WORLD PREMIERE: 1 November, 2011

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden | Linbury Studio Theatre | an ROH2/OPERA EAST co-production

Developed by American Opera Projects and OperaGenesis

WORLDWIDE: Jenny Wegg, Promotion Manager, Chester Music Ltd and Novello & Co.
tel: +44 (0) 20 7612 7400 | fax: +44 (0) 20 7612 7545 | email: jenny.wegg @ musicsales.co.uk

USA ONLY: Peggy Monastra, Director of Promotion, G. Schirmer Inc.
tel: +1 212 254 2100 | fax: +1 212 254 2013 | email: pmonastra @ schirmer.com

Press | Composer & librettist note | Synopsis | Character list & orchestration | Premiere credits

The brilliance of Tarik O'Regan and Tom Phillips's new chamber opera lies in its ability to convey all that horror without the compulsion to show it - the ultimate psychodrama - and to employ music of startling beauty to tell such a brutal tale [...] Underpinning all this is a score of concise originality. Restless, leaping woodwind propel the narrative through the murky waters of the Congo, while interesting combinations of sonorities - double bass and classical guitar, for instance - trickle and bubble through the music. Just 14 instrumentalists keep the singers afloat on this quirkily beautiful raft, expertly steered by conductor Oliver Gooch.
~ Observer (6 Nov., 2011)

For my money, O'Regan is one of the great hopes for British music in the 21st century. I've been engaged, excited and entranced by his development [...] and this piece - his biggest undertaking to date - is obviously a landmark. With a libretto by the polymath artist/writer/genial giant Tom Phillips, it turned out to be a viable score that holds attention, sustains pace, and draws your ear into a magical and haunting sound-world, frequently sustained by a symphonic kind of writing for the voices - all of which places it head and shoulders among the vast majority of new music-theatre pieces that come along these days.
~Telegraph (2 Nov., 2011)

Tarik O'Regan's Conrad adaptation is an audacious, handsome debut [...] The craftsmanship of this first opera is indubitable, the horror muted by curatorial delicacy.
~ Independent on Sunday (6 Nov., 2011)

'Heart of Darkness' is very good. If you think of opera as an often bloated, over-wrought art form with hammy plots and acting, you would do well to try this one. It is elegant, moving, and, at just 75 minutes, short enough to allow time for dinner afterward.
~ Wall Street Journal (4 Nov., 2011)

The most striking achievement of Tarik O’Regan’s new work at Covent Garden’s Linbury Studio is to transform [the novel] into a compellingly taut evening of music theatre. O’Regan’s ... pacing is secure and varied - he avoids the meandering parlando of so much new opera.
~ Sunday Telegraph (13 Nov., 2011)

This neat production, mounted by Opera East and ROH2, has no time to babble. Floridly lyrical, instrumentalists from the spunky ensemble Chroma brightly chatter, especially winds, harp and celesta [...] in the music’s clarity and harmonic sting. Worth seeing [...] and it’s short.
~ Times (3 Nov., 2011)

The orchestral writing is richly coloured and imaginative. [Kurtz's] manic aria, inexorably repeating the single ironic phrase 'I am glad’, has a charged intensity [...] O'Regan should be given another commission.
~ Telegraph (3 Nov, 2011)

At around 75 minutes, the result is swift and well paced, with no individual scene lasting longer than it should. The opera demonstrates O'Regan's wide range of technical skills. The vocal writing is skilful and effective.
~ Guardian (2 Nov., 2011)

The sound-worlds [O'Regan] conjures up with the Chroma Orchestra's percussion, woodwind, strings, harp, and celeste are very beguiling.
~ Independent (4 Nov., 2011)

Fluidly conversational while suggestive of the ambivalences and dark enigmas that underlie the story.
~ Evening Standard (2 Nov., 2011)

