Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival 2012: The Trial of Jean Rhys

Written by: Elfyn Jones

Elfyn Jones, the composer of The Trial of Jean Rhys, previews his opera in-progress, which is part-played at Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival 2012…


The Trial of Jean Rhys is an opera-in-progress by composer Elfyn Jones and writer Eleanor Knight. It is set in the condemned bungalow in Devon where Rhys spent her last years, haunted by gossiping neighbours and embittered by the literary success that came, in her words, “too late”. Looking back over her past as she awaits the arrival of a reporter, she puts herself on trial, niggling away at love, loneliness, success and failure, and weaving it all, finally, into the narrative of her semi-autobiographical novel, Wide Sargasso Sea. Her companion is local farmer and taxi-driver Sam Greenslade on whom she relies for meals, odd-jobs, cigarettes and whisky.

I became attracted to Jean Rhys as a subject for opera after reading Lilian Pizzicini’s biography The Blue Hour, which came out in 2009. In 2010 I was living four miles from the village of Cheriton Fitzpaine where Jean Rhys finished Wide Sargasso Sea, so it wasn’t hard for me to imagine the bleakness and squalor of her years spent caring for her dying husband. I was struck by the contrast between the reality of her life and her exotic vision of a disastrous marriage in 19th-century Jamaica, and the insanity and death that follow, in Wide Sargasso Sea. I was also fascinated by her dogged perseverance: it took her 27 years, and an uncountable quantity of whisky, to forge her concise and beautiful masterpiece.

It could be said that my career as an opera composer started with Tête à Tête. I was commissioned in 1998 to compose an opera for Shorts, a showcase of contemporary opera presented by Tête à Tête at Battersea Arts Centre and repeated at Bridewell Theatre in 2001 with a tour across England, culminating in a performance at Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. This led to a commission for an opera, Dead of Night, by Opera North, which was performed in 2003 and eventually grew into Jacko’s Hour, performed by Opera Engine in 2009 to critical acclaim.

I approached Eleanor Knight for the Jean Rhys opera because I was impressed by her fiction, and given her background as a theatrical musician and drama editor at Methuen, I thought she would be interested in a literary subject, and would possess the ability to turn Jean’s story into a finely-crafted libretto. I was invited to take part in the VOX2 composers’ course at the Royal Opera House by John Lloyd Davies, which he tutored (brilliantly, as it turned out) with Dominic Muldowney, and this was a huge support for Eleanor and me to try out ideas for scenes over a whole year.

A snippet of The Trial of Jean Rhys was presented by ROH2 at Exposure in the Linbury Studio Theatre and at Opera Europa in 2011, and we were invited back to show a little bit more at Exposure: Opera 2012. By this time I had already approached Linda Hirst, Head of Vocal Department at Trinity Laban, and a leading exponent of contemporary vocal repertoire, with an illustrious career spanning 40 years, during which time she has sung with the Swingle Singers, worked with Berio, Henze and Ligeti, and performed Pierrot Lunaire no fewer than 72 times.

I asked her if she would be interested in singing the part of Jean, and to my surprise and delight she said yes. It turned out that Linda is a long-term fan of Rhys’s work, so as it turns out it was pure serendipity. It’s been a joy to work with her, with director Toria Banks and the vocal students at Trinity Laban who make up the cast; we have already done some days’ rehearsal over the course of the summer term, and will put the piece together in earnest in the week leading up to our performances on the 9th and 10th of August.

We will be presenting about 40 minutes of the work, enough to give audiences a fair idea of its potential for development into a full-length chamber opera. With any luck it’ll be a step along the road to full production. Whatever happens, I hope that people will come to see it and be as fascinated as Eleanor and I have been by the difficult and self-destructive individual who wrote one of the twentieth-century’s literary masterpieces.

As it happens, The Trial of Jean Rhys will not be my only work to be presented at Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival 2012. WNO commissioned me last year to write episodes 4-6 of the Wrexham Soap Opera, Nine Stories High, with libretto by Ben Gwalchmai, which were performed and filmed at different locations in Wrexham in 2011-12, and which will be shown as a free video installation throughout the Festival.

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