Simon Mayo on Transforming ‘Itch’ into an Explosive Opera, Redefining Musical Magic

ByQuyen Anne

Jul 20, 2023

With an aria to the periodic table and a hero dying of radiation sickness, the broadcaster’s YA novel has been transformed into an operatic thriller

‘Mozart didn’t have explosions’: Simon Mayo on how his book Itch became an opera

With an aria to the periodic table and a hero dying of radiation sickness, the broadcaster’s YA novel has been transformed into an operatic thriller

The first proper interview I ever conducted was with the late John Wells. The satirist was in the West End performing his Denis Thatcher routine in the smash hit Anyone for Denis? But the subject of our conversation was not the husband of the then prime minister, nothing to do with the UK, nor in fact anything from the 20th century at all. Instead we discussed the events of 1778 and how watchmaker, arms dealer and spy Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais had come to write The Marriage of Figaro.

It was a sequel to his 1773 play Barber of Seville and Wells had written a new English translation. He explained that now, if a book or play was a huge success, it became a movie. In the 18th century, it would become an opera. Mozart delivered Figaro in 1786; 30 years later Rossini wrote The Barber of Seville. It was easy to see why Wells would have wanted to tackle Figaro. The play viciously skewers the aristocracy. Napoleon Bonaparte said it was “the Revolution already put into action”. It was a dangerous success.

From a book to an opera. I’d never heard of such a thing. But on Saturday at Opera Holland Park, it will be happening again. This time there will be no “droit de seigneur”, no political ramifications and no uncomfortable stirrings in the corridors of power. Instead there will be explosions, radiation poisoning and a very large periodic table of the elements. I know this because it is my book.

‘From a book to an opera. I’d never heard of such a thing’ … Simon Mayo.
‘From a book to an opera. I’d never heard of such a thing’ … Simon Mayo. Photograph: Richard Saker/The Observer

Itch was published in 2012 and is the story of a teenager in Cornwall called Itchingham Lofte. He considers himself an element hunter – someone who has set out to collect the 118 elements on the periodic table. He knows this is impossible as some are very rare, some are very illegal and others can only be created under lab conditions. But he is serious in his quest. One day his element “dealer”, a hipster called Cake, supplies him with a mysterious rock which appears warm to the touch. It sends his science teacher’s geiger counter into a meltdown and soon everyone wants Itch and his extraordinary rock.

Itch was only ever intended for an audience of one, my son Joe. At school he was not interested in football, nor music, just science. So, much to my surprise, I decided to write him a short story. Ninety thousand words later, I printed it off on our sickly printer (it died soon after) and presented my work. He pronounced it “quite good” (high praise) and so I wondered if it might have a life somewhere else.

Three books and a television series later, the answer seems to be yes. Itch’s latest operatic form is due to the head of Opera Holland Park, James Clutton. He read the book on holiday (alongside, I’m sure, many more intellectual tomes) and decided to commission a new opera. He approached Jonathan Dove to compose the music and Alasdair Middleton to write the libretto. The result is (and you can trust me on this) astonishing. An opera that is a thriller is a rare beast. It is not a children’s opera but it is an opera for families, for everyone.

I am as surprised as anyone that this has happened. How does a book aimed at 10 to 14-year-olds become an opera? As ever, talking to experts held the secret. My story concludes with our hero deciding to put the radioactive rock (now analysed as being a new element) back in the earth. The deepest place he can find is the Woodingdean Well in Sussex, the deepest hand-dug well in the world – as deep as the Empire State Building is tall. In the well he is overcome with radiation sickness and rescued by his father, a man with many secrets. Jonathan Dove asked if I had seen Wagner’s Ring Cycle (no) or maybe the Lord of the Rings films (yes). The penny was beginning its descent. If a father rescuing his dying son from the bowels of the earth isn’t operatic, explained the patient Mr Dove, he didn’t know what was.

Rehearsals for Itch, with (left to right)Natasha Agarwal (Jack Lofte), director Stephen Barlow, designer Frankie Bradshaw, and Adam Temple-Smith (Itch)
Rehearsals for Itch, with (left to right)
Natasha Agarwal (Jack Lofte), director Stephen Barlow, associate director Louise Bakker and Adam Temple-Smith (Itch)
 Photograph: Laima Arlauskaite

It is a strange but thrilling experience to witness your characters brought to a life in a way that you never imagined possible. My only steer to the team was that my original intention was to create a story where the magic was real science. For my hero, the periodic table takes on the significance of a religious icon. When life gets stressful (and it does, often) he finds his sense of place and order by sitting in front of his table of elements poster.

In the title role, tenor Adam Temple-Smith sings, I believe, opera’s first ever love song to a wall chart. There is also a brand new sound, created by Dove. He reasoned that Itch’s discovery, element 126, deserved its own place in the orchestra’s repertoire of sounds. I could describe it here but that would be a spoiler – you really should experience it yourself. It is fantastical and magical of course, but again the magic is real.

Wagner tells his story in 18 hours; we manage it in one hour 40. It might not be another Marriage of Figaro, but Mozart didn’t have explosions.

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