‘I like being a maker of wonderful things’: composer Tom Coult on his opera Violet

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With a libretto by Alice Birch, who adapted Normal People, this Aldeburgh festival opener revolves around a collapsing world. Apt, given that – with the pandemic – its creators didn’t know it would ever make the stage

“I didn’t want an off-the-shelf story,” says Tom Coult of his new opera. “A Greek myth or a Shakespeare or whatever. But I’m no good at making up stories – it’s not what I do.” The 33-year-old composer is drinking coffee in the sun outside a rehearsal room where he is preparing for the premiere of Violet, the opening event of this year’s Aldeburgh festival. And he’s extolling the work of his librettist, the playwright Alice Birch, who has also recently created screenplays for the TV adaptations of Sally Rooney’s Normal People and Conversations With Friends and for the 2016 film Lady Macbeth. “I’m in awe of writers. Getting the most perfect sentence, the most perfect phrase, a resonant way with words. The idea of writing an opera with someone who has that particular quality is very exciting, and Alice has it in spades.”

For someone who says he is no good at making things up, Coult’s work so far seems to suggest an enduring interest in made-up things. I Find Planets, written last year, sets words generated by a Twitterbot that announces a new imaginary planet every hour; both Codex (Homage to Serafini) and Rainbow-Shooting Cloud Contraption, written in 2013, drew on his fascination with the Italian artist Luigi Serafini and his lavishly illustrated compendium of imagined things, an encyclopedia from a parallel universe. Another inspiration has been Heath Robinson, whose mechanical contraptions aren’t entirely fantastical but might as well be. And in St John’s Dance – a BBC commission that opened the 2017 Proms – his starting point was the unexplained medieval phenomenon of groups of people spontaneously dancing themselves into a frenzy until they collapsed.

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