O’Regan and Phillips have created an atmospheric psychological drama. Reflecting O’Regan’s transatlantic existence, his score references the anguished coiled chromatic vocal phrases of Benjamin Britten and the clean metrics of American minimalism, as well as including an exuberant dance to celebrate the arrival of vital, ship-repair-enabling rivets.
~ The Stage (2 Nov., 2011)

Careful not to bite off more than he could chew, operatic first-timer Tarik O'Regan focused his efforts on a chamber adaptation of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and its sell-out run at the Linbury Theatre (in a co-production with pioneering Opera East) more than made up for any lack of scandal. Charting a captain's journey into the nadir of colonialism, O'Regan's [...] burst out of the chamber opera confines and within 75 minutes OÂ’Regan and librettist Tom Phillips told a vivid tug-of-war between society and despair. There's surely further operatic gold waiting for O'Regan.
~ Classical Music Magazine (December, 2011 edition)

This is a thrilling new work, in a brilliantly realised production. I hope I get the opportunity to see it again soon [...] The handling of form and pace is superb. Marlow’s journey is swift but the composer allows for moments of repose and reflection, effortlessly and almost imperceptibly altering tempo and metre, register and colour.
~ Opera Today (4 Nov., 2011)

...this is a terrific new work, intelligently staged and magnificently performed [...] Taken as a whole, Heart of Darkness has more going for it that many new operas, and I left the auditorium longing to hear it again - preferably immediately, certainly soon. The tour mooted for 2012 cannot happen quickly enough.
~ ClassicalSource (5 Nov., 2011)

A well-crafted, well-executed work, which, whatever the future may hold, permits of not only a satisfying but at times moving evening in the theatre. How refreshing it was, then, to experience a work and production that spoke of true collaboration.
~ Seen and Heard International (3 Nov., 2011)

Tarik O'Regan's first step into operatic waters [is] fat-free and tautly structured [and] makes for a gripping 75 minutes. There aren't many tickets left, but do grab one if you can - and a spare for your friend who doesn't really like opera. This is the sort of production that might just change their mind.
~ Intermezzo (2 Nov., 2011)

[With] wonderful orchestral touches [...] O’Regan has perfected the art of allowing the ensemble to function as a giant percussive instrument in choppier moments of tension. Overall Philips and O’Regan’s 'Heart of Darkness' treats a sinister and multi-layered subject with imagination and artistic flair and the small cast impressive [...] as thought-provoking and successful as any adaption of Conrad’s symbolic frame-narrative can be.
~ Bachtrack (8 Nov., 2011)

'Heart of Darkness' managed what a lot of contemporary opera does not care about, emotion. The woven textures of the score and the beautiful singing by the dedicated cast was a joy to listen to, but more importantly an emotional experience, like the best of opera it touched the audience.
~ OperaCreep/George's Musings... (8 Nov., 2011)

O’Regan’s first opera (he is only 33) is a mature representation of a difficult theme, which is both engaging and disturbing, though never dull.
~ Show Me Something Interesting/James Edward Hughes (2 Nov., 2011)

Wow! This was a remarkable achievement by 33 year old composer Tarik O’Regan, along with a libretto by artist Tom Phillips. They have packed Joseph Conrad’s novella into 75 minutes of gripping musical narrative [...] nothing is hurried, everything is accomplished.
~ Mark Ronan's Theatre Reviews (1 Nov., 2011)

It is a struggle that this opera reflects well, leaving the audience, like Marlow’s audience, contemplating a complex and enigmatically revealing vision.
~ The Joseph Conrad Society (5 Dec., 2011)
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Heart of Darkness is experience ... pushed a little (and only very little) beyond the actual facts of the case. (Joseph Conrad, 1917)

The contemporary relevance of Conrad's timeless tale needs no underlining. Many writers and thinkers have interpreted Conrad's masterpiece with diverging, or even contradictory, results: from Chinua Achebe's charge of outright racism, to Adam Hochschild's belief that the work is a form of anti-imperial non-fiction.

