On a remarkably gloomy autumn weekend, I travelled to Brondesbury in northwest London to visit Queen’s Park Junior Singers, and their production of Malcolm Williamson’s opera The Happy Prince. I left in an atmosphere of radiance, particularly uplifted by the opera’s beautiful final chorus, and declaring (this doesn’t often happen) that I would gladly at that moment hear the whole opera through again.
Williamson wrote this 45-minute version of Oscar Wilde’s story in the 1960s, including the clear, easily understood libretto. The music flows irrepressibly; at the beginning I expected it would sound a bit like Britten,whose example in Noye’s Fludde inspired Williamson, but it really didn’t. If I had to describe the soundworld it would be (faintly) French, from Messiaen backwards to Fauré. There are considerable chorus parts, rhythmically challenging (in a good way) for primary school age singers, and delivered with great aplomb in this production. The main character, a statue who remains motionless until the end when he falls over, might seem to present difficulty onstage; in fact the opera cleverly unifies itself around this enigmatic figure. The smaller roles have great clarity – I particularly enjoyed the Author hopelessly chasing a deadline in his freezing garret.
This fine production had two remarkable links to the composer himself, at present undeservedly overlooked by the musical world. The effective 4-piece orchestra was led by Antony Gray, who has recorded Williamson’s complete piano solo music and would have been the dedicatee of his Fifth Piano Concerto, had the composer not died only seven bars in. And Williamson’s son Peter lives close to the venue, Queen’s Park Community School; Musical Director Mary Phillips read out a touching statement from him, saying that his father had cared nothing about his musical reputation, but only hoped that his music would continue to be performed. An illuminating thought as we stepped back into the London murk.