Music by Gavin Bryars 
Libretto by Michael Ondaatje  

...people often do think of the Wild West as a strangely ideal environment. I myself love Westerns such as High Noon and Rio Bravo, I think they are real masterpieces. They have a strong moral sense about them. There’s a powerful awareness of right and wrong, like in a morality play. - Gavin Bryars


Drawing on contemporary accounts, period photographs, dime novels, this visionary opera traces the legendary outlaw's passage across the blasted landscape of 1880 New Mexico and the collective unconscious of his country. 

The Collected Works of Billy the Kid is a virtuoso synthesis of storytelling, history, and myth by a writer and composer who bring us back to our familiar legends with a renewed sense of wonder.


Listen to The Opera


Billy Teaser EN 250117 from Théâtre de la Croix-Rousse on Vimeo.

About The Opera

Gavin Bryars:  Michael Ondaatje's book The Collected Works of Billy the Kid comprises prose texts as well as poetry. The prose texts are fragments from people who had met Billy while the poems are from his imagination. Michael wrote all the texts, even those that seem to be true documents. For the opera there are two voices: that of Billy and that of a female narrator who, at certain times, also takes on the character of female protagonists such as Sally Chisum and Angela Dickinson.

It is not a straightforward novel – though some parts of it are – but rather a combination of narrative, research and poetry. Poetry written by Michael himself, but in the guise of Billy the Kid. His book is based on the story of Billy’s life and the imagined poetry from Billy himself, but it also incorporates newspaper clippings. It is very intricate, yet very cleverly done, in an original way. Jean Lacornerie, director of Théâtre de la Croix-Rousse made the libretto from the book.

This is my fifth opera, and the search for the right text often takes even longer than writing the notes themselves. I spend a lot of time thinking about the text, reading it through and through, then I go ahead and write my score very quickly. It’s like a Zen calligrapher, who contemplates for hours on end, then sits down and writes what he has to write. I am not the type to make endless revisions, I have a strategy for the whole thing in my mind. As for Billy the Kid: I had already figured out the peaks and troughs, and knew where my music is going.


About the Venue 

The historic Sunnyside Cemetery in Long Beach opened September 26th, 1906 and has 16,250 burials in 13 1/2 acres of land. It is on the south side of Signal Hill on Willow Street and adjacent to the separate Long Beach Municipal Cemetery. The cemetery was used for scenes in Nicolas Cage’s “8 mm” and Adam Sandler’s “Click.” Sunny Side is one of the few civil war cemeteries in California.

The beautiful monuments, gravestones, and inscriptions tell a history about the people that built Long Beach. It's first Fire Chief, Police Chief, the first policeman to die in the line of duty, and many other significant pioneers are buried at Sunnyside.



Gavin Bryars - Music

Gavin Bryars was born in Yorkshire in 1943. His first musical reputation was as a jazz bassist working in the early sixties with improvisers Derek Bailey and Tony Oxley. He abandoned improvisation in 1966 and worked for a time in the United States with John Cage. Subsequently he collaborated closely with composers such as Cornelius Cardew and John White. His first major work as a composer was The Sinking of the Titanic (1969) originally released on Brian Eno's Obscure label in 1975 and Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet (1971), both famously released in new versions in the 1990s on Point Music label, selling over a quarter of a million copies. The original 1970s recordings have been re-released on CD by Virgin Records.

His first opera, Medea was first staged by the director Robert Wilson at the Opéra de Lyon and Opéra de Paris in 1984. Following the success of the original production, a revised version was given in concert in 1995 by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. His second opera, Doctor Ox's Experiment (based on a story by Jules Vernes and with a libretto by Blake Morrison) was staged by the Canadian film director Atom Egoyan for English National Opera in 1998. A separate production of Doctor Ox's Experiment appeared in 1999 in Dortmund, Germany. The third opera, G (libretto again by Blake Morrison), was commissioned by Mainz Opera and was premiered in February 2002, staged by Georges Delnon, in the newly refurbished Mainz Opera House.

Among Gavin Bryars' other works are three string quartets and a great deal of chamber music, much of it for his own ensemble. Since 2006 he has collaborated with Opera North Projects, initially with the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) on Shakespeare sonnets Nothing like the Sun(2007) and subsequently on Mercy and Grand (2007-8) – a project on the songs of Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan. Since 2006 he has worked with the Irish singer Iarla O'Lionaird on settings of early Gaelic texts. Gavin Bryars has a particular association with dance and the visual arts: choreographers who have used his work and commissioned new pieces from him include William Forsythe, Lucinda Childs, Carolyn Carlson, Maguy Marin, Jiri Kylian, Siobhan Davies, Edouard Lock and David Dawson. His hugely successful collaboration with Merce Cunningham, Biped, was in the Cunningham Company's repertoire and played worldwide.

Among Gavin Bryars' numerous recordings are Three Viennese Dancers, After The Requiem, The Black River and Vita Nova on ECM New Series, The Last Days on Argo (1995), and Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet (1993), The Sinking of the Titanic (1994), Farewell to Philosophy (1996), A Man in a Room Gambling (1997) and Cadman Requiem (1998) on Point Music. In 2000 he started his own label GB Records with an initial release of Biped. This was followed with a number of other albums: Lockerbie Memorial Concert (2003), A Man in a Room, Gambling (2003), Oi me lasso (2005), On Photography (2005), A Listening Room (2005), Glorious Hill (2007), Silva Caledonia (2008), Amjad(2008), Season of Mists (2008), I have heard it said that a spirit enters (2010), Live at Punkt (2010), I send you this Cadmium Red (2010), Al Suon dell'acque scriva (2010), New York (2010).

The Gavin Bryars Ensemble, founded in 1981, performs internationally, including appearances in France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Norway, Finland, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Hungary, Czeck Republic, Belgium, Germany, Holland, Mexico, Norway, Austria, Japan and Australia, as well as giving occasional concerts in UK.


This opera illuminates the infamous gunslinger and wild-west myth Billy the Kid through eyewitness accounts, newspaper articles, photographs and poetry. Gavin Bryars and Michael Ondaatje cleverly blend the line between reality and fiction, presenting an intimate and mystical view of the main character that differs from traditional narratives.



National Endowement for the Arts    California Arts Council Arts Council for Long Beach City of Long Beach Art Works Opera America KUSC

This activity is supported in part by the California Arts Council, a state agency. Learn more at www.arts.ca.gov
Supported in part by a grant from the Arts Council for Long Beach and the City of Long Beach.
Long Beach Opera events are supported, in part, by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors through the Los Angeles County Arts Commission