Beyond The Story

Beyond the Garden is a ghost story loosely inspired by the relationship between Alma Mahler and her daughter Manon Gropius who died at the age of 18.  It deals with themes of memory and loss and how we construct a narrative for our lives.

The idea for the opera originated from work I did with Slovenian Chamber Music Theatre (SKGG). I first came into contact with SKGG when they did an excellent production of my family opera, Gentle Giant (a work commissioned by the Royal Opera House and which enjoyed two very successful runs there). SCMT productions actually range from intimate chamber performances to larger scale works like Brundibar. The company is headed by the soprano Katja Konvalinka who often appears in productions (I saw her in Grigorij Frid’s The Diary of Anne Frank).


Katja invited me to write a new chamber work for her company and we decided on a subject to feature women.  As I’d written a number of operatic monodramas already (e.g. Vivienne and A Voice of One Delight) I suggested something for a soprano and a mezzo. I’ve long wanted to write for Sue Bickley - who I have known for many years but never had the chance to write for - and the idea of a younger woman/older woman opera came about.

I talked to Aofie Mannix, the Irish poet who I've very successfully collaborated with on a number of other occasions, and it was Aoife, taking the Alma/Manon relationship as inspiration, who developed the idea of what is now a ghost-story. The characters have a complex relationship ranging between the warmly intimate and the frostily formal. The older woman remains the same, an exile locked in mid-sixties New York, while the other woman seems to get younger as the years go backwards to Easter 1934. When she fades into almost a memory.  Has the older woman imagined her presence all along…?


The themes explore memory, loss and regret. How do we fashion our past to suit our life narrative and what if there was a force that obliged us to confront another truth? The ideas of relationships between older/younger people, parents and children, mothers and daughters are evident, but so too are those of dealing with profound loss.

Despite the essentially serious nature, the opera, which will be about an hour, varying the pace between the six or seven scenes and offers opportunities for a variety of singing styles - from the soloisitcally introspective, to a rather extrovert drinking scene. The small ensemble of five or six instruments adds colour and texture whilst supporting the singers and permitting a ’third voice’, a musical alter ego. As with Gentle Giant, it’s possible to get a lot from a diverse chamber group.


We are on draft three of the libretto and have shared it with a small number of colleagues for comments. We’re not there yet, particularly with the duet sections and the conclusion, but we aim to get to a working version by the summer/autumn. I’m pleased with what Aoife has sent me so far and I’m going to work on some music over the next few months. We hope to have a small preliminary workshop showing of progress in London within a few months. 

The opera is scheduled for a premiere in Ljubljana in June of 2020 as part of the Ljubljana Festival in a venue called The Bunker - a black box theatre and a focus for contemporary art events in the city and in the Czech Republic as well. It will be directed and designed by Rocc, Artistic Director of the opera povera. We'd welcome working with a UK based development partner with the possibility of presenting here in 2020/21.

Stephen McNeff