havanaI’m currently a third of the way through (and enjoying) the biography Malcolm Williamson: A Mischievous Muse by Anthony Meredith and Paul Harris. Williamson was born in 1931 and died in 2003. So far, it’s covered his early years in Sydney and his early (and very drunkard) time in London up until his marriage in 1960, which seemed to reform him almost instantly. There followed a very productive period of composition – I’ve reached 1966. The biggest impact in those years came from the opera Our Man in Havana, premiered on 2 July 1963 at Sadler’s Wells. A rare foray for opera into contemporary literature, Havana was generally well received. However, there were only five initial performances, followed by three more in 1964 and a live BBC broadcast on June 30 1964. As Sadler’s Wells typically relied on non-specialist audiences, it couldn’t afford a long run.

Its neglect since, including the lack of any recording, is hard to understand. There have been two London revivals, the first at the Cochrane Theatre in 1987 and the second at the Greenwich Theatre in 2004 – though both were college performances. Most of the initial reviews praised the boldness and skill by which Williamson fused various elements together – popular and serious, comedy and tragedy – and handled the contemporary themes. Although approaching the musical in terms of its directness of communication, the two hour work is undeniably an opera. As in many of his other compositions, Williamson incorporated seemingly incompatible musical styles in the same piece – Cuban habanera and European dances with serial influences from Berg and neo-classicism from Stravinsky. Inevitably, it occasionally also brings Bernstein to mind.

The Cuban dance elements come out in the scenes set in Havana’s “Wonder Bar” and are reflected in the freely adapted orchestral suite Williamson extracted – now pretty much the only accessible material from the opera. The musical contrasts are in evidence even within the suite. Particularly suave, and by far the lightest movement, is the Serenade, which famously provoked a conga line in the audience at the Last Night of the Proms in 1976. It evokes the kind of music used in many an espionage thriller during the 1960s, and many judged it would have been more effective than the actual music used in the film of Graham Greene’s novel, which had come out five years earlier. Greene himself approved of the opera. And Malcolm Williamson went on to write another opera based on a contemporary novel – The Violins of Saint-Jacques based on the book by Patrick Leigh Fermor.

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