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Looking for Peter Grimes

CD cover for Benjamin Britten's opera Peter Grimes

Sometimes something spooky happens when you're writing a story, especially a long story, that tells you it was destined to come into being. I'm not talking about how the pieces of the story fit just right when they fall into place—delightful though that may be, when you have control of the world you're creating, you can make that happen through your own planning and diligence. I'm talking about when something from outside your story's world falls into it and fits just right. That's spooky. For my novel Unequal Temperament, one of those spooky pieces was the opera Peter Grimes.


Of course, I did go looking for Peter Grimes, without knowing what I was looking for. I needed an opera for my characters to rehearse, and opera was not a form of music that I was well schooled in. I'd sung in many choirs, taken voice lessons, and enjoyed hearing soloists sing arias, but I had never had much interest in seeing a full-blown opera production unless I knew one or more of the performers. So my experience of opera and knowledge of the opera repertoire were scant.


Since my protagonist, Morgan, has a day job as a meteorologist, I went looking for an opera with weather. And I wanted it to be a relatively modern opera, so that it would be distant from the baroque music that Morgan loved and from the harpsichord she was avoiding.


I no longer remember the specifics of how I went about this search. I may have found a resource that summarized opera plots, or I may have done online searches with the term opera paired with various weather-related terms, like storm, ice, snow, wind, or rain. However I conducted the search, I soon stumbled upon Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes.


Whether fair or foul, weather is omnipresent in Peter Grimes, which takes place in a fishing village. And the unpredictability of weather—the very problem that a meteorologist is charged with solving—plays a significant role in the precariousness of life for the eponymous 19th-century fisherman. And for his apprentices.


It was the apprentices that first made finding Peter Grimes feel spooky. The title character had a habit of losing his young apprentices. Whether it was murder or bad luck, the issues of responsibility and child neglect fit beautifully with one of Unequal Temperament's subplots and resonated strongly with Morgan's fears about parenthood. It felt like a perfect fit.


And then I listened to the music. I fell in love with it at first hearing, particularly the sublime orchestral interludes that were just made for Morgan's appreciation.


As I incorporated Peter Grimes into the novel, it inspired a number of scenes that were integral to story's preoccupations. It was like pulling a tailor-made suit off the rack. Likewise, bits of the libretto floated through my mind as I was writing and dropped down into Morgan's thoughts and dreams, propelling the plot forward to the very destination that I had always had in mind.


That is the way imagination works, I know. But it felt to me like divine intervention. Spooky.

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