Nico Muhly In search of Marnie

Brit­tle, bul­lied and black­mailed into mar­riage, the hero­ine in­spired a Hitch­cock clas­sic and now a new opera. Com­poser un­rav­els a dark tale of child­hood trauma, toxic guilt and a woman who is both hunter and hunted

The Guardian - Review - - Arts - ENO per­forms Marnie at the Coli­seum, London WC2N, from 18 Novem­ber.

Marnie screams for an op­er­atic treat­ment. First pub­lished in 1961, Win­ston Gra­ham’s psy­cho­log­i­cal thriller fea­tures a woman nav­i­gat­ing a world of men with murky mo­ti­va­tions, a woman who dis­cov­ers her own com­pli­cated emo­tional land­scape while ly­ing about it to those around her. Marnie swaps iden­ti­ties as freely as she changes hair­styles, em­bez­zles from her em­ploy­ers and avoids in­ti­macy at all costs. Rather than send her to jail, one em­ployer, in­trigued by this com­plex and brit­tle woman, black­mails her into a mar­riage and bul­lies her into sexual re­la­tions she finds re­pel­lent. Add in a mother com­plex and toxic guilt over a trau­matic child­hood in­ci­dent that has been buried deep and you have an ex­plo­sive story that not sur­pris­ingly at­tracted Al­fred Hitch­cock’s at­ten­tion and be­came the ba­sis of his 1964 film.

When direc­tor Michael Mayer called me to sug­gest it would make a fab­u­lous opera, my mind raced first to the Hitch­cock adap­ta­tion. Strangely, though, I had just started dip­ping my toe into Gra­ham’s nov­els. Michael and I asked Ni­cholas Wright to take on the li­bretto, and he said he had just read Gra­ham’s novel him­self. Then, not long there­after, the se­ri­al­i­sa­tion of Gra­ham’s Poldark nov­els be­gan on the BBC. Clearly some­thing was in the air.

In so many ways, Marnie re­minded me of Mélisande, whose first line in De­bussy’s opera Pel­léas et Mélisande is: “Ne me touchez pas!” – don’t touch me. When her fu­ture hus­band in­ter­ro­gates her, she de­clares that “ev­ery­one” has hurt her, and that she can­not tell him in which ways. That sort of in­tense emo­tional am­bi­gu­ity has al­ways moved me deeply.

The three of us quickly agreed to fo­cus on the book and all the sub­tleties and nu­ances that are miss­ing from the movie, which cut or con­sol­i­dated char­ac­ters, changed lo­ca­tions and sim­pli­fied plot­lines. Nick cre­ated a lean, el­e­gant li­bretto that pre­serves the lech­er­ous and flash an­tag­o­nist Terry, Mark’s brother (played by a coun­tertenor) and pro­vides a greyer, more sub­tle fi­nal scene, with Marnie fac­ing a far from happy end­ing. The ac­tion, too, has been re­stored to London and Buck­ing­hamshire, al­low­ing a more true-to-the-text read­ing of the var­i­ous class-based anx­i­eties Gra­ham de­ployed in the novel.

As I write this, ever more ac­cu­sa­tions of sexual harassment swirl around both Hol­ly­wood and the UK. A year ago, a tape was re­leased of Don­ald Trump boast­ing that women “let” him “grab them by the pussy”. Not long after that, while I was in the mid­dle of writ­ing the sec­ond act, Tippi He­dren pub­lished an au­to­bi­og­ra­phy stat­ing that dur­ing the filming of Marnie, Hitch­cock had sex­u­ally as­saulted her.

One of the most dif­fi­cult el­e­ments in Marnie is an act of sexual vi­o­lence com­mit­ted against her by her hus­band, Mark. Gra­ham’s novel walks a ra­zor’s edge here, and Nick’s li­bretto fol­lows suit. No char­ac­ter is un­am­bigu­ously good or bad; ev­ery­one hides or de­nies their true selves. Marnie is both hunter and hunted.

A huge mu­si­cal chal­lenge lay ahead: how to cre­ate an obliquely men­ac­ing at­mos­phere with­out re­vert­ing to Jekyll/Hyde or Madonna/Whore car­i­ca­tures. I wanted to use mu­sic to in­di­cate each char­ac­ter’s hid­den in­ten­tions. A sim­ple in­vi­ta­tion to a poker game, a stan­dard oc­cur­rence in a 1950s work­place, can be­come much more lay­ered with the help of an orches­tra. What im­me­di­ately be­came clear was that each prin­ci­pal char­ac­ter had to be “twinned” with an in­stru­ment: with few ex­cep­tions, no­body ac­tu­ally tells the truth in the show, and in­di­vid­ual in­stru­ments vy­ing for po­si­tion can re­in­force the cham­ber mu­sic-like tug­ging between var­i­ous de­ceits and agen­das. For in­stance, when Marnie senses trou­ble, she can sing the ca­sual phrases re­quired of her, chip­per and prac­ti­cal – whereas in the pit, the solo oboe tells us that she is try­ing to find a way out as quickly as pos­si­ble.

