Emily Hall and writer Sjón lead us on a journey through love and shared delusion this summer in Folie à Deux. To find out more about the words that Emily’s set, we asked him about the texts he’s written.
‘I wrote it in my small cottage on the south coast of Iceland in the winter darkness. That helped.’
One day I got an email from Emily Hall and she asked me if I was interested in writing a new opera. And I said yes.
She told me about the concept, folie à deux, a madness shared by two, and that she was already exploring ideas for the madness. I’m all for madness, so I felt secure in taking part.
In the beginning, we were working with insects as the route of the madness, and there were several attempts at making it work, but it always became too disgusting too soon. So we started looking at other possibilities. Emily was quite adamant that the opera wouldn’t be about disgusting things, and that pushed us towards the surprising solution of making the man’s mania beautiful.
The man is getting beautiful messages… from a pylon. Why a pylon? Well, the idea for a pylon to be the object of fascination came because we were in Suffolk for a big creative meeting. One day we took a walk on the beach and in the distance we saw these amazing towers, these fantastic pylons. So, they were there and we took them!
We really had to work very fast and very intensely. We only had four days to brainstorm and workshop and come up with both the subject matter and the structure. We had to agree on what this thing should be. We were very lucky that we already had ‘folie à deux’ as the main frame. This madness has very definite stages; one person starts going mad, the other person rejects the madness, then gets pulled into it. So that became, more or less, the structure of the opera.
For me it was a big challenge to write the libretto, because Emily wanted this to be first a concept album, and then an opera. My challenge was to write lyrics which would tell the story in six songs. I have written librettos before where you have dialogue, communication between the characters, scene descriptions. But in this case, just six songs and together they had to tell the story. And that was difficult.
So, I left the workshop at the beginning of December 2013, and I think I delivered the libretto at the end of January. I had to work quite fast, in my small cottage on the south coast of Iceland in the winter darkness. That helped.
I think the audience are going to be surprised because when you go to an opera about madness, people expect it to be crazy and manic. That there will be screaming and pulling of hair, rolling on the floor and all that. But its so gentle, because its really about the sadness that is so often the result of mental illness.