Is there a danger in setting a book that is so well known?

I think there is and they're very brave to have gone for this.

It's the same for composers who've set Shakespeare.

Where angels fear to tread and all that! I remember Aletta worrying about there not being a cat. We've found it works on its own terms. The dramaturgical way in which it's been condensed into something that is manageable over a couple of hours is very clever. The way the libretto works is a brilliant paring down of the story to its elements – the journey of a young girl who is cross with everything then goes through a lot of trials and then comes out the other end – it's got an awful lot of value in it.

Mary Bevan (Coraline), Dominic Sedgwick and Harry Nicoll (Ghost children) © ROH | Stephen Cummiskey
Mary Bevan (Coraline), Dominic Sedgwick and Harry Nicoll (Ghost children)
© ROH | Stephen Cummiskey

What influences do you hear in Mark's music?

There is a grittiness which probably comes with all those years with Louis Andriessen. He's not afraid to have those sharp, snap chords and very dense harmonic language which is still moving around tonal centres but as much of it comes from jazz as anything else, with these open thirteenths. In this piece there are little waltz pastiches and then there's the much more machine-like music – and of course we have a machine on stage – so it's a big collection of things, but all the music is done in a way which is very succinct and very tight. You never feel that he's borrowed something that he hasn't already digested and used for the purpose.

Do you hear hints of Britten and The Turn of the Screw?

You're quite right – the children and the ghostliness, definitely.

It's writing that is approachable. Do you think his writing has been diluted for a young audience?

Not at all. The fact that the orchestra has got this Stravinskian, almost fragmentary opening which has lots of energy and sends you straight into the picture, but it's not easy music. What's great is that the singers can get the narrative out and tell the story in a very natural way. But pitch-wise it's been a real challenge for everyone to get it right and, rhythmically, it can be very tricky.

Mary Bevan (Coraline) and Harry Nicoll (Mr Bobo) © ROH | Stephen Cummiskey
Mary Bevan (Coraline) and Harry Nicoll (Mr Bobo)
© ROH | Stephen Cummiskey

What are the qualities that make for good contemporary opera?

I must admit, for years I've had a bee in my bonnet about libretti because I think that a lot of wonderful music is written to libretti that simply don't work. Composers end up either just accompanying the libretto or the libretto has acres of narrative and never moves out of one tempo.

There's a lot of contemporary opera which is basically just recitative.

It's so frustrating. There was Verdi with his stage books literally counting the number of steps for the baritone to get from the back of the stage to front and writing the appropriate amount of music and you feel that a lot of contemporary composers – and this is not Mark because he's spent a lot of time in theatres – don't realise the physicality of making theatre and that the music is there to let the theatre fly and add that extra emotional dimension. The brilliant thing about Mark is that he understands this totally and if something needs to be cut or changed, he's not the slightest bit precious about it. I've always thought that George Gershwin was a brilliant example of this. If one song doesn't work, the next morning he comes back with a total winner. I think some modern operatic writing is too enmeshed in itself that it becomes impossible for composers to add six bars here or write something in a different tessitura if a singer can't get the words out. It's great to have a piece which is theatrically light on its feet.

Mary Bevan (Coraline) © ROH | Stephen Cummiskey
Mary Bevan (Coraline)
© ROH | Stephen Cummiskey

Which contemporary operas do you particularly admire?

George Benjamin's Written on Skin. Michael Tippett's New Year is a wonderful score. I think he would tie himself in knots because he brought this slightly Jungian thing which worked for some characters but not others, so there were one or two dramatic moments that were a bit awkward but that was a great piece. And I did a piece for the Linbury – Luke Bedford's Through His Teeth – which was very clever, well written and good for voices.

Plus Thomas Adès; I conducted a revival of The Tempest in Frankfurt and that's a massively serious piece of work. I also came and saw Georg Haas' Morgen und Abend which was very interesting and I liked the music very much.

How would you describe the qualities of the Britten Sinfonia?

They're such a great group of people. They can play the music to the point that they can really do things with it. They understand the genre. Mark has written some really difficult music. You could probably hear this really high bassoon writing – no wonder he's included a bass clarinet because the bassoon isn't the bass instrument here. The trumpet writing is pretty virtuosic but Paul Archibald is fantastic.

They are so ready to collaborate, so when something is awkward or not quite working, they're immediately trying to find solutions, so there's a lot of musical creativity going on. For instance, there's a bit where Mark had written trills for wind instruments which were awkward, and instead of them just looking huffy, they immediately fixed it before Mark had a chance to look at the score. They're also so responsive to the singers. They may be way underground but they're listening all the time!

Coraline runs at the Barbican Theatre until 7th April.