In the sec­ond act, Marnie un­der­goes sev­eral ses­sions with a psy­chi­a­trist. I’ve long wanted to write such a scene, but the ac­tual phys­i­cal busi­ness of anal­y­sis is ter­ri­bly unthe­atri­cal. So we cre­ated a quar­tet of body doubles for Marnie, mean­ing she could oc­cupy the an­a­lyst’s couch while an­other ac­tor fleshes out her story. This also solved an­other prob­lem: how to take ad­van­tage of the won­der­ful ENO cho­rus in a way that doesn’t al­ways re­duce them to gang-like an­tag­o­nism or gossip. Our cho­rus is freer to be­come a weather sys­tem in flux: here, of­fice work­ers and typ­ists; there, float­ing nar­ra­tors of­fer­ing com­ment on the na­ture of guilt.

The four Marnie doubles (who are called Shadow Marnies in the score, but are re­ferred to by all as the Mar­nettes) ex­ist as an all-fe­male bar­ber­shop quar­tet, sur­round­ing Marnie at times, rep­re­sent­ing not just her anx­i­eties and her mul­ti­fac­eted na­ture but also her cop­ing mech­a­nisms. They sing in an early mu­sic style, with very lit­tle vi­brato, and the score ob­sesses over the close in­ter­vals that cut through the larger vo­cal tex­tures. The ef­fect should be as if her in­ner mono­logue is ac­tu­ally a warped record­ing of the Tal­lis Schol­ars singing a sin­gle chord from an ob­scure Tu­dor motet.

Mean­while we all agreed – com­poser, li­bret­tist, direc­tor, stage and cos­tume de­sign­ers – that the big­gest lo­gis­ti­cal chal­lenge would be stag­ing the fox hunt, which is a cli­mac­tic point in Marnie’s emo­tional jour­ney. It’s si­mul­ta­ne­ously dis­as­trous and some­how free­ing, while be­ing specif­i­cally linked to horses – which ruled out any clever sub­sti­tu­tion with some­thing more prac­ti­cal, such as cars or small kitchen ap­pli­ances.

I had an alarm­ing vi­sion of the cho­rus clack­ing co­conut halves to­gether in an end­less pro­cession across the stage. Mer­ci­fully, Nick re­minded us that Marnie iden­ti­fies with the vixen and then it be­came clear: set the whole thing from the point of view of the hunted. The dreaded co­conuts be­come off-stage drums, op­er­at­ing like dis­tant omi­nous thun­der or undis­tin­guish­able noise. The shouts of the hunters and the bray­ing of the dogs are ab­stracted into a huge cy­cle of piv­ot­ing chords, while what we see is the un­der­sides of hooves, making us feel like we have our ears to the ground.

This is my third opera and I have learned some­thing alarm­ing: no mat­ter how per­fect things seem on the page, it is im­pos­si­ble to gauge im­pact and ef­fi­cacy un­til one lis­tens to the en­tire work sung by hu­man be­ings straight through. I started writ­ing Marnie in my small stu­dio in Kore­atown in New York al­most four years ago, and only re­cently did we all turn up at ENO’s re­hearsal stu­dios in London for our first day. There is noth­ing as touch­ing as see­ing the in­cred­i­ble amount of work so many peo­ple have done based on my scrib­bles: props, the beau­ti­ful set, per­form­ers learn­ing the fiendishly com­pli­cated pi­ano re­duc­tion.

Marnie her­self re­mains elu­sive still. Do we ever know, can we set­tle on, who is a hero and who is a vil­lain? As in real life, is there a bit of each in both Mark and Marnie, played by Daniel Okulitch and Sasha Cooke, who must tease out the im­pos­si­ble bond between their twisted char­ac­ters? In the end, they are just like us: strug­gling to ne­go­ti­ate their best and worst in­stincts, in­clud­ing those they can con­trol – and those they can’t.

ac­ter d enies arnie unted. hal­lenge eate ting p terr M an­othe prob­lem o cho do th an Ou be te w

Main: Sean Con­nery and Tippi He­dren in Marnie (1964); left, film poster; and below left, Nico Muhly

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