When She Died… (2002)

For Solo Voices and Orchestra   50 minutes

When Princess Diana died in a car accident in 1997 there was a quite astonishing public reaction in Britain – an outpouring of grief on an unprecedented scale.  I personally did not share this general feeling of grief.  I thought it was sad that the Princess had died in this way, but I had experienced real grief in the past for people very close to me who had died too young, and I felt nothing like this for Diana.

I was mystified by the extreme way in which so many people were behaving.  Were they releasing feelings about some other death, one they had previously been unable to mourn?  How had they become so involved with this celebrity?  What did they see in her?  What did she mean to them?

Two years later I watched my opera Flight being televised by Channel 4, and was fascinated by the power of the close-up: you could see emotion on the singer’s face far more clearly than was ever possible in the opera-house.  Channel 4 invited me to write a piece specifically for television, and introduced me to director Rupert Edwards.  Rupert suggested we break away from the convention that television operas are chamber pieces, and take on a large subject.  It occurred to me that the death of Princess Diana was a perfect subject for a television opera, since her life had been lived so much in the media gaze, and the public knew her especially through television.

We needed a particular combination of skills in our librettist. David Harsent is a poet who has written opera libretti for Sir Harrison Birtwistle and has also worked in television.

David created a number of characters who relate to Diana in different ways.  Doris and Dennis are an ordinary couple attempting to make the journey to London to pay their last respects to the Princess.  For Annie, the idea of a mother burying her daughter re-awakens grief for her own dead child.  Ryan suffers from de Clerambault’s syndrome (a condition that causes the sufferer to believe an inaccessible celebrity – in this case, Diana – to be in love with him) and pays a Diana look-alike to take part in a sin-eating ritual. He believes that, by eating bread, salt and water from the naked body of the Diana-double, he will take on the burden of the Princess’s sins and enable her to rest in peace.

Among the mourners in Kensington Gardens, Doris and Dennis encounter Ryan, Annie, Annie’s husband Geoff and her sister Jane.  A Homeless Man observes and comments upon the action.

Libretto by David Harsent

Commissioned by Channel 4 to commemorate the 5th anniversary of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales

First performance: 25th August 2002, Channel 4.

Instrumentation

2S.2Mez.T.2Bar.Bass Bar Soli

2(I/II=Picc.).2.2.1—2.2.2.1(CBsn)—Hp—Pf(Cel)—2Perc—Str(2.2.2.2.2)