George Eliot's plain, dour novel, Silas Marner, may not immediately spring to mind as a subject for an opera. But composer Howard Goodall is an enthusiast for its theme of a dark night of the human soul redeemed by innocence and love.
He re-read the book two years ago when searching for a subject for a community opera, commissioned for the Salisbury Festival. The story of the lonely, embittered weaver, driven out of his church and community on a false accusation of stealing money, and rejected by the woman he loved, struck personal chords for Goodall.
"It was a very sad time in my own life," he explains. "My wife had just left me and I could empathise with the bitter despair of Marner.
"But I also came to realise how much my work with young people, and happy relationships with the children of my family and friends, pulled me through this personal crisis, just as Marner's adoption and care of the little orphan girl Eppie was to be his redemption."
Professionally the subject appealed to him also, as ideal for a folk opera in which a large chorus of local people could take part. "A theme running through all my work is that of the individual and the community, for which the soloist and chorus are a musical metaphor," he says.
In Silas Marner the chorus has a very important role to play. The chorus members do not just comment on the action. As the villagers of Raveloe, they are essential participants in the story. Goodall, who was himself a chorister, at New College, Oxford, and who works with several choirs, enjoys writing music for the human voice. In Silas Marner the orchestra has been kept to a minimum (keyboards and six strings) with the chorus doing much of the orchestral work: "It's an opera for voices," the composer says.
These voices will come from the 85 people from all over the West Midlands region who auditioned to take part in the production and the chance to work with professional soloists alongside the CBTO's artistic director, Graham Vick, and musical director, Simon Halsey.
Of the volunteers, 40 are young people under 16, including a strong contingent from Young Voices, a new Saturday choir in the city run by the peripatetic music service. Students from the performing arts course at Joseph Chamberlain Sixth Form College have also turned up in some force. But Halsey says: "We have people of all ages - nine and 10-year-olds to pensioners, and from all backgrounds. Everyone is doing it because they love singing."
Very singable Goodall's score proves to be, from the snatches heard in rehearsal. The "singability" of Goodall's work was a major reason for Simon Halsey, artistic director of Salisbury Festival, commissioning a folkcommunity piece from him: "You go to Howard for tunes. He's brilliant at writing lovely tuneful melodies but he backs it up with very sophisticated orchestration. His scores have the interesting harmonies of opera and the tunefulness of a musical."
Goodall is at home in both media, with musicals (The Hired Man, Girlfriends, and Days of Hope) to his credit and an earlier opera, Der Glockener von Notre Dame, for Zurich Opera Factory, which toured Switzerland in the 1980s.
Problems with funding at Salisbury Festival last year prevented his new work being fully staged so the CBTO performances are its first dramatic production. But Goodall admits that Salisbury gave him an opportunity to make a critical assessment of the work and he has made significant changes as a result. He has cut out the spoken dialogue, incorporating it into the songs, and tightened up the narrative so that the plot is more successful dramatically.
He has also expanded the roles of the two young characters, Eppie and Aaron, whose innocent, loving qualities embody much of what Goodall wants this opera to express. They also reflect Goodall's own feelings about young people. "They have this wonderful capacity for enthusiasm and involvement," he says. "My experience of working with them tells me that they don't - as teachers often complain - have a short attention span or lack concentration. It's simply that they want to get involved: not to be told, but to participate."
Silas Marner will be mounted in Birmingham only, at the Mayfair Suite in the Bull Ring, from December 13 to 17 inclusive. Running time two hours. Box office 021-236 2392. To arrange disabled access telephone 021-212 4215.