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The story behind Push!

by david bruce 

Posted: 04 May 2006
Word Count: 2117
Summary: Push! is an opera that ww founder Anna Reynolds wrote the words for and I wrote the music for (in between bug-fixing here at ww) - Tete a Tete, the company who is producing the show asked me to write a history of the opera's development for the programme note. Thought I'd post it here to see if it could be improved... (for details of the performance see http://www.tete-a-tete.org.uk/push

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It’s funny now to think that Anna and I first met as the crowds gathererd for a previous Tete a Tete show back in February 2002. This was my second operatic excursion, Has it Happened yet? and featured three very old ladies wheeled out to watch a solar eclipse. A mutual friend had brought Anna along and we hit it off straight away. I knew she was a playwright, but at that stage the idea of developing a full, evening-long opera seemed a distant dream. HIHY and Seven Tons of Dung,- my two previous shows for Tete a Tete - were both around 10 mins long, and whilst the idea of a longer show haunted me, it seemed to be so lavish and exciting an idea, as to be something I would have to put on hold until a time when things were going impossibly well.

Anna and I kept in touch and even started working together on our own writers website writewords.org.uk (together with mutual friend Richard), but it was over a year later, in March 2003, before Anna in the course of her research for the website had come across the Genesis Opera Project’s call for entries. Genesis is an organisation looking to help develop new operatic talent and the selected entrants would apparently get the opportunity to write and hear a full operatic work.. Anna dropped me a casual email with the details asking simply :

Of interest to you-- or you/me?


And that was the beginning of Push!



So where to start? An obvious first thing to do was to swap scores and scripts. I gave her the blaring, bell-ringing intro to Dung, and Anna gave me several scripts, including one called “Goodbye Stranger”, which to my delight instantly grabbed me. It had sharp and witty dialogues, which hinted at profound truths without being didactic or preacherly; but perhaps most striking to me was the structure – it was a series of about 30 short scenes, all featuring couples in bed – effectively a series of one-night-stands.

This structure instantly gave us a mutual starting point. What I had enjoyed about the previous Tete a Tete shows was their sketch-like structure which allowed for a huge range of expression in a very audience-friendly way. Put simply, if you didn’t like the current 10-minute segment, something very different would be along shortly.

So the idea for an opera based on a series of short scenes with a common subject or setting, was born. I knew Anna’s idea of a series of one-night-stands was both brilliant and unrepeatable – and we struggled to find an equally compelling subject.

I must admit the idea of a series of births popped into my head quite randomly, but the more we mulled it over, the more it seemed to fit the bill perfectly. As the most dramatic moment in most people’s lives, it seemed extraordinarily operatic and indeed bizarre that there had been no previous birth operas (to our knowledge) – and of course in a way it is the logical outcome of Anna’s previous one-night-stands script!


It’s easy to oversimplify things in retrospect – everything now seems to be a smooth line leading to today – but I think when we finally met the Genesis Opera Project Panel in late Summer 2003 we were still pretty vague about where we were going. I think the one thing the panel did pick up on was how Anna and I had an intuitive understanding of each other - that we were confident that whatever it was, we could pull it together between us. In the operatic world, finding the right match of composer and librettist seems to be one of the biggest challenges and once that’s right, much of the problem is solved.

I do remember we were imagining babies and baby voices quite a bit – far more than we ended up with, and I remember David Poutney asking me how these babies would be presented – perhaps as marionettes? “Yes, more like marionettes” I answered – I didn’t yet really have a clue.


So the panel gave us the go ahead. Anna was to produce the entire libretto and I was to set 20 mins or so to music, for a workshop presentation the following Spring. For me the best thing was there was an unrestricted choice of 13 instruments and 8 singers.

There followed probably the most tense month of the project as Anna produced some initial scenes and we negotiated the tricky foothills of collaboration. This is the stage that projects sometimes fall apart, and it requires diplomacy, tact and above all patience on both sides. Anna was quite new to Opera and I think she initially may have felt intimidated by the sense of the ‘style in which one ought to write for the Opera’- I think she was imagining lots of red plush and horn-helmeted Brunhildas everywhere. I told her to just write the same way she writes for the stage, and I think that was our first breakthrough.

