Caro Meets Musicals & Opera Interview

Philip Hagemann: The Aspern Papers

By | Published on Friday 15 April 2022

I’m always interested in hearing from Pegasus Opera – the London-based opera company that champions harmony in diversity by offering opportunities to artists of African and Asian heritage in the UK – because their output is always so interesting.

Their latest production is just as appealing as I’d expect: an operatic adaptation by longtime Pegasus collaborator Philip Hagemann of Henry James novella ‘The Aspern Papers’. It’s a co-production with Hagemann’s own company Hagemann Rosenthal Associates.

I was really keen to find out more about the show, and its creator’s relationship with the company, so I arranged a quick chat with the composer ahead of this week’s performances. 

CM: Can you start by telling us what story ‘The Aspern Papers’ tells?
PH: The opera is based on a novella by the American writer Henry James and takes place in 1888. It is a story of a man who is obsessed with the private writings of a long time dead poet, Jeffrey Aspern.

It is discovered that the poet’s last lover is alive in Venice and has his private writings in her villa. To obtain these, our character has to seduce the old woman’s niece.

Ultimately, she offers him marriage and then the writings will be his. He cannot marry her and leaves. The niece then destroys the writings and moves on with her life.

CM: What themes are explored through it?
PH: The main theme is the power of obsession and how this propels a person to use all means, whether achievable or not, to obtain what he desires. In this case, he uses the deception of his romantic interest in the niece to obtain the writings. She believed him but his ruse fell through when he could not commit to marriage, that being a sexual relationship.

CM: Why did you want to create an opera based on this novella?
PH: I had read some of Leon Edel’s biography of Henry James and read some of James’s novellas. I found that ‘The Aspern Papers’ had the ingredients of a good libretto with several vivid characters who are in conflict with each other and a very dramatic ending. 

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the creative process involved in creating an opera based on a literary work?
PH: As with most conversions of novels to stage, I compressed the story to its essence, eliminating subsidiary characters. As the novella had limited dialogue in itself, I had to create dialogue for the piece, keeping the core befitting each character’s profile. 

CM: Can you tell us about the singers who will be performing the opera?
PH: These are talented singers who are affiliated with Pegasus and I am pleased that they are available for this project. There’s the wonderful Alison Buchanan, of course, who plays Tina, and is also the Artistic Director of Pegasus Opera Company.

‘The Aspern Papers’ also stars Jacob Bettinelli, a bass baritone originally from Hong Kong; Lauren Easton, an Australian/Mauritian mezzo soprano who started her career ten years ago at Glyndebourne Festival; plus Melody Compton, Oscar Castellino, Monwabisi Lindi and Julia Daramy-Williams. Legendary Tenor Ronald Samm also stars. 

CM: Why are you not going to be conducting the opera yourself?
PH: I have troublesome arthritis in my right shoulder and could not conduct for any length of time as it becomes very painful. Luckily Jan Rautio is a very talented young man. I have been in rehearsals and I’m excited to see my work come to life.

CM: You have done quite a lot of work with Pegasus – how did your relationship with the company develop?
PH: I met Alison Buchanan in Wexford, Ireland, in 2000 and developed a good friendship with her. When she became Artistic Director of Pegasus, a mutually beneficial relationship developed. The outcome is better than I could have ever envisioned. 

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the shows you produce with Hagemann Rosenthal Associates?
PH: I formed a partnership with Murray Rosenthal twenty five years ago for the purpose of investing in and producing theatre. During the last twelve years, we have won Tony Awards for three Broadway shows and one Olivier Award. Our last producing show was ‘Network’ on Broadway. Now that COVID seems to be receding, we are beginning to invest in theatre again. Our latest is the revival of ‘Funny Girl’ on Broadway. 

CM: What aims and plans do you have for the future?
PH: I have an idea for another one-act opera but I’m keeping it a secret for now. But watch this space and we will be making a big announcement as soon as we can. 

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this?
PH: We’re not sure but we have plans for the future. Pegasus have launched a talent agency, an opera mentoring programme and have an exciting show about Windrush coming up, so keep up to date on their website.

‘The Aspern Papers’ is on at the Susie Sainsbury Theatre at the Royal Academy Of Music, from 22-24 Apr. Book your tickets here.