Poet and Playwright Glyn Maxwell talks about embarking on the project
The composer Elena Langer and I (as librettist) have for the last couple of years been working towards an opera project on the subject of dementia. This tends to raise eyebrows wherever we mention it, and often we find ourselves drawn to mount a cautious defence of the idea, even before anyone has put into words what they might find odd about it. I think it’s probably a chemical reaction that occurs where the word opera collides with the word dementia, as if a genre associated with high art has no business in the provinces of science, or in trying to make sense of suffering. But of course art is worth little if it ignores suffering and less if it evades science: why should art not care? How should art not know? What flowers at the place where caring meets knowing is called healing, and art should aspire to heal what can’t be healed. Much contemporary art in many genres seems happy to know not and care not, but such art is welcome to amuse itself.
We were also aware from the beginning that diseases, especially those that attack the mind, have over the years been routinely exploited for sensational effects by art – whether for tragedy or comedy – and we are anxious that our treatment of this subject be truthful and dignified, howsoever we process ideas into artistic form. For in a subject of such dismally looming importance in our society, it’s not enough to care: we have to learn everything we can about these afflictions, and to that end we have spent several days in and around the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London, meeting professors, researchers, students, administrators, nurses, therapists, technicians and carers, as well as individuals recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and their loved ones. The experience has been – and continues to be – in equal measure inspiring and harrowing, richly informative and numbly silencing.
Over a series of blogs I shall describe some of these experiences, but, at the outset, it seems appropriate to record that after two years I feel that most of the work I’ve done so far no longer sits right with what I know of the ‘state’ of dementia: as I guessed might be the case, its customs, its forms, its progress (and all states have customs and forms and progress) demand of us new approaches in terms of story, structure and character. I shall try to explain this in due course. For now, it’s enough for a poet to express the hope that as our work continues I might begin to feel less like the great poet (and librettist) W.H.Auden famously felt in the company of scientists: ‘like a shabby curate who has strayed by mistake into a drawing room full of dukes.’