An opera commissioned by the London Sinfonietta and the Royal Opera House Covent Garden Foundation, with support from the Britten-Pears Foundation
A journey within, a journey of self-discovery, deeply rooted in a sense of loss, Cave is Tansy Davies and Nick Drake’s second operatic collaboration. Premiered in June 2018 at The Printworks, London, Mark Padmore and Elaine Mitchener starred alongside the London Sinfonietta, conducted by Geoffrey Paterson in a site-specific production directed by Lucy Bailey.
Desperate and fleeing apocalyptic events, the MAN (tenor) desperately seeks shelter in a Niaux-esque cave while the effects of climate change rage outside. Although the cave provides shelter from the tumult outside, the ritual he performs to escape the nightmare of his reality demands that he must instead confront an inner turmoil: as the outside world dissolves away and time distorts, he experiences increasingly vivid encounters with echoes of the VOICE of his daughter, HANNAH (mezzo-soprano).
Initially ghostly and shapeshifting (portrayed in the first production by the dancing silhouetted form of a YOUNG HANNAH), entwined with the semi-intelligible language of unseen mystical birds, HANNAH becomes a reflection of the MAN as his sense of self melts away. Although the exact nature of the MAN’s vision of HANNAH is never fully established, the opera’s eight scenes explore the spiritual and ancestral roots of the characters, how they relate across time and space, and how they can help each other to remember the true essence of who they are and address the piece’s core emotional truth: an urgent need and desire to reconnect with nature and with each other.
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Scored for a sextet of players, the ensemble is augmented by an two-person electronic setup, creating a vivid and otherworldly soundworld as the voices of the two singers are refracted and augmented in the fluid reality of the cave.
An extract entitled Lullaby for tenor, mezzo-soprano, and piano is available on special hire from Faber Music.
Blending operatic, improvisatory, and electronic elements, the creation of Cave took composer and librettist from a visit through the caves at Niaux, through a improvisatory sketching of the form of the piece across an enormous scroll of brown paper, to its realisation in the post-industrial cavern of the Printworks in a production.
The compositional ‘bedrock’ of Cave has its origins in another piece written after a trip to Niaux: Dune of Footprints (2017). This fifteen minute long piece for string orchestra was stretched out to four times it usual length; its already slow moving harmonic fields creating a glacially progressing musical canvas onto which the two vocal performances and electronic elements are projected.
Discussing the electronic elements of the work, Tansy comments that ‘I wanted to create the cave walls, a skin of music… somehow within those sounds there’s a kind of image of paintings and spirits speaking down the centuries through the paintings; it’s almost a kind of process of remembering who we are as humans’.
This metamorphotic dimension of Cave is mirrored in the sections of improvisation. Speaking of a section in which the Voice, embodied as a crow, ‘illuminates and shadows the instruments’ in a ‘wild cadenza fuelled by panic and fear’, Elaine Mitchener notes ‘Tansy’s allowed all this space for me to take off and to vocally change my sound so I sound like a bird, but there’s enough notated music there for me to anchor myself musically as well’.