His operas are the expression of an impulse: they were by no means all commissioned; several remain unperformed. Stephen almost always made his own librettos and was endlessly inventive in dramatic technique; in imagining new ways stories might be told in song, and coming up with arresting combinations of instruments to accompany them.
In Beauty and the Beast (1984) the characters narrate themselves almost throughout, so that the sense of magic and fable is all-pervasive, while the orchestration is conceived so that the instrumentalists can lead the audience on a journey around the landscape. In A Man of Feeling (1980), accompanied only with piano, one of the two singers plays many roles, including 24 doctors. In Tables Meet (1990), the orchestra is reduced to a tray of pitched wine-glasses, and the various indiscretions of eighteen diners in a restaurant bloom into a rich vocal polyphony. Stephen understood better than anyone how the slightest sound can have an impact on stage. A hum or a sigh or an ‘ah’ can be surprisingly eloquent when dramatically placed. In two a cappella operas, The Waiter’s Revenge (1976) and Commuting (1986), he was able to dispense with words altogether, and conjure up an engaging story using only abstract sounds and vocalisation (and no orchestra at all). With such a gift for musical storytelling, he could hold an audience spellbound even though the notes themselves were not always easy to perform, nor likely to be hummed by the listeners on their way home. His last completed work, Cinderella, was a catchy ten-minute opera for television on the subject of Sloth, in which Cinderella is too lazy to go to the ball, and so escapes the fate of her sisters, who are blown up by an anarchist. In a delightful twist, the adult actors on the screen are heard to sing with children’s voices.
Musica bel Chiostro, the annual opera festival in Batignano, was a fertile source of inspiration. Beauty and the Beast, written for the festival’s tenth anniversary, was preceded by The Garden (1977), a murder-mystery for two singers, lute and viola da gamba; and Euridice (1981), a re-imagining of the earliest surviving opera, retaining Peri’s original vocal lines but with new accompanying textures, harmonies and instrumental colours – first seen in London, and presented posthumously in Batignano in 1992. In 1989 came Mario and the Magician, a dark allegory of the rise of fascism based on Thomas Mann’s novella. In tonight’s opera, L’Oca del Cairo (1991), Stephen wove a tormented farce through existing Mozart fragments, brilliantly setting up the earlier music without compromising his own style.
Stephen’s last full-length opera, Timon of Athens (1991), has the character of a summation. In writing it, he drew widely from his own previous work, notably from his religious cantata, The Vessel (1990), and the secular cantata Prometheus (1988). This last work had released a new tone in his music, robust, pagan, and harmonically generous. In Timon, this was fused with the nervously melancholic lyricism of his earlier operas, achieving a mellow depth that makes one long to know what he might have written had he lived.
Timon was written in the shadow of the knowledge of his own mortality. In a sense, it is a dramatic meditation on God, on what lies beyond the limits of man’s dealings with man. The story of a man who gives all his riches to his friends, Timon was a peculiarly appropriate subject for Stephen, who gave freely of money, time and thought to all who knew him.