David Pountney explains the sense of destiny behind Welsh National Opera’s forthcoming adaptation of David Jones’ epic poem of the Great War, In Parenthesis
Like so many of the best ideas, an operatic version of David Jones’ text, In Parenthesis, found me – I take no credit for discovering it. Following a chance conversation about Richard Burton, David Jones and In Parenthesis, Emma Jenkins quite independently got in touch with me on Jan 24th 2012 to say that she and her husband, David Antrobus, had been working on a stage version of the text, and did I have any ideas about a composer?
When I realised on the train back to Cardiff that 2016 was not only the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme but also WNO’s 70th anniversary, it was merely a question of bowing to the inevitable. What’s the point of resistance if something taps you firmly on the shoulder? The result of this serendipitously pointing finger will be unveiled a mere four and a half years after Emma’s email.
Destiny is an appropriate topic for this particular opera project, because the continuum of time, of experience, of history lies at the heart of Jones’ work – described by T S Eliot as the greatest artwork to have emerged from the First World War. The war may have been branded as the first ‘modern’ war, but Jones is quick to point out that the men trudging forward in their chalk-caked sheepskins looked like medieval shepherds. Indeed, he not only saw a connection, he saw no difference.
The central thesis of his understanding of his experience in the trenches, and the one that makes this such a perfect operatic subject, is that for him the soldier, i.e. he Jones/Private Ball, standing in the muddy water of the trench, is sharing a timeless experience of grassroots warfare. He is at one with the men who retreated from Moscow, at one with the men of Crecy, he fought with Caesar and Alexander, and was always and everywhere and for all times the same poorly shod bastard eating his miserable rations and nervously shitting where he prays a sniper can’t blow his balls off.
This sense of the timeless experience of the private soldier (we are not talking at any point here about the experience seen from an officer’s viewpoint, even though Jones’ officers are admiringly and sympathetically portrayed) is also an essential element of Jones’ experience of comradeship – a vital and sustaining experience for Jones’ vulnerable and disturbed personality. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the very tender and personal sketches Jones made of soldiers, caught in idle moments, inadvertent seconds of repose before the onslaught resumed.
These are the very human aspects of Jones’ vision – the repetition through history of the humble soldier’s experience, and the compassion and love of comradeship in dire circumstances. But Jones has another string to his very long bow – one that he doubtless pulled at Agincourt too! This is his understanding of the mythic presence hovering over everyday life. The towering figures of the bards, whether condemning him to march further, or drawing him seductively into the mayhem of the wood, or sympathetically bidding him in extremis to lay down his rifle against the majestic and magical oak, are there as the ever present voices of myth and therefore, by extension, music, for what is music if not the language of myth?
How to ally music with the cacophony of ‘modern’ warfare? The mythic muse that Jones summons to articulate his vision is the key, for this makes clear that this vision of warfare, created, deliberately, eighteen years after the too, too vivid experiences of battle, is one of musical and literary imagination – an imagination which opera is precisely designed to convey.
Jones, the visionary private soldier, has been somewhat overshadowed by the more articulate voices of the officer poets who so brilliantly pinned the terrible events of 1914-18 to the literary wall. Jones, as Eliot recognised, goes even deeper, articulating the experience of the working class private soldier as, surprisingly, the mouthpiece of the gods of war and violence. He does not ask for pity, or even understanding: he defines the dimensions of this titanic experience, and then, in the interests of his unsurprisingly fragile sanity, puts the whole thing (In Parenthesis).
The dimensions of this extremely rich topic mean that it has not only formed the basis of a very ambitious new opera (from composer Iain Bell and librettists Emma Jenkins and David Antrobus), but we are also able to use its multiple facets to extend our message and remembrance of the experiences of war to young people across Wales and England.
Our ‘Engage and Participate’ programme, in association with Literature Wales, Can Sing, National Museum of Wales and National Library of Wales will stimulate community enquiry into family history and heritage, especially focussing on areas connected to David Jones’ Division – the 38th Division of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers – in locations from Caernarfon to Southampton. All the young people engaged in these projects will have the chance to visit a WNO opera performance in either Cardiff or Llandudno and also visit a National Museum of Wales heritage site. There are ‘Come and Sing’ events based around the famous Welsh song, ‘Sosban Fach’, which is referenced in the score of In Parenthesis and was a traditional song in the WW1 trenches.
There are also digital composition and animation programmes being rolled out in six schools in Community First areas of South Wales. The young people participating in these programmes will be invited to the Wales Millennium Centre to see a short performance from the opera and have the opportunity to engage with the very diverse working opportunities available within the arts through a company and backstage tour. In addition, In Parenthesis will have its own micro site and the production will be available online on The Opera Platform from 1st July, together with a series of filmed extracts giving background to the opera and Jones’ text. To enhance broader audience engagement WNO has commissioned a special digital artwork: ‘Field’ will be a spectacular site-specific installation that will occupy the forecourt to WMC, and commemorate electronically the Welsh soldiers who fought in this momentous engagement.
David Jones’ text is unquestionably great, but perhaps finally it stands on the brink of greatness truly celebrated. It has inspired an opera – one of the most complex manifestations of our shared European culture – and, branching out from that, will stimulate a massive engagement of young people with the literary, historical, community, creative and digital aspects of a story rooted in some of the most terrible events ever witnessed by mankind. This is an act of remembrance with profound creative and informative possibilities crossing the generations.