Society problems

In the opera Violet, time becomes elastic and society collapses

Seconds, minutes, hours. One day. In technical terms, the passage of time is constant, but our experience of it varies widely. An hour of waiting for advance news can feel like days; a wonderful evening can pass in the blink of an eye. It’s a powerful theme for an opera, and in the case of Violet – composed by Tom Coult and written by Alice Birch – it’s particularly poignant.

The work has just premiered at the Aldeburgh Festival in Suffolk, where it was due to be staged in 2020 – a year when time has gone elastic, leaping forward in great bursts while simultaneously crawling in slow motion. The minute hand seemed to be the only one in control, setting its unpredictable pace.

And so it is in Purple, where the eponymous character begins to feel that time is flowing by itself. Set in a near-present dystopia, Violet is stuck in a loveless marriage with little purpose or will to live. The hours mysteriously vanish, initially unnoticed by anyone other than Violet. As each day becomes truncated, society begins to crumble.

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Without the usual schedule – “the men work nine to five” and “the women cook and clean and sew and play music and practice their penmanship and take care of the children” – the roles disintegrate. As chaos ensues, Purple finds a secret strength.

Coult’s magnificent score, performed by the London Sinfonietta with Anna Dennis (Violet), Richard Burkhard (Felix), Frances Gregory (Laura) and Andrew MacKenzie-Wicks (The Clock Keeper), twists and turns around a percussive motif which evokes the exit from the city -control clock tower. Purple (co-produced by Britten Pears Arts, Music Theater Wales and the Royal Opera) tours at the Mold Theater Clwyd (June 19); London Hackney Empire (June 23) and Buxton International Festival (July 18).

The passage of time – seven decades to be exact – is a key theme in concert halls these days. Although our current monarchy has long been criticized for its commitment to the arts, historically the crown has always been associated with music – from Greensleeves at Handel Tzadok thePriestcomposed for the coronation of King George II in 1727 and recently popularized after being featured in the coronation scene of Elizabeth II in The crown.