Antigone the Opera

Edward Nesbit

The process of adapting a play into an opera is never a straightforward one. It takes much longer to sing words than to speak words, for example, so which parts of the text should be left out? In May this year, my first chamber opera, Antigone, was given its premiere performance by East London Music Group. Under these particular circumstances, I had far fewer singers to work with than Sophocles had actors, so I had to ask myself which characters to leave out as well.

The origins of the project go back to 2018, when I was Composer in Residence at Queen Mary University of London, and was asked to write a piece for a concert taking place there. The brief was a specific one. In the second half of the concert, there would be a performance of Janacek’s song cycle The Diary of One who Disappeared. Janacek’s piece was written for solo mezzo-soprano, solo tenor, chorus of three female voices and piano. I was asked to write a piece for the same forces to be performed in the first half of the concert.

The presence of the chorus made me think of Greek tragedy, and before long I settled on the closing passage of Sophocles’ play Oedipus at Colonus. In this scene, the child Antigone (mezzo-soprano) has just received news of the death of her father Oedipus. She mourns her father and yearns to return to her home in Thebes, conversing with and receiving comfort from the chorus. At the end of the scene Theseus, King of Athens (tenor), enters, again offering comfort and promising to return Antigone to her homeland, where her brothers Eteocles and Polyneices have been killed. I found that this scene had a particular expressive intensity to it – and, practically speaking, it suited the line-up of singers I had available very well.

The resulting piece, a 20-minute scene called The Grief of Antigone, was premiered at Queen Mary in February 2018. I took an A-level in Classical Greek the best part of two decades ago, but my Greek is sadly no longer at a level where I could make use of it, so I used the classic translation by Richard Claverhouse Jebb without going back to the original Greek. This translation had the advantage of being out of copyright, but I did need to adapt it in places. This passage, for example, occurs early in the scene:

strange doom. Wretched me! For us a night like death has descended on our eyes; how shall we find our hard livelihood, roaming to some far land, or on the waves of the sea?

This represents the first of many examples when I deleted the phrase ‘wretched me’ from the original translation – a melodramatic phrase I just can’t imagine setting to music.

Other adaptations were needed in order to reflect the fact that I was setting just a single scene from a larger play. Here, for example, is Antigone’s last line in Jebb’s translation of the play:

If this is his intention, we must be content with it. Send us to ancient Thebes, in case we may somehow stop the bloodshed that threatens our brothers.

At this point in the piece, I wanted to keep the focus squarely on Antigone’s emotions, so I removed the reference to her brothers, leaving the last line as ‘send us to ancient Thebes’.

When the opportunity arose to extend The Grief of Antigone into an hour-long chamber opera, I chose to set two further scenes, both taken from Sophocles’ Antigone. In the first of these, Antigone tells the chorus news of Creon’s decree that her newly dead brother Polyneices is a traitor and may not receive a burial. Antigone resolves to bury her brother regardless and face her punishment. She attempts to persuade the chorus to join her, but they refuse. The final scene is passage towards the end of Sophocles’ Antigone. Antigone has buried Polyneices, and Creon has decreed that she be buried alive in a tomb. Antigone contemplates her fate, while Creon shows her no sympathy.

These events are ripe with musical potential. It seems to me that what music is best placed to add to text is expressive intensity; as we have all experienced while watching films, for example, well-chosen music can significantly raise the emotional stakes of a dramatic scene. These extremes of the emotions already present in Antigone the play seem to invite music to heighten them further.

I am by no means the first composer to think this. While there isn’t an Antigone opera as famous as, say, Strauss’ Elektra, Antigone is nevertheless relatively well-trodden ground by composers. Early 20th-century operatic Antigones include those by Arthur Honneger and Carl Orff. More recently, Julian Anderson’s opera Thebans, premiered at English National Opera in 2014, sets all three of Sophocles’ Theban plays, with Antigone as the middle act. To the best of my knowledge, however, the decision to combine scenes from Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone into a single narrative is a novel one, and I hope Part 1 of my opera recontextualises in an interesting way the dramatic events that follow.

Antigone captive, Svetlin Vassilev (reproduced with the artist’s permission; © Vicens Vices, Barcelona, Spain)

Further adaptations were needed, however, in adapting Antigone for the forces I had available. Readers familiar with the original Sophocles will remember that it is not the chorus whom Antigone attempts to persuade to join her in her mission, but rather her sister Ismene. With only one female soloist, I was forced to transfer Ismene’s lines to the chorus. In the final scene, the chorus are back to singing words originally assigned to the chorus by Sophocles. The tenor, however, has switched roles, and is now playing Creon rather than Theseus.

The resulting chamber opera is of course very different from anything Sophocles intended. The text of the opera derives from two separate Sophocles plays. Many characters have been omitted. The focus on the character of Antigone is even more single-minded in the opera than it is in the original Sophocles, with other characters functioning primarily to help articulate Antigone’s internal personal drama.

The opera also makes no effort at all to sound ‘old’ in any way. What interests me about the play is less its temporal distance than its vivid immediacy. The character of Antigone seems to me to be thoroughly modern in her concerns and motivations, which I think is why she has fascinated so many 20th– and 21st-century artists of all types. The opera attempts to portray her as being ‘like us’, rather than in any way ‘other’. For this reason, the music used to portray Antigone is broadly similar to other protagonists I have created, such as in Aedh’s Lovesong.

I hope that the chamber opera is, however, in some sense true to the spirit of the original. In common with the narrative techniques of Greek tragedy, Antigone is a very static opera, with the three scenes operating as tableaux which reflect on a dramatic situation rather than telling a story in any direct sense. The opera is also part of a long tradition of treating the character of Antigone as in some sense heroic, rebelling against a violent patriarchal system and ending up vindicated – if, tragically, from beyond the grave.

Antigone was premiered at The Space theatre in London on 30 May 2021. The performers were Rosie Middleton (Antigone), Timothy Parker-Langston (Theseus/Creon), Isabelle Haile, Natalka Pasicznyk and Meg Holch (chorus), Ben Smith (piano), and Matthew Hardy (conductor). The video recording of the performance will be available on the East London Music Group YouTube channel between Friday 1 October and Sunday 3 October, with clips from the performance remaining online thereafter.

Ed Nesbit is Lecturer in Composition at King’s College London and Composer in Residence at Queen Mary University of London. His work has been performed by groups such as London Sinfonietta, London Symphony Orchestra, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Philharmonia Orchestra, Mahler Chamber Orchestra and Britten Sinfonia in venues including Wigmore Hall, Royal Festival Hall, Purcell Room and Barbican Hall; his work has also been broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and featured in the Aldeburgh and Verbier Festivals.