Composer Leo Geyer and librettist Martin Kratz tell us about their opera ‘The Mermaid of Zennor’

‘The Mermaid of Zennor’ is a chamber opera, performed to great acclaim in 2012. It was composed by Leo Geyer and written by Martin Kratz. More information about the opera can be found on the Mermaid of Zennor website and a video of the performance can be watched online.

Leo (L) and Martin (M) took the time to tell us (in italics)  all about moomaid ice creams, centuries old carvings, and what the figure of the mermaid means to them in the twenty first century…

‘The mermaid of Zennor’ is a nineteenth century legend, is that right? Can you tell us what drew you to the legend?

L: I think what really attracted us to the legend was the place itself.

Zennor is a small village in Cornwall; it is a beautiful place but also remarkably unchanged. The village buildings sit on a shelf almost on top of the ocean. You cannot see the beach from the village itself, as the land folds away so suddenly. At the centre of the village is The Church of Saint Senara, which is said to be at least 1400 years old.  Inside the church there is a chair with a carving of a Mermaid which dates back 600 years. Just below the villiage is Pendour Cove which is where the Mermaid was supposed to have lived. It is actually almost impossible to get down to the cove without some fairly heavy-duty climbing gear. So there seems something quite secretive about it. It is difficult to put into words but when you go to Zennor the mermaid tale suddenly feels very real.

M: Also, I think it’s true to say that the initial inspiration came from Leo eating a Moomaid ice-cream, while on holiday in Cornwall. He looked at the label (a sort of mermaid cow) and wondered what that was about, and checked the place out. Once you’re there, it’s impossible to escape the legend, the two seem inextricably bound up, as Leo was saying. I had a lot of trouble writing the libretto (in Manchester) until I visited Zennor, and then large parts of it wrote themselves.

Moomaid ice cream

Moomaid ice cream

One of my favourite passages in the libretto is ‘In the church above there stands a chair.| A carving, ancient and unreal.| In the dark, her face obscured,| scratched from our memory.’ Is this a description of the famous mermaid bench in St Senara’s church (I’ve never seen it)? Could you tell us more about the relationships between real and fantasised places in the opera, and especially the ways landscapes are created with words? I keep thinking of how Morveren keeps using words to change the landscape into a marine one, for instance by replacing the word ‘bracken’ with ‘kelp’ when she echoes Walker’s words: ‘Under the bracken tiny hearts| beat faster as I approach’…. 

M:  Yes it is a description of the chair! You should go see it, there really is something unreal about it. The echoing of the different landscapes (on land/ underwater) happened quite naturally. Something about Zennor, and perhaps the amphibious nature of the mermaid, lead me to write this constant echoing and mirroring of land and sea, reality and fantasy, memory and full presence.

L: The whole opera essentially explores the relationship between myth, memory and reality. The audience is left to decide whether the fisherman returns home with the mermaid or in his confused state walks into the sea and drowns.

M: In terms of how landscapes are created with words, those were my favourite parts to write, and my favourite parts of the opera. Those again are largely taken from my notes sitting on a rock in Zennor. I was really aware of the bracken hiding things underneath it. There was a distinct sense not only of you sensing the landscape, but also of you being sensed by it and I wanted to get that across.

 Could you tell us about the process of composition and collaboration as you worked to realise the legend onstage? Did the reality of staging it and materialising it change the way you understood the legend of the mermaid?

L: We spent a long time perfecting the story, and spent around a month and half throwing drafts around. I wrote some sketches, but didn’t really start composing the music till Martin had finished the libretto. When setting the text, I did have to take things away as well and occasionally reorder or reword (with Martin’s consent of course) phrases so as to work with the musical narrative.

I don’t think that our ideas of the story changed much when we staged it. But we were careful to consider the staging carefully when we were drafting the libretto.

M: Exactly, most of the staging considerations took place before I even started writing. The main themes of how we understood the legend, like that it was going to be a modern-day retelling, caught our imaginations quite early on, or things like the question of the tail, which we quickly decided to ignore…

Your image of shells splintering is also a compelling one. At one point as Matthew holds the splintering shells in his hand we hear ‘a memory’s edge is in his hand’ from both Walker and Morveren, denizens of two very different worlds. Can you tell us more about this image of the shells, and memory physically breaking through the skin? Matthew says ‘we are in some borderland| With these splinters in my skin’…

M: The ‘borderland’ is a response to the mermaid chair. If you look at a picture of it you’ll see the separation between fish tail and woman is this incredibly neat line, and I felt quite strongly, that in this day and age, we should know that those sort of neat separations are complete fantasy. So to make the mermaid ‘real’ it was important that the area between fish and human on her abdomen is not so clear cut, that the scales peter out gradually. In the end, the mess of tiny shell splinters remind Matthew of the scales on Morveren’s body, the way it looks on a ‘real’ mermaid, as opposed to the figure on the chair.

You talk about a ‘dramatic collision’ between the 21st century and the old Cornish legend. What does the mermaid mean for you in this context?

The mermaid bench in St Senara's Church

The mermaid bench in St Senara’s Church

L: I think mermaids generally are something we think of as characters of the past. Despite the age of legend, we wanted to capture how real the legend feels in modern day Zennor.

M: The opera also asks is there any room for mermaids in the 21st century. I suppose we are sort of saying there is (or we wouldn’t have done the opera), but now they are loaded with a whole new set of meanings: people’s responsibility towards the sea and the environment, ideas of storytelling and guarding our literary heritage (oral literature and written)… One of the most interesting discoveries I made writing the opera was that the logo for Starbucks is a mermaid. It would be a shame if the idea of the mermaid has been reduced to nothing but a paper cup floating on the ocean.


Leo Geyer is currently on his 3rd year on the Joint Course at Manchester University and the RNCM, where he is studying Composition with Dr. David Horne and Conducting with Mark Heron. Recent projects include a commission for the Olympic 20×12 New Music Weekend at the Southbank Centre, an operatic aria for Opera North and a piece for the Manchester Camerata..  Leo has been awarded the SCYM Composition Competition 2009, DSO Young Composer Award 2009, Junior Trinity Prize for Composition 2009 and 2010, Finalist St. Giles Composition Competition 2010, Serenata Winds Composition Competition 2011, Rosamund Prize 2011 and the RNCM Gold Medal Award for Composition 2011. Last year Leo wrote an opera – The Mermaid of Zennor, which has been described by the Times as imaginative and beautifully shaped. Leo has conducted all four performances of the opera, including the sell-out premiere production at the RNCM in 2011 and the most recent performances at the Tête à Tête Opera Festival 2012 at the London Riverside Studios. In addition to conducting Manchester University’s orchestras and ensembles, Leo also co-founded the Constella Orchestra which has been described as one of the UK’s newest and most exciting student-led classical ensembles (London Student Newspaper, 2011). Constella have now completed their debut season, which has included a performance at the World Event Young Artist Festival 2011 and Beethoven’s Violin Concert with the internationally acclaimed soloist Simon Standage.

Martin Kratz was born in the UK, but his mothertongue is German. His poetry has appeared in The Rialto and Magma Poetry. He collaborates regularly with the composer Leo Geyer, and their work together includes the chamber opera The Mermaid of Zennor. He lives in Manchester where he is currently writing a PhD on the language of touch in contemporary poetry. An new article on writing a first libretto, will be forthcoming in Agenda.