Mahogany Opera

Laurence Osborn's The Mother

Content by Mahogany Opera

The Mother is an adaptation of the absurdist play Matka by Polish writer Witkacy (Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz). Indebted to Eastern European theatre, it is a bitingly satirical and explosive response to the traditions of opera. Osborn plunges the audience into an anarchic, surrealist world through taut, intense music that draws on Weill, Birtwistle, and Romitelli, alongside mainstream pop influences.

Laurence Osborn (b. 1989) read Music at Hertford College, Oxford, studying Composition with Martyn Harry and Martin Suckling, and graduating with a 1st in 2011. He then studied for an MMus in Composition with Kenneth Hesketh at the Royal College of Music, London, supported by an RVW Trust Scholarship and graduating with Distinction in 2013. From 2013-14, Laurence was resident on the London Symphony Orchestra’s LSO Soundhub Scheme, where he studied with Julian Anderson. Laurence then went on to study for an MA in Opera Making and Writing with Julian Philips at The Guildhall School of Music, generously supported by The Leverhulme Arts Scholarship. He graduated with Distinction in 2015, and held the position of Artist Fellow in Composition for the following year. In September 2018, he will begin studying for a PhD at Kings College London, supervised by Sir George Benjamin.

Laurence won the Royal Philharmonic Society Composition Prize in 2017. He was also runner up in the New Cobbett Prize for Composition (2014) and the International Antonin Dvorak Composition Competition (2013). He has won student prizes for composition while studying at both undergraduate and postgraduate level, including the Adrian Cruft Prize for Composition and the Royal College of Music Concerto Competition.

Laurence Osborn’s music has been commissioned and/or programmed by the London Symphony Orchestra, Mahogany Opera Group, The Berkeley Ensemble, CHROMA, The Composers Ensemble, Consortium5, The English National Ballet, The Hebrides Ensemble, Juice Vocal Ensemble, Nonclassical, Outcry Ensemble, The Riot Ensemble, and Tête-à-Tête Opera Company, along with performers Sarah Dacey, Lore Lixenberg, and Michael Petrov. His music has been programmed throughout the UK, at venues such as The Royal Opera House, LSO St Luke’s, St Martin- In-The-Fields, Milton Court, Wilton’s Music Hall, Riverside Studios, Britten Studio (Aldeburgh), The National Portrait Gallery, The Holywell Music Room (Oxford), Kettle’s Yard (Cambridge), and at Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, St Magnus International Festival, and at Ulverston International Music Festival. Pieces have also been programmed abroad, in Denmark, France, Hungary, and Switzerland. Laurence’s music has been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and Resonance FM. Laurence also composes for theatre, having written music for productions at the Southwark Playhouse, RADA Festival, Edinburgh Fringe, and for the National Youth Theatre’s Epic Stages course. He is a regular collaborator with Flipping the Bird Theatre. As a writer, Laurence’s articles have been published in Tempo and the Institute of Composing Journal.

Projects for 2018 include a ninety-minute opera commission from Mahogany Opera Group, a commission for the London Philharmonic Orchestra as part of the Leverhulme Young Composers Scheme, a commission for Music In The Round from The Royal Philharmonic Society, and a commission from Filthy Lucre. In 2017, Laurence Osborn’s music has been supported by PRS Foundation’s The Open Fund, RVW Trust, and Arts Council England’s Grants for the Arts.

‘I wrote Act II of The Mother at a desk in my mum’s living room. This is because, like Leon, the opera’s protagonist, I spent most of my twenties living with my mum in the flat I grew up in. The co-habiting relationship between an only child and a single mother has a long and complex structure. It develops from morose lop-sidedness during childhood, to burning symbiotic madness during adolescence, before beginning to cool and fade into a sort of red dwarf during the late teens. By the time I reached my early twenties, my mum and I cohabited in a fog of the kind of exhausted but cheerful mutual respect that one might see in a glance between two old jazz musicians who have been drinking and performing in the same bar together all their lives. This fog began to clear as I reached my mid-twenties, replaced by a peculiar claustrophobia that didn’t disappear until I could afford to move out. At 25, I felt physically too large for the space, my footsteps too loud, and my movements too clumsy. Plates that had been ‘things for eating from’ became ‘things to avoid breaking’. I began to perch on the furniture that I used to lounge all over, rationing out meagre portions of my arse on the cushions. For the co-habiting grown-up only child of the single mother, your twenty-fifth year marks the magical point at which you realise that the place that you thought was your home actually belongs to someone else, and always has done. This moment of outgrowing is the moment at which Witkiewicz’s The Mother begins.

At the heart of Witkiewicz’s The Mother – behind the extraordinary innovations in dramatic form and quasi-prophetic political invective – is a strikingly sensitive portrayal of the relationship between a single mother and only son who have outgrown one another but continue to cohabit. The fabulous wrongness of the situation is beautifully observed, and then blown out of all proportion. In Leon’s mother’s living room, childhood and adulthood collide constantly, and messily: she makes him macaroni, they scream at each other, he announces his engagement, they hug and kiss, she sings to him, he gives her a lecture, he destroys her work, they take cocaine together, and so on, all while the (imaginary?) voice of Leon’s dead father bellows at them intermittently from offstage. It feels as if their relationship, warped and degraded through years of forced codependence, has begun to glitch out and spew random fragments of history all over the place, much like a computer does when it’s on its last legs. I chose to make Leon a countertenor because I thought that the countertenor’s registral proximity to the mezzo-soprano of the mother, and the possibilities for their voices to blend with and buzz against one another, would emphasis the toxic co-dependence between the two characters. (I worry privately that people will think I made Leon a countertenor in order to infantilise him, so it’s nice to have the opportunity to say that isn’t true before the 25th April.) In spite of its extremity, The Mother has an emotional directness and intimacy that many of Witkiewicz’s other plays don’t have – qualities that made Freddie, Theo, and I want to turn it into an opera. While the relationship between Leon and his mother resonates with me on an personal level, there is also a universality to the play that makes it stand out: everyone has felt the combined sweetness and toxicity of a relationship like the one between Leon and his mother. Theo encapsulates this relationship in a line from the mother’s aria in Act II: “We have to love one another/if we can’t bear it, we have to learn to”. This line communicates that there is something ferociously active about familial love. Mothers and sons and sisters and fathers strain towards one another’s love like plant stems strain towards the light. Families of people, however small or strange, cling to each other as they hurtle through time. In The Mother, Leon and his mother cling to each other as everything around them is gutted, washed out and emptied of meaning, even as the fabric of the play begins to warp and buckle at the end of Act II. Leon is still clinging to his mother when it is revealed that she is just a mannequin made of straw at the end of Act III.’ 

The Mother

25 April 2018

POSK: Polish Social and Cultural Association 238-246 King Street London W6 0RF

Music: Laurence Osborn
Text: Theo Merz
Direction: Frederic Wake-Walker

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