Programme Notes


I'm composing an opera in collaboration with playwright, Fraser Grace, called Don’t Breathe A Word. This chamber piece is a kind of “suite from the opera”, using material from the first act. The title comes from a description of the country where the action is set (“a land and beauty and of secrets”).

The opera follows the fortunes of a young idealistic British Ambassador - Alex McCloud - who arrives in a newly independent ex-Soviet republic called “Ushkent”. He quickly recognises that the regime as corrupt, barbaric and tyrannical. He also meets a beautiful dancer in a bar. Recklessly, he decides to speak out at a Human Rights Conference against the regime, while also  pursuing a passionate love-affair with the dancer. Needless to say, the combination proves disastrous and McCloud’s career implodes.

This chamber piece traces four key stages in the first part of this story: McCloud’s arrival in Ushkent, his meeting with the dancer in a bar, the deepening of their relationship, and finally, the moment when McCloud learns about a grizzly political murder committed by the regime.

When researching the background for the piece I wanted to know what music would be heard in a bar in downtown Tashkent (the setting for the real story) in 2002/2003 (when these events happened). Emphatically, repeatedly I got exactly the same answer: Britney Spears. I decided that authenticity was an over-rated virtue and adapted two folksongs for the scene where the lovers meet. 

In the UK, Craig Murray - whose story inspired the opera - has a notoriety like that of Eliot Spizer. The parallels are not precise, but there is a striking similarity in their respective trajectories and in the role played by the media in amplifying and contributing to the outcome. If you mention Craig Murray’s name in London, most people struggle to remember, but if you offer the prompt “ Ambassador and pole-dancer” - as the story was reported - recall is usually much quicker.