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Stephen Oliver

Born: 1950

Died: 1992

Nationality: British

Publisher: Novello & Co

Photo © Christopher Lloyd


Stephen Oliver was one of the foremost British composers of opera and music theatre of his generation. Born in 1950, he was already composing at a phenomenal rate while still a boy. In 1968 he read music at Oxford where his teachers were Kenneth Leighton and Robert Sherlaw Johnson. Three years later, while still at Oxford, his large-scale opera The Duchess of Malfi (1971) was staged at the university theatre, an event which effectively launched his career. For most of his life Stephen Oliver was able to live as a full-time composer, creating a vast catalogue of works, including incidental music for over fifteen productions by the Royal Shakespeare Company, the West End musical Blondel (1983), to a libretto by Sir Tim Rice, and well over forty operas. Many of these were written to special commission from the Batignano Festival in Tuscany, Italy.

His television music includes scores for the BBC Shakespeare series produced by Jonathan Miller, the thirteen-part Camera series for Granada TV and a four-part drama series for the BBC. In 1982 he wrote and presented a series for London Weekend Television called Understanding Opera. His catalogue also contains works for instrumental and chamber ensembles, notably the series of Ricercare 1-5 (1973-1986).

Theatre is at the heart of Stephen Oliver's thinking and opera central to a view of his work. The range of what he termed 'opera' is enormous: from musicals such as Blondel (1983) and Jacko's Play (1979) to the full-scale-operas Tom Jones (1975) and Beauty and the Beast (1984). Some of his works are in the self-styled category of 'mini-operas' lasting under thirty minutes. Bad Times (1975), written for baritone and string quartet, lasts twenty minutes, whilst The Duchess of Malfi (1971) requires a full cast of 5 principal singers (plus 8 minor roles), chorus and orchestra. The Duchess of Malfi has a duration of two and a quarter hours; The Girl and the Unicorn (1978) has flexible orchestration for amateur players, but Commuting (1986) is a wordless sketch for four unaccompanied male voices "and one other". Oliver's brilliant composing career culminated in the world première of Timon of Athens by English National Opera in 1991. This final opera was described by the composer himself as the work he was "made to write".

Stephen Oliver died on 29 April 1992.
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