Anna then produced an early draft of what is now the first scene Nimmy. It was a gritty drama featuring a young girl and although I loved the writing, I still felt it hadn’t quite clicked into place yet as an operatic libretto. I sat down with my wife Gosia one day and talked it through, a bit frustrated and not sure what to do next. Gosia suggested it needed to be more fantasitic and colourful. There was some mention of football in the Nimmy scene – “turn it into a football match, get the crowd on stage” she suggested.

I knew this was right, and once I’d communicated this sense of fantasy to Anna the penny dropped. Within a few days she produced Cara, with her three distorted lovers and a birthing pool which turns into an underwater world full of shipwrecks and skeletons; a re-drafted footballing Nimmy; and most spectacularly, Mary, an IVF woman who tells stories to the 5 restless babies in her womb, before some buidlers with chainsaws come in and erect screens around her like a building site. Wow!

But she didn’t stop there. One of my pitches to the Genesis panel had been to continue what we had attempted in Has it Happened Yet? in terms of setting up a witty and light-hearted framework, which then surprisingly became intense and moving. I never wanted to write a straight-forward comedy, and one of the shows Anna and I had both loved – Shock Headed Peter – we both equally felt had lacked an emotional or human core. It was great fun, but so what? We wanted to do something bigger than that.

And on this side of the equation, Anna came up with an incredibly dark scene called “Maddy”, a bleak and desperate depiction of a prisoner chained to her maternity bed; and then the indescribable beauty and heart-ache of “Angela”.

We were now well on our way to a complete libretto, but what we still didn’t quite have was the overall sense of how these scenes would gell into a coherent and meaningful evening, and that would still take some time to find…


We were invited to Aldeburgh in late Autumn 2003 for a chance to hear some actors read through what we had of the libretto. I found the read-throughs very stimulating, as they brought out hidden dramas in the text which I might not otherwise have discovered. One good example of this is that builders entrance I mentioned earlier in “Mary”. Director Will Kerley brought a marvellously manic intensity to the read-throughs, and during Mary’s speech, after the builders have come in, he himself added a rumbling, spluttering background sound effect of the distant chainsaws as Mary spoke. It was exactly the right feeling - Will’s role translated into a deep rumble on the double bass in the full score, but more than that the atmoshpere of a rather placid, spaced-out Mary sitting atop a furnace of mechanical activity was what really inspired the music at that point and I’m very grateful to Will and the actors for finding that.


At the orchestral workshop at Sadlers Wells in Spring 2004 I got to hear 20 mins of my music, setting Cara and Nimmy, as well as some now-deleted linking scenes we attempted with a character called Soozy who was pregnant but not yet in labour.

After the performance there was an open discussion, and one lady in the audience asked why would anyone be interested in an opera about giving birth, what made us choose such a subject? To my surprise I found the answer I had rehearsed in my head about this didn’t sound convincing when I said it out loud, so I knew we still had a bit more work to do in understanding what this opera was really about.

I agonised over the summer of 2004 about this. We already had quite a lot of material but we just hadn’t found a way of tieing it all together and giving it meaning. I looked at various ways in which the question of tieing together a fragmented structure had been handled elsewhere. Anna and I particularly enjoyed the film Magnolia, whose series of fragmented scenes get drawn together by a bizarre storm of raining frogs which stops everyone dead in their tracks and in ways I can’t fathom provides a satisfying sense of conclusion. Patrick Dickie at Almeida also suggested the play Angels in America, which I loved; but on reflection both of these seemed more intricate objects than our five or six big scenes.


In late summer 2004 I awoke to the realisation that what I had hoped to create all along was a Tete a Tete show. I wasn’t yet imaginging Tete a Tete would actually produce it, but in my mind I could see the show needed to have that vivid, life-loving theatricality that Tete a Tete shows exude. This is how the idea of cleaners in the maternity ward arrived – it seemed a way of keeping the wit and theatre in the piece and preventing it from becoming too ‘worthy’.

Anna wrote some perfect little cleaner sketches, including a first one with no dialogue at all - just the off-stage screams from the labouring mothers. It felt right.

But we still hadn’t sorted the final scene, and even the order of the scenes seemed to fluctuate.

Enter Bill Bankes Jones, director of Tete a Tete and my librettist on both the previous mini-operas. Bill had come along to the Sadlers Wells performace and had expressed an interest in directing Push! and possibly even getting Tete a Tete involved to producing the final show.

