My friend Harvey Brough (www.harveybrough.com) asked me to collaborate with him on a community oratorio for Wantage Parish Church.
I was a bit worried about writing a libretto, never having done such a thing before; but one of the great advantages of collaboration is that you can try things, help each other out, and confess your failings and weaknesses while hoping for something better.
What we came up with was “Into the Light. The Story of Thecla”.
The original source for the story of comes from the apocryphal text Acts of Paul and Thecla, written, in Coptic, in the second century. It’s about a young girl who decides not to follow contemporary secular morality, refuses to marry, and then lives a life of prayer and simplicity. She was, in effect, one of the first women priests.
The aim of the libretto was to find a language that was faithful to traditional parable but also took advantage of the Bible’s eclectic mixture of style and substance. It blends straightforward storytelling with prayer, sacred texts, and popular song. These popular songs are, in a way, our modern psalms. You can get the idea by looking at Scene 4 of the score here (pdf)
I think the power of the story lies in the conflict between the sacred and the profane; between the ways of the world and the way of faith; with children, the future, placed firmly between the differing groups of adults. We used three choral groups, singing in antiphony, to get this effect; secular (very male), sacred (very female) and children.
Since Thecla’s time the world has got louder, faster, and even more brutal as people fight for survival, individual recognition and fifteen minutes of fame. But because so many people want to do this, we have to keep shouting to be heard. The lesson of the story of Thecla is that it doesn't have to be like this. There has to space, amidst all the fever and the fret, for music and for contemplation - however faint and however fragile that might seem. Sometimes we just need to stop. For it’s my belief that music and silence will always last longer, and matter more, than the great din of the world.