The Hive, a chamber opera in seven tableaux, was commissioned by ChamberMade (Melbourne, Australia), and is scored for soprano, mezzo soprano, tenor, baritone, bass, two keyboardists and electronics. The singers also occasionally play various instruments and noise-makers, including (musical) whip, handbell, old-fashioned typewriters, a (non-specific) drone instrument, tambourine and conga drum. One keyboardist alternately plays electronic keyboard and acoustic piano, the other alternately electronic and triggering keyboard. The electronics consist of continuously looped samples, coördinated by way of the triggering keyboard, and more substantial tracks, realized through standard playback. All prerecorded material is derived from Australian insect sounds.
The opera is an adaptation of a play of the same name by the Australian, Sam Sejavka. It centers round the life and death of the Bloomsbury poet, Rupert Brooke, exploring the contemporaneous and posthumous exploitation of his poetry and celebrity by both his coterie and society at large. This particular social phenomenon is no more apparent than in the circumstances surrounding his death. Brooke allegedly lost his life fighting in the trenches during World War I, a view promoted by subsequent generations of cultural pundits in the service of patriotism and profit. The actual cause of death, however, was blood-poisoning from a gnat bite, which proved fatal long before he even reached the frontline. Sejavka made the two central components of this drama, insect life and the parasitic nature of society, the backbone of his play, by periodically emphasizing the parallels between them. This is achieved in formal dramatic terms through a quasi-Greek chorus, which alternately portrays specific individuals involved with Rupert and his legacy, and acts as a faceless mass that passes unanimous, if somewhat unintelligible judgment on the proceedings at hand. Occurrences of the latter are very reminiscent of a hive of swarming insects—indeed, they are called 'Hivings' in the script—and it is from these that the name and general tone of the play are taken.
By seeking in musical form to maintain, amplify and reinterpret the inherent structures of the original medium, this opera attempts to shed new light on its psychological content. At a microstructural level, the threads of the play's many 'indigenous' musical rhythms are pulled out and spun into a very different sort of sonic fabric. The broader formal outlay is embraced as well: electronic sounds (usually the triggered samples) support the Hivings, a mix of real and synthetic colors the brief narratives taken from the lives of Brooke and his cronies, and purely acoustic sounds (usually the piano) the musings of Brooke's ghost. This approach simultaneously reinforces and turns on its head the traditional cinematic trope where sound events that are recognizably 'real' are associated with the living and/or authentic and those clearly synthetic with the supernatural and/or illusory.