Our goal in making an opera has been to distil Conrad's dense narrative, in which navigation is both a practical part of the tale - a journey by boat on a river in an unnamed country in Central Africa - and a metaphor for telling, or indeed not telling, the truth of his experiences on this voyage. This double 'navigation' is central to the opera's drama.

In this respect, musically and in the libretto, we have tried to reflect Conrad's split-frame narrative: Marlow is seen to be in two places simultaneously (London as an old seafarer and Central Africa as a young steamboat captain), both psychologically and empathetically.

It is Marlow who reveals his own younger self's lie. We see him both as liberator and abductor of the truth. This resonates with Edward Said's understanding of the conflict within the author himself: "As a creature of his time, Conrad could not grant the natives their freedom, despite his severe critique of the imperialism that enslaved them."

Our aim is that Marlow's tale on stage becomes a form of psychodrama: what he has to say in London as an old man in some way begins to exorcise his inaction as a young man following his expedition to Africa.

By associating the London narrative with faster-moving recitative, the scenes which take place away from the Thames are allowed to ebb and flow more freely. The recitative sections use a specific orchestration, influenced by the resonance of Hugh Tracey's ethnographical recordings from the Belgian Congo in the 1950s, here represented by harp, celesta, guitar and percussion.

The libretto restricts itself entirely to words from Conrad's novel with limited use of the author's own navigational diaries of a Congo expedition (the so-called Congo Diary of 13 June - 4 August 1890 and the Up-river Book of 1-19 August 1890).

As in the case of the brilliantly stripped down radio version of Heart of Darkness that Orson Welles made in 1938 for the Mercury Theatre of the Air, necessary economy has provoked changes of structure. The requirements of operatic form have led to an even greater conflation of dramatic roles to match the telescoping of the narrative.

The greatest encouragement (and challenge) has been from Conrad himself who, in a preface to the work written in 1917, described it in directly musical terms: "...like another art altogether. That sombre theme had to be given a sinister resonance, a tonality of its own, a continued vibration that, I hoped, would hang in the air and dwell on the ear after the last note had been struck."
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The opera opens with two snapshots: first Marlow, an old sea-captain, in a moment of recollection; next, a fragment of a mysterious encounter many years earlier, whose meaning only becomes clear at the end. The action takes place concurrently on a ship, moored in the Thames Estuary, and, many years earlier, during Marlow's expedition to Central Africa.

Instrumental prelude.

Marlow is among a small group of passengers aboard a ship moored in the Thames one evening, waiting for the tide to come in. He starts to relate the tale of his travels as a young man, when he sailed upriver in the equatorial forest of an unnamed country in Central Africa (which closely resembles the Congo Free State, a large area in Central Africa controlled by King Leopold II of Belgium from 1885-1908).

He has been sent there to find Kurtz, the enigmatic and once idealistic ivory trader rumoured to have turned his remote Inner Station into a barbaric fiefdom. Marlow's journey starts in the Company's offices in Europe, where he is given his instructions and a perfunctory medical check, before he departs for Africa.

He arrives first at the Downriver Station and encounters the Accountant who first mentions Kurtz. Marlow then comes to the Central Trading Station where he meets the Manager who will accompany him on the voyage. The expedition is delayed because the steamboat on which they will sail is damaged. Waiting for vital spare parts to arrive, Marlow befriends the boilermaker, who sheds more light on Kurtz.

Marlow finds a cryptic note dropped by the Manager, which hints at Kurtz's instability. The missing rivets arrive and the boat is fixed. The voyage progresses briskly, despite being attacked by unknown assailants. Eventually Marlow and his entourage arrive at the Inner Station, where Kurtz is based, together with his peculiar acolyte, the Harlequin. The Manager finds Kurtz's enormous hoard of ivory which he hurriedly carries onboard the boat.

At last Kurz appears. He is gaunt, thin and ill. He has a letter to give Marlow. A mysterious River Woman sings a lament.

