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Remembering Dame Hilary Mantel, 1952 – 2022

We were saddened to hear of the death last week of Dame Hilary Mantel, who brought her piercing intellect and fantastically eclectic knowledge to two talks commissioned by Opera North Projects.

Commissioned to coincide with our 2007 production of Monteverdi’s Orfeo, Touching Hands With The Lost was vast in the scope of its consideration of loss, grief, and music, yet also deeply personal. As we prepare to open our Orpheus season for autumn 2022, we remember Dame Hilary with an extract:

“For some years I lived in Africa, in Botswana, and people there used to say that to see ghosts you needed to look out of the corners of your eyes. If you turn on them a direct gaze, then, like Eurydice, they vanish.

The whole process of creativity is like that. The writer often doesn’t know, consciously, what gods she invokes or what myths she’s retelling. Orpheus is a figure of all artists, and Eurydice is his inspiration. She is what he goes into the dark to seek. He is the conscious mind, with its mastery of skill and craft, its faculty of ordering, selecting, making rational and persuasive; she is the subconscious mind, driven by disorder, fuelled by obscure desires, brimming with promises that perhaps she won’t keep, with promises of revelation, fantasies of empowerment and knowledge.

What she offers is fleeting, tenuous, hard to hold. She makes us stand on the brink of the unknown with our hand stretched out into the dark. Mostly, we just touch her fingertips and she vanishes. She is the dream that seems charged with meaning, that vanishes as soon as we try to describe it. She is the unsayable thing we are always trying to say. She is the memory that slips away as you try to grasp it. Just when you’ve got it, you haven’t got it. She won’t bear the light of day. She gets to the threshold and she falters. You want her too much, and by wanting her you destroy her.

As a writer, as an artist, your effects constantly elude you. You have a glimpse, an inspiration, you write a paragraph and you think it’s there, but when you read back, it’s not there. Every picture painted, every opera composed, every book that is written is the ghost of the possibilities that were in the artist’s head. Art brings back the dead, but it also makes perpetual mourners of us all. Nothing lasts; that’s what Apollo, the father of Orpheus, sings to him in Monteverdi’s opera…

We want to go to the underworld, back into the darkness of our own nature, to bring back some object of impossible beauty: we know it probably won’t work, but what matters is that we keep trying. The consolation lies in the attempt itself, the mercy that’s granted to the hand that dares to stretch out into the dark: well, we say, I am only human, I’ve gone to the brink, I have done all that I can. As the last lines of the opera tell us; ‘Those who sow in sorrow shall reap the harvest of grace.’ “

Shaking Hands with Satan, her typically witty meditation on the Devil, again ranged across art, history, theology and unflinching autobiography. It was originally commissioned to complement our 2012 production of Gounod’s Faust, but you can listen to a later recording of it, together with selection of Caprices by Paganini performed by David Le Page, on the Royal Opera House’s Soundcloud:

Born in Derbyshire in 1952, Dame Hilary Mary Mantel DBE FRSL was a British writer whose work includes historical fiction, personal memoirs and short stories. She won the Booker Prize twice, the first time for her 2009 novel Wolf Hall, a fictional account of Thomas Cromwell’s rise to power in the court of Henry VIII, and the second for its 2012 sequel Bring Up the Bodies. The third instalment of the Cromwell trilogy, 2020’s The Mirror & the Light, was longlisted for the same prize, and would be her final novel.


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