For a man who has his first opera raising the curtain on the Aldeburgh Festival this month, the Austrian composer Thomas Larcher has a curiously ambivalent relationship with the human voice. “I used to hate operatic voices. I remember listening to a singer in a record shop in Vienna – in the days when there were record shops – and asking the assistant ‘Is this Florence Foster Jenkins?’ The vibrato was so wide-ranging you couldn’t figure out what was being sung. I later discovered a lot of other possibilities in working with the voice through listening to folk music and artists such as Billie Holliday, Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder.”

Thomas Larcher © Richard Haughton
Thomas Larcher
© Richard Haughton

And also to Mark Padmore. It was the British tenor, like Larcher an artist-in-residence at Aldeburgh this year, who really impressed on the composer the supremacy of the text when writing for the voice. “Mark was my catalyst; he showed me that the synthesis of text and music is more than the two elements alone,” says Larcher.

His opera The Hunting Gun is drawn from the novella of the same name by Yasushi Inoue. Before setting to work on the piece, he and librettist Friederike Gösweiner pored over the book, discussing each section exhaustively so they knew it intimately before refining it – in German – into the lines to be sung. “It’s quite a complex story and I wanted to do my best to represent the text in music as faithfully as I could.”

For that reason he resisted a request to provide a version in English for Aldeburgh. “There was no way I could. The vocal lines are so deeply connected to the German that it simply wouldn’t work in another language,” he says.

The book features five characters, each with their own personal agony to relate. “When I read the story of The Hunting Gun for the first time, I was immediately captured by its timelessness,” says Larcher. “It addresses questions encountered and recognised by absolutely everyone involved in relationships with other individuals, myself included, such as whether to stay or leave, speak out or stay silent, hold on or let go.”

<i>The Hunting Gun</i> at Bregenzer Festspiele © Anja Köhler
The Hunting Gun at Bregenzer Festspiele
© Anja Köhler

Larcher gives each character highly individual vocal lines, often acrobatic and often, for the sopranos, extremely high and technically challenging. But it is his orchestration that really captures the imagination. He combines a string quartet with accordion, double bass, prepared piano and all manner of percussion – some played by a chorus of seven who sing as part of the orchestral texture, down in the pit, not on stage. A vast array of instruments are brought into play, including sandblocks, slide whistles, spring coils, thundersheets and wind machine, plus a host of bells, timpani, marimba, woodblocks, a mixing bowl and a small biscuit tin.

“I always want to build upon something which players like to do; what they have learned and what they want to display. If you give them a chance to shine they will bring their own personality to the music. The poor guys are the percussionists! Their instruments have seen such a development in the past 40 or 50 years that they now take care of all the colours. Percussionists are usually the most helpful people and many, many possibilities arise – rather too many!”

<i>The Hunting Gun</i> at Bregenzer Festspiele © Anja Köhler
The Hunting Gun at Bregenzer Festspiele
© Anja Köhler

Larcher did not start composing until he was in his forties (he’s now 55). He was an established concert pianist, something which he says hindered his development as a composer. “I played everything from Bach to new concertos. I knew the works of Schoenberg, Bartók, Messiaen, and each time I tried to write down something of my own, I thought: ‘Oh, I know that already!’”

It was only when he began to experiment with prepared piano and electronics that he found a route to new creativity. Now, with his symphonies and string quartets being performed all over the world, he has become established – confirmed by his residency at Aldeburgh – where several of his works will be played. “I feel thankful and blessed. It is way beyond what I thought I could achieve when I started composing,” he says.

The festival will also feature Larcher’s four string quartets and a new piece, specially commissioned for pianist Paul Lewis, a long-time friend. “I need to get into some kind of unobstructed state of mind for the piano – it’s always the hardest instrument to compose for – and in this case it has come out as quite a rhapsodic piece. For once, I’m very happy with it!”

Thomas Larcher © Richard Haughton
Thomas Larcher
© Richard Haughton

Larcher’s orchestral work Red and Green will also be performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and at the closing concert of the festival on 23 June, cellist Alisa Weilerstein will join the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and conductor Edward Gardner for a performance of Ouroboros for cello and orchestra.

He can’t wait to hear his opera in the fine acoustic at Snape Maltings. When it premiered at the Bregenz Festival last year, there was no pit for the orchestra and chorus. With that problem resolved at Snape he hopes the principal singers will feel liberated. “I want them to be very soft and not to feel pressured to sing out – I want them to be more like Leonard Cohen than Luciano Pavarotti.”