I first encountered Charlotte Perkins Gilman's short story, 'The Yellow Wallpaper' in 1981 when staying with a composer who was considering setting the piece as an opera. Many people have been drawn to this text over the years and I have discovered that it's been the starting point for many operas, dance pieces and animated films. I think it's a text that resonates with people as the experience in the text is semi-autobiographical and has the deeply personal charge of that running through it. It feels lived and it's very easy to empathise with the sense of alienation and helplessness that the main protagonist experiences.
When the BBC NOW (with whom, at the time of writing, I am Composer in Association) asked for the final piece for the residency, I leapt at the opportunity to finally deal with this text that had haunted me for 30 years. I invited David Harsent to come up with a text to set for a reduced orchestra with small chorus and solo soprano, who would play the main protagonist. I felt that it needed to be a dramatic scena in about 9 scenes where the orchestration changes from scene to scene. In the story, the woman can never get a handle on the actual design of the paper and so I felt the orchestration should reflect that in some way; there are few tuttis in the piece in any case. The orchestra is made up of six winds, four brass, timps and three other percussionists, celesta, piano, harp, first and second violins and basses. The three sopranos and three altos are positioned in amongst the strings randomly.
The piece lasts approximately 30' and follows the inexorable trajectory of the story, where the soprano solo's personality unravels as she tries to come to terms with what appears to be a manifestation of her inner turmoil, trapped behind the pattern of the wallpaper.
(c) Simon Holt, March 2012
Preview the score: