Dominique Le Gendre: musical tales

Trinidadian composer Dominique Le Gendre’s chamber suite Tales of the Islands comes home

Dominique Le Gendre with accompanist Chris Willis in one of the rehearsal rooms at the Royal Opera House in London. Photograph by Georgia Popplewell

Dominique Le Gendre is a busy woman. In August, the Trinidad-born composer — now an associate artist at London’s Royal Opera House — brings her chamber suite Tales of the Islands to Queen’s Hall in Port of Spain. Two months later, in October, Le Gendre’s chamber opera Bird of Night is set to premiere at the ROH’s Linbury Studio Theatre in Covent Garden.

Le Gendre, who started playing the piano at age five and classical guitar at nine, left Trinidad after completing high school to study classical guitar and composition in Paris. She credits teacher Ramon de Herrera with helping her discover her voice.

“I wasn’t even aware that I was bringing anything different, or that I had a way of hearing and playing music that different to a European person. I was so bent on trying to get into the Paris Conservatory and being technically the best possible. Then one day Ramon took hold of me and said, ‘You’re a Caribbean person, you have a different experience, you have a different way of hearing rhythm. You have to discover your language.’ That was actually the first time that somebody had, one, pointed this out to me, and two, pointed it out in a way that made me realise it was something to be valued.

”Those expecting to hear in Le Gendre’s music a trivial blend of Caribbean and classical forms, however, are apt to be disappointed. While infused with a Caribbean spirit, Le Gendre’s compositions are very much classical in tone and structure.

Le Gendre never ended up attending the Paris Conservatory. Her career took a different turn as she began writing music for films. In 1987, she was invited to write the music for a children’s play at the Theatre of Black Women in the UK, and ended up moving from Paris to London, where she worked as a composer for radio drama at the BBC as well as for television and dance. Then came the dream gig: a four-year commission from Arkangel Productions to score an audio series of all 38 of Shakespeare’s plays. Her work on this project received rave reviews in the British press.

For Le Gendre, the Arkangel experience raised the bar. “It seemed to me that the direction I wanted to go was into a field that would marry drama with music, but where the music would be the most important and where I would be exchanging with professional musicians in a professional atmosphere. Opera was the most obvious choice.”

Le Gendre came up with a few ideas for operas and started pitching them to various organisations, which led to her involvement with Nitro, the black theatre company whose “Nitro at the Opera” festival has become one of the symbols of the ROH’s commitment to diversity and innovation. Le Gendre’s contribution to the Nitro show was in fact a fifteen-minute version of Bird of Night. After the work was performed at the Linbury Studio Theatre in 2005, the ROH invited Le Gendre to join their roster of associate artists. “They asked me what sort of work I’d like to write first, and I said I’d like to start first with a chamber opera, if you don’t mind. Manageable size for me. It’s going to be long — about two and a half hours — but at least not yet on the big stage.”

Bird of Night is based on “Les Volants”, a story taken from Contes et Légendes des Antilles, a book of French West Indian folk tales. The libretto for the full-length version is by Paul Bentley, and the October premiere, directed by Irina Brown, will feature Betsabée Haas in the role of the tragic heroine Apolline; Paul Wheelan and Jacqueline Murray as Apolline’s parents Ti-Jo and Justine; Andrea Baker as Apolline’s godmother Nenen; and Richard Coxon and Liora Grodnikaite as Diego and Desireé, the glamourous couple who lead Apolline astray.

Tales of the Islands, which sets to music five of the ten poems in Derek Walcott’s sonnet sequence by the same name, premiered at the Linbury in April 2005. The Port of Spain premiere of Tales will feature the ROH soloists led by Peter Manning; along with Le Gendre, they will participate in workshops while in Port of Spain. A short by filmmaker Sophie Meyer is also scheduled to be part of the suite’s premiere at Queen’s Hall.