Out of his repository of theatrical knowledge Bill dredged a little-known musical from the 80s about four women at Greenham Common , one of whom gives birth at the end of the show. The script reads as a straight-forward, almost prosaic description of the progress of the birth, and culminates, hilariously, in a jolly cabaret song full of crescendoing “oooos” There was something about the simplicity and directness of that birthing scene that really appealed to me. I realised our final scene should present birth ‘as it is’, without the fantasy, a normal woman giving birth in a normal way, in all its normal extraordinariness. Our new cleaner seemed the inescapable candidate for the role.

One final twist Bill helped with was in the placing of the Angela scene. The scene is so traumatic that it seemed very hard to find a place for. Bill suggested it had to be the penultimate scene, so that the highlight and joy of the final birth scene follows directly on from the woman who most wants a baby but can’t have it. It’s a brilliant dramatic payoff and heightens the reward of the final scene.


By now I felt I had finally found the real answer to the question that woman from the Sadlers Wells audience had asked. Why pick this subject, why should anyone come and see it? I was clear now that this piece was above all else a celebration of the sheer power and life-force bound up in every labouring mother. Our rather ordinary Cleaner was the heroine, and through her all our other mothers, with all the varying dramas of motherhood, life and death that they represent. It was in short, an unflinching celebration of motherhood and birth.

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Comments by other Members

tinyclanger at 10:46 on 05 May 2006  Report this post
Hi David, Hope you don't mind a poet commenting, very amateurishly, on prose.....

I enjoyed this, think you've got the right mix of elements for some extended programme notes, it would certainly be really interesting for anyone coming to see the show...and indeed for trying to drum up an audience, it made me think Push would me a really good night out, something I'd enjoy seeing.

I think you have a good interplay between the techncial side of putting the piece together and of more 'human-interest' bits such as glimpses of the characters involved in the production - all without telling too much, of course.

Sorry not to be more help suggesting improvements, all I can say is for me this hits the target for its intended audience...can we look forward to more uploads from you?!!

Good luck with the Opera!


Just checked out the Push website - shame its not coming anywhere Up North!

david bruce at 11:22 on 05 May 2006  Report this post
Thanks a lot for reading it TC! Come on, I'm sure it's worth a day trip to London!!

Account Closed at 11:39 on 05 May 2006  Report this post
Hi David

I thought this was a fascinating article showing the honest progress of an idea from conception to fruition. I don't know a fig about contemporary opera, but the tale itself was interesting enough to overcome that, and for a promotional piece, that is essential and clever.

The show does sound rather good. I liked Anna's prior theme of one night stands and it's great to see how that's developed, though admittedly 'an underwater world full of shipwrecks and skeletons' is right up my street!

Great stuff. I think I may be away in France when this is on, but if not, I'll see if I can afford to take a look (things are a little tight!).

Otherwise, a terrific piece of writing, and break a leg!


david bruce at 12:34 on 05 May 2006  Report this post
Thanks - it's very good to know it comes across to people who don't know anything about contemporary opera, as that's exactly the audience the show is hoping to attract. As regards the funding, did I mention you get in free if you come dressed as a nurse (not joking!)

tiger_bright at 12:40 on 05 May 2006  Report this post
I really enjoyed reading this, David. From the first reference to Seven Tons of Dung, I was hooked on finding out what you got up to with this new project and the hurdles you overcame, such as answering that Sadlers Wells question. Push! felt like an apt title for this story, as much as for the opera itself. I liked the dark moments - the chains on the maternity bed - as much as the light. Thanks for posting it.

Nik Perring at 14:40 on 05 May 2006  Report this post
Sounds great, David.

Best of luck with it!


david bruce at 15:53 on 05 May 2006  Report this post
Nik and Tiger -thanks a lot

Zigeroon at 15:39 on 09 May 2006  Report this post
Fabulous idea and the story was captivating for the genisis of the development. Amazing how input comes from different, perhaps unexpected quarters. A sort of extended gestation period to reflect the subject matter!

Will definately try and get along.


david bruce at 12:54 on 12 May 2006  Report this post
Andrew - many thanks. Yes the opportunity for puns on the theme are large indeed!

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