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Our Man in Havana

Composer: Malcolm Williamson
Libretto: Sidney Gilliat based on a book by Graham Greene

Malcolm Williamson’s opera Our Man in Havana resides in one of those obscure but rewarding blind alleys of 20th century opera.

Written in response to a commission from Sadler’s Wells opera it was premiered in 1963 and wanders happily through the musical worlds of film music, American musical comedy, English light music of the period, and a variety of more rigorous classical genres in in which the composer was already accomplished.

The subject was an unusual choice for an opera of that time. It is based on a dark comic novel by Graham Greene (an author who was already topping the best-sellers list) and had recently been made into a successful film featuring Alec Guinness, Noël Coward, Ralph Richardson and others. In the present day we are used to risk-averse promoters only willing to stage musicals and stage extravaganzas that are based on stories and characters that have recently proved popular in other genres. However, in 1963 it was unexpected for an opera composer to choose as the basis for an opera a book by a living popular author, recently made into a popular film and referring (if somewhat ironically) to contemporary events.

With a libretto by Sidney Gilliat, Williamson’s opera was duly premiered and extremely well received – one critic pronouncing it “the greatest first-opera since Peter Grimes. It sat in what was arguably a new genre – one where the audience’s familiarity with the language and shorthand of film music, opera, operetta, musical comedy, popular light music and various facets of classical music were all drawn into play in much the same way that Shakespeare roamed high and low through the linguistic shorthand of his age. Perhaps its closest relative at the time was Bernstein’s Candide.

The overture begins with an uneasy unison passage full of irregular rhythms. It is classic filmic shorthand to indicate that ‘sinister things are afoot’. From that point on for almost three hours (in a full performance) Williamson moves effortlessly and with wonderfully crafted orchestration through a series of genres. There is a waltz song which could be straight from Rogers & Hammerstein, a passacaglia and threnody (which may well pay indirect tribute to Britten’s use of those forms in Peter Grimes and Albert Herring respectively), harp and string flourishes familiar from the likes of Eric Coates’ light music, melodrama accompaniments that are both sinister and tongue in cheek and invite synchronised ‘Mickey Mousing’ from the actors, several poignant arioso-reflections for the main characters and occasional languid and sultry contributions for chorus and orchestra. Running throughout are a series of Cuban dances. To be more precise, they are ‘Cuban-style’ dances in the manner of the better crafted travelogue music of the time. Cubans both then and now might recognise the melodies as being ‘in the Cuban style’ but not the basis of the rhythms – but this is, after all, a tongue-in-cheek portrayal of an ‘exotic location’ – not an exercise in ethnomusicology.

All of this could, in the hands of a lesser composer, quickly descend into pastiche, but Williamson is able to meld the lot together into a convincing whole that still displays the composer’s own distinctive voice.

With critical success at its debut it appeared that Williamson might have created a new genre – a sort of through-composed musical-comedy / opera using film music vernacular - which could then be mined by himself and others.

Alas, it was not to be. Williamson’s lack of social acceptability in the Role of Master of the Queen’s Music saw him quietly airbrushed from polite society along with this opera. It remains a rarely-performed but rewarding work.

Some forthcoming performances featuring music from Our Man in Havana:


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Selected Sheet Music of Our Man in Havana