Tippett Pours Drama into Music

Briton is visiting US for the debut of his fifth opera and a retrospective. MUSIC: COMPOSER

COMPOSER Sir Michael Tippett settles himself into a folding chair, while a student singer, standing nervously before him in a small recital hall, clears his throat. Seconds before the young tenor launches into the agony-filled wails that open Mr. Tippett's ``Songs For Dov,'' the composer blurts out this advice: ``This is a dramatic story. You're an actor!'' he exclaims, stretching his slender, expressive hands toward the student. ``When you cry, it's a cry about what's happened everywhere - it's about what's happened in San Francisco! ... Just tell me the story!''

Tippett is concerned with telling musical stories. Whether with aspiring students at the New England Conservatory (NEC) here, or in Houston tonight, where the British composer's fifth opera will receive its world premi`ere, his music connects with human experience, feelings, and dreams.

``I'm an imaginator,'' he said, over lunch last week. He admires Puccini, who in ``Madama Butterfly'' took a ``rather crude magazine story'' and turned it into ``extraordinary poetry.''

Tippett fans around the world eagerly await the Houston Grand Opera production of ``New Year,'' conducted by John DeMain and directed by Sir Peter Hall. One of the world's most acclaimed living composers, Tippett is known for creating music that is visionary and individual - yet highly accessible.

``He's a man of the theater,'' says composer John Heiss, coordinator of NEC's retrospective of Tibbett's music last week. ``Opera and dramatic surprise are his forte. ... Every work is about some kind of struggle for human sensitivity to triumph over adversity. That's why it has such wide appeal,'' Mr. Heiss says.

At age 85, Tippett is considered by many to be in the prime of his compositional life, which began about 50 years ago. The opera ``New Year'' comes on the heels of his choral work ``The Mask of Time'' (premi`ered in 1984) and his Fourth Piano Sonata (premi`ered in '85).

``New Year,'' which will travel to the Glyndebourne Festival in England after Houston, involves two sets of characters from ``Somewhere Today'' and ``Nowhere Tomorrow,'' who arrive and depart by means of time travel. Computers, videocassettes, and space ships are among the contemporary images. The score that accompanies Tippett's own libretto draws upon such idioms as jazz, theater music, rap, and reggae.

``We aren't talking about a mainstream commodity,'' says David Gockley, general director of the Grand Opera. ``We're looking at a very iconoclastic theater artist. [``New Year''] is going to be very surprising to people who do not know Tippett's work.''

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