As a child he remembered Cardiff as a city with red asphalt roads and yellow trolley busses. On a Saturday morning his grandfather used to take him in his black Sunbeam Talbot to the grand building of the Council of Music for Wales. There Charles Dixon presided over a large office on the third floor in which there were not one but two grand pianos. At seven a little boy finds one grand piano intimidating, two scary. He was made of fuss of by his grandfather’s colleagues and – as a Queen’s chorister – expected to sing. A very tall lady who smelt strongly of mothballs took him into what must have been a music library, and together they chose the 23rd Psalm to Brother James’ Air and Walford’s Solemn Melody. After his ‘performance’ he was given a book about Cardiff Castle, but spent an hour looking out of the windows onto the monkey-puzzle trees and watching people walking below.
50 years later as the taxi from the station took him to the rehearsal studios he thought of his mother shopping in this city as a young woman, probably a very slim, purposeful young woman with long auburn gold hair and a tennis player’s stride. He had just one photo of his mother as a young woman - in her nurse’s uniform, salvaged from his grandparents’ house in the Cardiff suburb of Rhiwbina. Curious how he remembered asking his grandmother about this photograph - who was this person with long hair?– he had never known his mother with anything but the shortest hair.
He’d visited the city regularly some ten years previously and he was glad he wasn’t driving. So much had changed, not least the area once known as Tiger Bay, a once notorious part of the city he was sure his mother had never visited. Now it was described as ‘a cultural hub’ where the grand Millennium Opera House stood, where the BBC made Doctor Who, where in the Weston Studio Theatre he’d hear for the first time his Unknown Colour.
Travelling down on the train he’d imagined arriving unannounced once the rehearsal had begun, the music covering his search for a strategic seat where he would sit in wonder. It was not to be. As he opened the door to the theatre there was no music going on but a full-scale argument between the director, the conductor and three of the cast. The repetiteur was busy miming difficult passages. The two children sat demurely with respective mothers reading Harry Potters.
The next half hour was difficult as he realised that his carefully imagined stage directions were dead meat. They were going to do things differently and he had that sinking feeling that he was going to have to rewrite or at the very least reorganise a lot of music. He was then ‘noticed’ and introduced to the company – warm handshakes – and then plunged into a lengthy discussion about how the ensemble sequence towards the end of Act 1 could be managed. The mezzo playing Winifred was, he was forced to admit, as physically far from the photos of this artist in the 1930s as he could imagine. The tenor playing Ben was a little better, but taller than W – again a mismatch with reality. And the hair . . . well make up could do something with that he supposed. The baritone he thought was exactly right, non-descript enough to assume any one of the ten roles he had to play. He liked the actress playing Cissy the nurse from Cumbria. The soprano playing Kathleen and Barbara H was missing.
He was asked to set the scene, not ‘set the scene’ in a theatrical sense, but say a little about the background. Who were these people he and they were bringing to the stage? He told them he’d immersed himself in the period, visited the locations, spoken to people who had known them (all except Cissy and the many Parisienne artists who would ‘appear’). He saw the opera as a way of revealing how the intimacy and friendship of two artists had sustained each of them through a lifetime chasing the modernist ideal of abstraction. He was careful here not to say too much. He needed time with these singers on their own. He needed time with the director, who he knew was distracted by another production and had not, he reckoned, done his homework. He stressed this was a workshop session – he would rewrite as necessary. It was their production, but from the outset he felt they had to be in character and feel the location – the large ‘painters’ atelier at 48 Quai d’Auteuil. He described the apartment by walking around the stage space. Here was Winifred’s studio area (and bedroom) divided by a white screen. Here was the living area, the common table, Winifred’s indoor garden of plants, and where Cissy and the children slept. As arranged (with some difficulty earlier in the week) he asked for the lights to be dimmed and showed slides of three paintings – Cissy and Kate, Flowers from Malmaison, and the wonderful Jake’s Bird and White Relief. He said nothing. He then asked for three more, this time abstracts –* Quarante-Huit Quai d’Auteuil, Blue Purpose, and ending with *Moons Turning.
He said nothing for at least a minute, but let Moons Turning hang in space in the dark. He wanted these experimental works in which colour begets form to have something of the impact he knew them to be capable of. They were interior, contemplative paintings. He was showing them four times their actual size, and they looked incredible and gloriously vibrant. These were the images Winifred had come to Paris to learn how to paint: to learn how to paint from the new masters of abstraction. She had then hidden them from public view for nearly 30 years. These were just some of the images that would surround the singers, would be in counterpoint with the music.
With the image of Moons Turning still on the screen he motioned to the repetiteur to play the opening music. It is night, and the studio is bathed in moonlight. It could be a scene from La Bohème, but the music is cool, meditative, moving slowly and deliberately through a maze of divergent harmonies towards a music of blueness.
He tells the cast that the music is anchored to Winifred’s colour chart, that during her long life she constantly and persistently researched colour. She sought the Unknown Colour. He suggests they might ‘get to know the musical colours’. He has written a book of short keyboard pieces that sound out her colour palette. There is a CD, but he’d prefer them to touch the music a little, these enigmatic chords that are, like paint, mixed in the course of the music to form new and different colours. He asks the mezzo to sing the opening soliloquy:
My inspiration comes in the form of colour,
of colour alone, no reference to the object or the object’s sense,
Colour needn’t be tagged to form to give it being.
Colour must have area and space,
be directed by the needs of the colour itself
not by some consideration of form.
A large blue square is bluer than a small blue square.
A blue pentagon is a different blue from a triangle of the same blue.
Let the blueness itself evolve the form which gives its fullest expression.
This is the starting-point of my secret artistic creation.
And so, with his presentation at a close, he thanks singer and pianist and retreats to his strategically safe seat. This is what he came for, pour l’encouragement des autres by puttin.g himself on the line, that tightrope the composer walks when presenting a new work. They will have to trust him, and he has to trust them, and that, he knows, is some way away. This is not a dramatic work. Its drama is an interior one. It is a love story. It is about the friendship of artists and about their world. It is a tableau that represents a time in European culture that we are possibly only now beginning to understand as we crowd out Tate Modern to view Picasso, Mondrian, Braque and Brancusi.