Composer on Ghost Opera’s ‘Developed With’ journey so far…

FellSwoop theatre’sGhost Opera’ has been ‘Developed With’ The Lowry and has been on a long journey to get here; previewing at The Old Vic, Tobacco Factory Theatre and Aix en Provence before it’s world premiere in The Studio at The Lowry  Thu 15 – Fri 16 Oct.

Composer Josephine Stephenson tells us about the exciting journey she has been on whilst working on Ghost Opera.

Ghost Opera TFT Low Res-3663
PREVIEW: Ghost Opera at the Tobacco Factory Theatre, Bristol, October 2015

It was about a year ago now that FellSwoop theatre first approached me to work with them on what was to become Ghost Opera. Ben Osborn, FellSwoop’s resident composer, and I were having tea in London when he told me about the time the company had recently spent in an old house in Scotland on the Invererne residency programme, improvising performances around the idea of ancestry and the haunted as source material for a new show.

It sounded completely fascinating. Ben also mentioned that Bertrand, FellSwoop’s director, had been wanting to take their work toward opera for some time, and that this new project could very well be an opportunity to do so. He said: “We want to make an opera with actors. Do you want to write it with us?” I said yes, of course, and was delighted to join the team.

I’d been a fan of FellSwoop’s work for some time, having absolutely adored Belleville Rendez-Vous as well as Ablutions. Ben and I already had some experience of working together on opera in the context of my postgraduate studies at the Royal College of Music (he wrote the libretto for my 20-min piece On False Perspective), so it felt like a very natural progression. The main part of my role would be to compose acoustic music, while Ben would focus on an electronic counterpart.

And so we embarked on a long journey of creating this piece which lies somewhere between theatre and opera. FellSwoop Theatre is what we call a ‘devising’ theatre company, a concept that was new to me at the time, meaning that most of the creative process takes place in the rehearsal room.

Ghost Opera at the Tobacco Factory Theatre, Bristol, October 2015
PREVIEW: Ghost Opera at the Tobacco Factory Theatre, Bristol, October 2015

I had written music for plays before, but those were all scripted, and I would usually just sit down with the directors and go through the script. They would say things like “in this scene I want music between this line and this line, it needs to be dark and mysterious and last about thirty-five seconds”. My job was clear, and I executed, in a way not dissimilar to scoring a film. At the other end, my experience with opera was of working solely with a text and thus being in total control of time myself, through the music.

With Ghost Opera, the compositional process is somewhat different. There’s no fixed script, and things keep changing and are still shifting every day. The challenge for me has been to compose music which stays flexible and ready to undergo those changes.

Drones and loops are an obvious solution, though I do my best to avoid them, or at least make them interesting. A lot of the Research & Development period was spent with everyone improvising together in the room, with me at the piano and Ben at his laptop, experimenting and looking for a sound-world for the show. We also tried to find an effective way to make our actors sing without the traditional use of scores and techniques known to opera singers.

Ghost Opera at Ferment, Bristol Old Vic, January 2015
PREVIEW: Ghost Opera at Ferment, Bristol Old Vic, January 2015

Things really kicked off musically during the week we spent in Aix-en-Provence this summer working with the wonderful Van Kuijk quartet. The desire to work with a string quartet for this project came quite early on; it seemed a fitting ensemble for the myriad of possibilities it offers sonically, whilst staying at the same time very intimate, and also for the semblance that string instruments have to the human voice.

We felt it could offer a range of expression in immediate concordance to that of our main character, who is haunted by the ghost of her dying mother. With the players in the room I was able to test out and experiment with material very immediately, which was brilliant. We found that the sound created by the quartet was very effective in letting us enter the ‘ghost world’ of the show. Essentially that has become their role.  While the electronic synth-pop created by Ben tends to belong to the real world, the quartet music is almost always associated to the ghosts. I found great inspiration in the string quartet works of composers like Witold Lutoslawski, Anton Webern, Henri Dutilleux, and also Morton Feldman.

Ghost Opera at the Aix-en-Provence festival, June 2015
PREVIEW: Ghost Opera at the Aix-en-Provence festival, June 2015

The performance we gave in Aix with the musicians on stage allowed us to tie the music with the action very directly and specifically, giving the actors the freedom with time which they would be used to in theatre. For this autumn’s tour of Ghost Opera we’re working with a recording of the string quartet, which we made in Paris in September, and have had to do things slightly differently. Even though some of the music still remains cued by the actors’ lines or gestures, conversely some of the action has to be timed specifically to the music.

Ben and I have been playing with the new possibilities offered by the recorded medium, too: slicing things up, putting them through tape machines. We are also working with two actors who are new to the project and have had to find their own way into it. At the moment of writing we are still developing this new form, but I can’t wait to see how it will have come together by the time of the premiere in The Studio at The Lowry.

Written by Josephine Stephenson

Composer at FellSwoop theatre


Ghost Opera premieres in The Studio at The Lowry on Thu 15 & Fri 16 Oct 2015.

To buy tickets contact contact box office on 0843 208 6000 or visit the website