Derek Walcott and Seamus Heaney Do Opera

Dheaney_385x185_411245a Andrew Billen in The Times:

If, a couple of Mondays ago, on your way to pay your council tax at Woolwich town hall you happened to get lost and found yourself in its basement, you would have chanced upon not one but two winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Seamus Heaney, the English language’s most-read living poet, should surely, I thought, be digging a sod somewhere or debating poetry over a Guinness. And, even at 78, his fellow grand old man of letters, the Caribbean author Derek Walcott, would have looked more himself striding from the waves on to one of the St Lucian beaches evoked in his great poem, Osmeros.

But here the two friends were in southeast London, scruffy jackets, crumpled brief-cases at their feet, up to their ears in a project that in itself sounds like a game of Consequences: an opera adapted from Heaney’s The Burial at Thebes, a version of Sophocles’ Antigone, to be directed by Walcott and staged at Shakespeare’s Globe. It is the Globe’s first opera, the first opera Walcott has directed and about the seventh Heaney will have ever been to.

The poets were having fun, or at least the thrice-married Walcott was, flinging his arms round his Antigone, the German singer Idit Arad, who remarked, in praise of Heaney, how unusual it was to sing arias containing thoughts more complex than “I love you, I love you. Don’t leave me, don’t leave me.” Heaney confined himself to reminding Brian Green, singing the part of the tyrant Creon, not to rely on the Faber edition of The Burial at Thebes, as he had changed some lines for the libretto.

The conductor, Peter Manning, whose company is producing the piece, eventually called lunch, and the laureates and I retired to a room where a dancer was rehearsing. As he flew around the space, we sat on plastic chairs, a pile of M&S sandwiches behind us.

Heaney seemed to regard this operafication of The Burial at Thebes as a fait accompli. Eighteen months ago, he had received a letter from the composer Dominique Le Gendre saying that she and Manning intended making an opera of his 2004 reworking of Sophocles’ tragedy of personal versus civic duty. He did not like to object, especially since Walcott was committed and he had long wanted Heaney to write a play he could direct.