When The Guildhall School’s head of composition Julian Phillips was first presented with the idea of developing an opera of William Chaucer’s The Merchant’s Tale, his first thought was: “Why hasn’t it been done already?” “The arc of the story, the comedic elements, the variety of strong characters – it seemed perfect; I just can’t believe nobody has attempted it before,” he says.
But next week The Guildhall School will fill this gap in the market with The Tale of Januarie, the first operatic adaptation of one of the most popular of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and indeed the first ever opera commissioned by the school and developed from page to stage.
The story follows Januarie, a wealthy knight who has reached old age and decides it is time to take a wife. He selects a beautiful young maiden called May, who quickly becomes smitten with his servant Damyan, and he with her. Despite Januarie’s controlling nature, the lovers are intent on consummating their passion, and trouble ensues.
The production draws on a broad range of the school’s artistic talents, with a liberetto written by Guildhall’s writer in residence Stephen Plaice, and performance by second-year opera students led by head of opera Dominic Wheeler. It was Stephen’s idea to adapt Chaucer’s tale for the opera and, not being one to do things by halves, he decided to write the libretto in Middle English, another first for the school and indeed the entire art form.
“There’s an element of slapstick to the story, which appealed to Stephen and I as we wanted to write a comedy – I don’t know why more people don’t write operas that get audiences laughing,” Julian says. “Middle English has been really fun to work with musically; a very colourful mix of Anglo Saxon and French, Middle English can be quite suggestive – there’s a bit of Anglo Saxon swearing in there, which is quite fun.
“I’m looking forward to seeing how the audience responds.” Writing and performing a show in an extinct language throws up its own set of challenges, so the pair enlisted the help of professor Barry Windeatt, a professorial fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, to consult on pronunciation. “It was a challenge, but it was interesting that when we actually gathered the singers for the first read through – a very international bunch – everybody understood it fairly easily because it draws on so many different languages,” Julian says.
The scale of the show has drawn on the talents of the school’s music, acting and technical departments; collaboration Julian says he would like to see more of, despite the practical challenges. “Logistically it’s difficult because the students and staff have different commitments, but it has been really positive bringing all the different departments together,” he says.
“But at the same time, this is not just a school show. “Ultimately, opera is a very expensive art form and in a climate where funding and new opportunities for the arts is shrinking, it’s good if institutions like Guildhall can commit to making a substantial contribution to the development of opera in the UK.”
The Tale of Januarie is on at Silk Street Theatre EC2Y 8DS on Monday 27 February, Wednesday 1, Friday 3 and Monday 6 March at 7pm