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A Writer's Guide to Intermezzo...

We've asked a series of Scottish writers to bring you their takes on the operas the Company are performing during the 2010/11 Season. Giving us their thoughts on Intermezzo, are husband and wife duo, John and Zinnie Harris, composer and playwright...




As the composer-librettist (husband-and-wife) team who wrote Death of a Scientist for Scottish Opera’s Five:15 Operas Made in Scotland in 2009, we were amused when we were asked to write this article on Intermezzo. The immediate parallels between the characters portrayed in the opera and our own situation are obvious, as the characters of Christine and Robert Storch are directly based on Pauline and Richard Strauss: she a singer, he a conductor and the composer of the opera itself, and we, of course, are a playwright and a composer.


For us the idea of one of us writing and presenting a work so explicitly based on our shared private lives feels like it would require an awful lot of understanding and forbearance from each other – not to mention an iron-clad disregard for any public reaction. When we first started to consider Intermezzo in this light – as a piece written by Richard that put Pauline and Richard’s life and character up on stage for public scrutiny – it raised all sorts of questions, not least, ‘Why on earth would you do that!?’ It sounded, at best, decidedly uncomfortable for the pair of them – a form of very public ‘confessional theatre’ – and at worst downright risky for their marriage.


It’s not true that nothing of our lives makes it in to our publicly performed work. Bits of John’s character (and the way he says things) regularly turn up as bits of characters and their lines in Zinnie’s plays, as do those of the other members of our extended family. How Zinnie ends up being part of the music that John writes is more oblique, but she’s definitely there as a golden thread running through. However, these appearances are not signalled or signposted to the audience, and only we know that they are there. It’s not a game with the audience, it’s just a key part of our inspiration.


Reading about Pauline and Richard, though, gives us the feeling that theirs was a life lived very much in public, and that their personas maintained and enhanced their public status. If this sounds like a rather cynical viewpoint, drawing contemporary parallels between the Strausses and, say, the Beckhams or the endless shenanigans of Peter and Katie, we do not mean it as such – but it does give us an insight as to why it was OK by Pauline that Richard should put a near-divorce moment of theirs on stage.


The Strauss household seems to have been, like that of many arts couples whose livelihoods depended at least in part upon private patronage, one of carefully planned dinner parties, society gatherings and public discourse. They were talked about as a couple in the newspapers, their currency was kept high by the people they entertained – barons, generals and other high-value people – and their doings and comings-and-goings were well-known in the comparatively circumscribed but powerful group of which they made themselves a part. Patrons, of course, tended to fund high-profile personalities as much as particular works, so who one was and how one presented oneself – not just what one did – was immensely important. A plot-thread in Intermezzo takes this cultivation of patronage as its theme – the young Baron Lummer, whose companionship Christine seeks enthusiastically in order to augment her social standing, is peremptorily dumped by her when it turns out that he is seeking funding from her, rather than she from him. In its way, the opera is the perfect expression of the Strausses’ situation, showcasing the art while revelling in the personalities and social mores that underpin its creation.


Lives such as the Strausses’ have over the years led to the perception that people who manage to make their living from the arts must spend their lives in one long glamorous social whirl. From our experience, at no time does this misunderstanding become more apparent than when trying to secure house insurance; it’s a fact that insurance premiums for composers and playwrights are more than double those of other professions, on the basis that we must have ‘many daily high-profile visitors’. Now, we’re not antisocial, but our children have many more social engagements than we do; for their part, our insurers remain unconvinced to this day!


However, we would not be bothering to discuss the link between Richard and Pauline’s domestic lives and their portrayal on stage if Intermezzo were not such a fine piece, one that can stand comparison with far more heavily plotted and overtly dramatic works. Intermezzo is not simply the Strausses’ family album in operatic form; far from it. It is a universally compelling work because it is written with great emotional insight and truthfulness, and a deeply compassionate understanding of the human frailties of its characters. Under the guise of a light-hearted domestic comedy, Intermezzo reveals to us very clearly many of our own motivations, fears and blindnesses. As Richard himself wrote quoting Goethe, ‘every individual is unique in his or her own way, and will never occur again, which is why I consider an attractive and consistent character portrait like that in Intermezzo more interesting than any “plot”’.


What better characters to portray than the ones you know the best?


© John and Zinnie Harris 2011