Raymond Deane’s new opera is based on an artist who had a life-like doll made of his former lover
When Alma Mahler, the widow of composer Gustav Mahler, broke up with the artist Oskar Kokoschka, he made an anatomically accurate doll of her, and that's inspired Raymond Deane's third opera
Coal and black chalk portrait by Oskar Kokoschka of himself and his lover Alma Mahler. Photograph: Imagno/Getty Images
‘It appealed to something vaguely perverse in me, the idea of the living doll, like Olympia in Les Contes d’Hoffmann.” Composer Raymond Deane is explaining how he chose the theme of his third opera, The Alma Fetish, which will première in concert by the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra tomorrow.
It was 20 years ago that Deane first came across the story of the affair between the painter Oskar Kokoschka and Alma Mahler (composer, socialite and widow of composer Gustav Mahler) and the life-size, anatomically accurate doll of Alma that Kokoschka had made after their breakup.
Deane put the idea aside until 2006, when RTÉ radio producer Ethna Tinney asked him if he knew about the story of Oskar and Alma. “Pauline Bewick had suggested to her a scenario, specifically based on the six fans that Oskar painted for Alma. The original idea was that there would be six scenes and that each of them would incorporate one of the fans.”
Deane was excited by the idea of taking on something large scale, and one scene – what’s now scene three, the arrival of the doll – was commissioned and recorded by the National Symphony Orchestra in January 2009. The project began on a roll, but financial difficulties got in the way.
“Myself and Gavin Kostick, the librettist, had to make a decision. Do we just stop at this point? I found I couldn’t. I felt I’d just be going around with this monkey on my back, and I wanted to get rid of it.”
It took another three years to complete, with the help of some bursaries from the Arts Council, and then Fergus Sheil’s Wide Open Opera hatched the project that’s bringing it to the National Concert Hall. “I particularly like the idea that Wide Open Opera’s first project was Tristan und Isolde, and the second one is a kind of parody of Tristan und Isolde.”
The Alma Fetish is an opera about “people who live their lives in an over-the-top way. The actual circumstances of the first meeting between Oskar and Alma was a party in Vienna where she seduced him by singing the Liebestod.”
The opera charts their subsequent strife, Kokoschka’s war injuries, his maid Hulda’s suggestion of the doll after he returned to find Alma married to another man, and his use and eventual destruction of the doll. It ends with the former lovers meeting in Venice 20 years after the doll episode.
While the gestation of The Alma Fetish took some years, so did Deane’s appreciation of opera itself. “Opera as such, as a genre, didn’t interest me in the least. I loved Wozzeck, Moses und Aron and Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges. I hardly listened to anything before that; a bit of Wagner, Strauss’s Elektra. It’s really only in the last decade or so that I would go to the opera just for the sake of doing so. Even then, I do it very rarely because I’m somewhat at odds with the whole idea of directors’ opera. I don’t like to see the kind of conception of an opera that I have in my head being travestied on stage.