The Harlequin reveals that it was Kurtz who ordered the attack on Marlow's steamboat. Marlow and Kurtz speak for the first time. Marlow sees Kurtz is on the edge of madness. He must be taken back downriver. On board the steamboat Kurtz becomes delirious, reflecting incoherently on his imperious ideas and deeds as the boat sails away from the Inner Station. Eventually Kurtz dies, uttering "The horror! The horror!"

Instrumental threnody.

We now witness in full the fragment of conversation seen at the start: back in London, Marlow meets Kurtz's fiancée to pass her the letter that Kurtz had entrusted to him. Despite all that he has seen and understood, Marlow is unable to bear witness to the truth. He is unable to tell her Kurtz's final words. We in turn see that Marlow himself has played his part in maintaining the secrecies of horror he finds so abhorrent.

Back on the Thames Estuary, the tide has risen. Marlow's tale is at an end. His isolation from the truth of his actions and the atrocities witnessed - that "vast grave of unspeakable secrets" in which he speaks of being "buried" - is borne out in his epilogue: "we live, as we dream, alone".
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c 75 minutes

~ MARLOW (tenor): an old seafarer who tells of his early employ as the captain of a steamboat on an expedition to Central Africa
~ THE THAMES CAPTAIN (baritone): a captain of a ship moored in the Thames Estuary, and witness to Marlow’s tale
~ THE COMPANY SECRETARY (tenor): based at the Company’s headquarters in Europe
~ THE DOCTOR (baritone): also based at the Company’s headquarters
~ THE ACCOUNTANT (tenor): the Company’s chief accountant, based at an outer trading station
~ THE MANAGER (tenor): a Company manager, in charge of Marlow’s expedition
~ THE BOILERMAKER (baritone): based at the central trading station
~ THE HELMSMAN (tenor): on Marlow’s steamboat
~ KURTZ (bass): an ivory trader
~ THE HARLEQUIN (tenor): in Kurtz’s entourage
~ THE RIVER WOMAN (soprano): also in Kurtz’s entourage
~ THE FIANCÉE (soprano): Kurtz’s fiancée in Europe

CASTING NOTE (8-12 singers):
It is possible to double-cast several of the characters, allowing the opera to be performed with as few as eight singers. A combination of both single- and double-casting is also possible. Character doublings are: The Company Secretary and The Manager (tenor); The Doctor and The Boilermaker (baritone); The Accountant and The Helmsman (tenor); The River Woman and The Fiancée (soprano).

ORCHESTRATION (14 instruments):
~ Flute, doubling Piccolo and Alto Flute
~ Clarinet 1 in B-flat, doubling E-flat Clarinet and Bass Clarinet
~ Clarinet 2 in B-flat, doubling Bass Clarinet
~ French Horn
~ Percussion (1 player): Vibraphone, Tubular Bells (range C-sharp 4 - D-sharp 5), Glockenspiel, Crotales (2-octave set from C), Tambourine, Triangle, Sizzle Cymbal, Large Suspended Cymbal, Large Tam-Tam, Snare Drum, Goblet Drum, 4 Tom-Toms, Bass Drum
~ Harp
~ Acoustic Guitar, with clean amplification, doubling Electric Bass Guitar
~ Piano, doubling Celesta, Harpsichord and Chamber Organ (Acoustic instruments should be used wherever possible. If this proves difficult, high quality digital alternatives - e.g. Roland C-30 or C-80 - may be used.)
~ 2 Violins
~ Viola
~ 2 Cellos
~ Double Bass, with low C extension
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Conductor: Oliver Gooch | Director: Edward Dick | Designer: Robert Innes Hopkins
Lighting Designer: Rick Fisher | Associate Director: Jane Gibson | Orchestra: CHROMA
Cast: Alan Oke, Njabulo Madlala, Sipho Fubesi, Donald Maxwell, Paul Hopwood, Morten Larssenius Kramp, Jaewoo Kim, Gweneth-Ann Jeffers
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