Interview: Gareth Williams


Newly appointed Composer in Residence at Scottish Opera Gareth Williams chats to us about site-specific opera, music therapy and a Northern Irish elephant.

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As part of the continuing changes being brought to Scottish Opera by its new director Alex Reedijk, Northern Irish composer Gareth Williams has been appointed the company’s first Composer In Residence. We caught up with him and discussed his new role and the challenges he faces over the next two years.

Tell us about your journey to becoming Composer in Residence.

I’m originally from Armagh in Northern Ireland. I moved to Glasgow to study at the RSAMD, now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, about ten years ago and I stayed on there and did my PhD in composition and over the course of doing that I got more and more into the theatre of music and opera. I wrote my first opera during my PhD. It actually turned into an opera by accident; as I was writing the piece it became more and more operatic and by the end I found I had a finished opera on my hands. From that point on I got increasingly interested in the genre and I worked with Scottish Opera on the Five-Fifteen programme, which I did two consecutive years of and since then I’ve been freelancing doing a lot of site specific pieces and small scale chamber operas.

How did you move from working freelance with Scottish Opera to getting this position?

Scottish Opera have had the Emerging Artists programme for some time where they work with younger singers entering the profession and I think it’s a similar aesthetic for the Composer In Residence.

I talked a lot over the years with Alex about my ideas and he was always very encouraging, but it’s very difficult to get better at writing operas because they take so long. I think this was why I was chosen for this post to allow me to get better at writing operas and develop as a composer over the next two years.

So what does the role of Composer In Residence entail?

It’s project based for the next two years. I’ve lined up my projects pretty much clearly for the next year and they’re a wide variety so I’ve a short opera to produce for the Opera Highlights Tour and there’s a community opera which involves the education department, a couple of professional opera singers and schoolchildren from across Scotland. I’m also working on some site-specific operas to tour round the country. In the second year we’re also planning a piece for the orchestra as well.

The challenge for me is not only to write something that has health benefits but is also good music.

Something mentioned in the press release on your appointment was some evidence based music therapy. Could you tell us a little more about that?

There’s a project we’re developing at the moment which is working with people with respiratory difficulties. I’ve always seen opera singers as the athletes of breathing and we’re continuing on from that to investigate how singing benefits lung capacity and measure that benefit with some medical partners. So my task is to write music specifically for people with breathing problems. The challenge for me is not only to write something that has health benefits but is also good music.

Most Arts Residences tend to be one year positions. What do you think you’ll gain by having the two year timeframe?

Well following on from the last question – breathing space is the main thing. Opera does take a long time to make and although we’re in discussions about projects it’s still going to be quite a while before any of the pieces appear. With a one year post I think I’d probably just be finishing off my last day by the time my operas were ready, so I think that the two years are vital to actually getting some work done and seeing results. I still think it’s going to fly past.

I think new opera can be an incredibly relevant thing

Will the work that you and future Composers In Residence create help to build a new repertoire for the emmerging artists and young singers from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland?

I guess I would like to see that happen. I think there is room and resources for that to be available. I think the operatic reportoire is alive and should be growing. What is important is that you can create as relevant as possible subject matter that can be presented within the genre of opera.

What is your personal take on the relevance of opera?

I do have a social conscience and although I’ve described one of my works as a community opera I really hope they all are in the sense that they’re all relevant. I think new opera is a niche inside a niche inside a niche and I think it can be an incredibly relevant thing and the way to do that is to actually engage with people.

My last opera was set in Sloans Bar, the oldest bar in Glasgow. Our way into that was to go into the bar and put out lots of press releases asking people who frequented there or got married there or who celebrated their engagement in the bar to send in their stories and from those we created the libretto and a lot of the musical material. That’s one way to do it to engage with the community as part of the creative process.

The one I’m currently working on is about the elephant in Belfast Zoo during WWII

What’s the first project we can expect from you in your new role?

The plan is to have two operas ready for next autumn, one at around and hour and another at forty minutes in length. I’ve created a taster of my work which will be part of the Opera Highlights tour, it’s about eight minutes long just to give people an idea.

The one I’m currently working on with the two singers from the connect group and the schoolchildren is about the elephant in Belfast Zoo during WWII which I’ve been writing with Bernard MacLaverty.

It’s a story based on a clipping from the Belfast Telegraph my friend gave me a few years ago, the very first female zookeeper in the UK at Belfast Zoo during the blitz decided to take the Elephant home with her in case it got frightened so she walked it down through the streets and kept it in her back yard. A picture surfaced a few years ago of the elephant sitting in the back yard with two old ladies having a cup of tea. At one point she was told to stop taking the elephant home so instead she would spend the night at the zoo with the elephant keeping it calm. It’s a beautiful story. Of course Bernard’s taken that story and fleshed it out using it as a little kernel to create an hour long opera out of.