INTERVIEW; Scott Stroman (Fever Pitch:The Opera - Union Chapel, N1. 22-24 Sep)

Scott Stroman rehearsing singers Joanna Harries and Robin Bailey
for Fever Pitch: The Opera
Photo credit: Claudia Marinaro

Composer SCOTT STROMAN and librettist Tamsin Collison have written an opera, a commission from Highbury Opera Theatre, based on Nick Hornby’s celebrated football memoir Fever Pitch. 

The story traces the agonies and the ecstasies of lifelong Arsenal superfan ‘Gooner’, alongside his own struggles to grow up and make it as both a writer and a man. The production involves professional performers, orchestra, an adult community chorus and 40 local school-children. Sebastian asked the composer, Indiana-born Arsenal supporter Scott Stroman, to explain the background: 

London Jazz News: Where did the idea of Fever Pitch, the Opera come from?

Scott Stroman: It came from me. It was a perfect storm of things:

- I knew and liked the book. I’ve been in Highbury my whole existence here in London, so I’m a Gooner myself, and of course Nick Hornby is a kind of local hero. It would be perfect for a Highbury story, to be told by Highbury people, so of course that means there are roles in it for children and teenagers. There’s a perfect venue in Union Chapel which is just down the road from Arsenal football ground. It feels like a football ground itself.

- The second thing was the story. It was the central character and the kind of turmoil that he’s going through. I could just see the opportunity for a lot of irony, for a lot of subliminal things going on— when he’s thinking about football all the time while he’s in the midst of other activities, like trying to woo a girlfriend, for example, or go to school or be a writer.

And it’s the fact that you have the chants from the football grounds which are already a kind of music. Which means there’s a chance for musical material be drawn into it, and the excitement of football and I knew I’d like to write some rhythmic exciting music.

All these things just clicked in my head as a Wow!/Damascus moment. This would make a great show, and as soon as I mentioned it - I just mentioned it really in passing to the people of Highbury Opera Group when we were talking about lots of ideas - it just caught fire...

LJN: You have worked with the Highbury Opera Group people before? 

SS: This is now our eighth production. We’ve been going for about five years and it's made up of professionals and amateurs and children but there’s a committee of people, a few of us who are artists and some local business people... One of them found a commission fee for me to write it from a foundation, Arsenal itself gave us some money, the Arts Council supported it, PRS supported it. It’s just been one of those things that appears to have been a good idea.

LJN: And the momentum has continued...

SS: Yes, we auditioned lots of people to be in it, we had a good turnout for that, so it might be one of those things that hopefully is artistically strong but also fun to do and attractive to everybody. It feels good, it feels like an organic thing that we’re doing. And tickets are selling,

LJN: Is it through-composed or are there spoken elements?

SS: It’s through-composed. One of the things I tried definitely to do was to not have closed song forms. One thing rolls right to the next and then they come back at different times in the opera, so it is genuinely through-composed, it’s not like a suite for example. It’s definitely an opera.

LJN: And musical inspirations..what does it sound like?

SS: It’s very eclectic in its music language: jazz, contemporary classical, folk, rock, etc. Everything I write has some strong element of jazz in it, but there’s also what you might consider, I suppose, the models. If I have any models, they’re Bernstein and Kurt Weill and John Adams and Gil Evans— if you threw all those things together you’d get some idea of what the musical language is about.

LJN: How long is it?

SS: It’s exactly 90 minutes! Plus, of course, the time added on for the encore. It’s down to the minute. Our set includes a replica of the famous clock from the old Highbury football ground suspended over the stage. It actually goes through. No matter what time the show starts the clock strikes at three o’clock and it finishes at 4.45 so it’s exactly ninety minutes of music. It’s a really good discipline for me. In forty five minutes you gotta tell half of your story, and it’s worked out exactly right.

LJN: Tell us about the role of your librettist Tamsin Collison (*) 

SS: Tamsin has written the most wonderful libretto: the book itself is not a story, it’s a memoir, it’s a series of occasions really. It adds up to a kind of story if you take it from the point of view of the emotions and confusion of the main character, but she’s made this into a fantastic narrative. You’re always editing and bouncing things back and forth, but in essence I used almost every word she wrote.

LJN: There used to be a singing part of the North Bank where the Arsenal home supporters were - have you actually taken on any football chants?

SS: Lots of them, we’ve used lots of chants. When Tamsin and I discussed this right at the beginning I said an obvious thing to do would be to depend on these chants, but I didn't want to do that. We've incorporated them so every time the idea of football comes there’s a chant in the background. It’s polytonal if you can imagine that; it’s a different key from the main song, so we've used probably about ten chants, all the classic ones and a couple of them were structurally important, well, the whole thing would fall apart without them. I’ll put it that way.

LJN: You’ve gotta keep the Tottenham hatred bottled in somehow :)

SS: Well, yes, you do actually. The funny thing is of course you have to have a love/hate relationship with Arsenal to make any sense of it anyway. They actually don't come out of it that well. They have their moments of glory but they have moments of desperation as well. Funnily enough I wrote it over the last season and I didn't go to the matches because I had just too much work to do, so I’d sit there with the match on in the corner of the studio and it really helped because I could just feel this awful frustration as a fan while I'm writing this music. Had they had a successful season I don't think I could have done it!

LJN: Yes - it’s broadening emotionally to support a club that’s losing….

SS: Absolutely! It’s just so up and down. That’s the thing, it’s up and it’s down and it’s up and it’s down, you’re forever hopeful, you’re forever dashed, but that’s a metaphor for life and a metaphor for the main character who wants to be a writer. His hopes are dashed and eventually they come true, so it is intense and brilliantly woven in this idea of the football metaphor.

LJN: There is a personal connection for you in the climax to the story...

SS: The final big scene is the one in the 1989 final match against Liverpool which, ironically, is the first day that I got myself totally smitten with football: the actual day at that match in 1989 when they beat Liverpool. I remember that day and I was out on the street with everyone else in Highbury. That was when I first really got totally drawn into football, as an American.

Joanna Harries, Robin Bailey, Nick Allen, Robert Gildon rehearsing Fever Pitch
Photo credit: Claudia Marinaro

LJN: There are four professional singers who sing the main as well as other roles. And how big is the band?

SS: Ten in all. There’s a terrific string trio then there’s four horns, trumpet, alto sax, tenor sax and trombone, guitar bass and drums. We have a lot of jazzers in it. Stuart Hall is on guitar, Noel Langley is on trumpet, Bob McKay on alto and flute, a young guy just out of Guildhall, Alex Western-King is a great player on tenor and clarinet, Chris Valentine on trombone, and Winston Clifford on drums.

LJN: And alongside these professionals - the four singers and the ten piece professional band - one of the hallmarks of Highbury Opera is involving the community...

SS: Yes we've also got a fantastic team of 40 teenagers who were all auditioned, of which there are three lead characters there too and also 40 adult amateur singer/actors. They're all very good, they've been rehearsing for ages as there’s quite complex music. (pp)

= = = = =

(*) Tamsin Collison is an LJN contributor.

Fever Pitch, the Opera has five performances: Fri 22 Sept 7.30pm, Sat 23 Sept 3pm & 7.30pm, Sun 24 Sept 3pm and 7.30pm. There are also two schools performances.

Venue is the Union Chapel, Compton Terrace, Highbury London N1 2UN.

Tickets can be obtained via the Highbury Opera website

The production build-up is on Facebook and Twitter

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