Twice Through the Heart is a musical work by the English composer Mark-Anthony Turnage, variously described as a dramatic scena, as a monodrama, as a song cycle, as a chamber opera or even as a “dramatic song-cycle-cum-scena”. It is scored for mezzo-soprano and 16 instrumentalists and sets an English-language libretto by the Scottish poet Jackie Kay based on her script for a television programme about a woman jailed for killing her violent husband.
Originally intended to be a full-length opera, Twice was composed between 1994 and 1996, undergoing substantial reworking before Turnage found a form with which he was satisfied. It was first performed in 1997 when it was put on both in the concert hall and in the opera house. The critical reception has been generally favourable, with several authors commenting positively about the instrumental writing and emotional impact of the work, though some critics see limitations in the libretto, find the mood of the work too unrelenting or note the great demands that the vocal writing provides for the soloist.
Twice Through the Heart is based on a 1992 poetry documentary of the same name that Kay had written for the BBC television series Words on Film. Kay was concerned by inequalities in how the legal system treats men and women who kill their spouses and, in particular, in how the law on provocation in the United Kingdom was then interpreted, allowing a defence to murder only in the context of what happened immediately before a homicide and excluding the battered woman defence which considers the broader context which may have involved years of violent abuse. She chose to base the poems on a specific true case, that of Amelia Rossiter, a woman in her sixties who refused to give evidence in court about the years of violence from her husband that eventually led to her stabbing him twice through the heart with a kitchen knife. By the time Kay’s programme was broadcast, Rossiter had been freed, her conviction reduced to manslaughter after her plea of provocation was accepted.
Turnage, who had previously composed one full-length opera, Greek, worked on the musical version of Twice between 1994 and 1996. It was commissioned by the John S. Cohen Foundation. He had learnt of Kay’s original work after he was shown a copy of the BBC video by poet and artistic director Maura Dooley. It was a difficult development with Turnage at one point abandoning the work in favour of other pieces. Composer and librettist had started out with the intention of developing a full-length opera including both soprano and baritone narrators. (The original television script had included poems for the judge as well as for the woman.) However, the creators felt that their attempts at redeveloping and expanding the original work “water[ed] down its impact” and they eventually cut everything apart from the woman’s words. Both text and setting also underwent repeated changes in detail. Kay changed some of the wording to make it easier to sing. Similarly, Turnage revised the music after trying it out with Sally Burgess who was to give the first performance. He had become Composer in Association with English National Opera (ENO) in 1995 and was able to thoroughly workshop Twice and its companion piece with ENO’s Contemporary Opera Studio before arriving at their respective final versions.