From YA novel to opera

Last weekend, I was invited to Glyndebourne. Not to see an opera written centuries ago by Mozart or Handel but one composed this year, based on a YA novel. Yes that’s right, a YA novel. And not just any YA novel but one written by a Danish author then translated and published by a small independent publisher in Scotland.

Nothing by Janne Teller, published by Strident Publishing here in the UK, is about a Danish school boy, Pierre Anthon, who one day decides life has no meaning so climbs up a tree and stays there.

“Nothing matters,” he tells his schoolmates. “I have known that for a long time. So nothing is worth doing.”

Perplexed and annoyed at their friend’s nihilism, the other pupils try to build a “heap of meaning” in an abandoned sawmill, piling up items that are important to them, to prove to Pierre he is wrong.  However, the story becomes darker and darker as the teenagers order each other to throw out increasingly sacred items, including a prayer mat, a crucifix, one girl’s virginity, and even one boy’s finger. The gruesome story leaves the audience both shocked and pondering Pierre’s original thought: does life really have no meaning?

I thought the book was sharp, thrilling and brilliant, and composer David Bruce, who adapted Philip Pullman’s The Firework Maker’s Daughter, must have agreed because he snapped up the rights to turn the story into an opera. And not only did the creative team base their opera on a book for young people, they also engaged members of the Glyndebourne Youth Opera (amateur singers aged between 14 and 19) to perform alongside professional.

Even as an uninitiated opera-goer I could tell the performance was amazing and newspapers agreed, giving the show four or five stars. The Independent described it as “flawless”.

So in an age when Daily Mail journalists and self-appointed experts moan on social media about YA literature and howit’s all doom and gloom, or too politically correct, or whatever, isn’t it brilliant that one of the UK’s most famous cultural institutions is shining a light on how good YA literature actually is?

I totally agree with the Independent reviewer who said the Royal Opera House, which co-produced Nothing, should make sure this show is more widely seen. Until then, we should all give Glyndebourne a big round of applause for their faith in such a wonderful YAbook, and YA literature in general.

More information about Nothing the novel is available on the Strident Publishing website.

Charlotte Eyre is The Bookseller's children's editor.