'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.
"For me, the concert performance is the ideal. I was at a concert performance of Wozzeck in London with von Dohnányi. That was one of the really great experiences of my life. You had people performing live with elements of acting, and the rest of the production you could kind of project into it yourself.
"Italian opera in particular, with the exception of bits of Puccini, I loathed. I used to say I loved everything Verdi wrote, except his operas. I don't say that any more. Otello is now one of my favourite works."
So what brought about the change? “Perhaps it was being commissioned to write a couple of operas in the 1990s by Opera Theatre Company. I don’t really know. One broadens one’s perceptions; one’s listening habits.
“In the early 1990s I spent a lot of time in Paris. I suppose that’s the real answer – I started going to operas there. More recently I’m again spending time in Germany, where opera is pretty easy to get to. Also, I started listening to a lot of Germanic opera, particularly early 20th century Viennese: Schreker, Zemlinsky, Schoenberg.”
Before composing The Alma Fetish, Deane listened to quite a few contemporary operas, including: Perelà by Pascal Dusapin; Three Sisters by Péter Eötvös; the operas of one of his favourite composers, Luciano Berio, "In so far as they are operas"; and György Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre which, "I like in patches, I don't think it is a very good piece as a whole."
Perhaps more importantly, "I relistened to a lot of operas that were written around the time The Alma Fetish is set, which is around the first World War, so we're back to Schreker and Zemlinsky, who do turn up in a very distorted form in the opera.
“I also read. I was in the artists’ retreat in Schwandorf in Bavaria. They have a wonderful library and the complete writings of Kokoschka. I read long essays he wrote, and several totally incomprehensible plays, and got into his psyche in some way.”
The music for The Alma Fetish, says Deane, was written "within and upon the traditions that are close to me". He describes the opera as "probably the most heterogeneous" work he's written, with a lot of musical quotations, "kind of referring to the subconscious of the characters". There's irony, parody and pastiche, "but where the irony ends or the pastiche shades off into something different, something quite direct, that's often quite ambiguous".
Fergus Sheil conducts the RTÉ NSO in The Alma Fetish, with Majella Cullagh as Alma and Leigh Melrose as Oskar, at the NCH tomorrow.