A decade ago theatre producer and writer Frank Alva Buecheler came up with the first draft of In May in less than three hours after visiting a sick friend.

“It was spring and I was travelling back on the InterCity Express from Freiburg to Berlin,” he says, while walking the streets of his home city.

“I sat in the restaurant car and wrote down the first draft of the piece. My father had died from cancer a couple of years before. Seeing my friend in the process of sickness and dying I discovered there are several phases that she and her family and friends went through.

“Life and the beauty of the whole world became very important to her. She opened our eyes to be more conscious of how wonderful it is that we are here on this planet called Earth.

“Time became a very special phenomena – we normally think a day has 24 hours but we learned a day has much more quality to those 24 hours – life gets much more intense.

“Those moments became more relevant and this idea came to transform this experience into literature and into a piece of art.”

Putting these feelings through the prism of somebody dying added extra power to the words he was writing.

“Describing the beauty of the world is difficult for artists,” he says. “It is much easier to create a tragedy than show beauty. There is a danger it becomes kitsch and will repeat well-known stereotypes.

“If someone can identify with a character who is dying though then you can say something such as: ‘What a wonderful morning, I hear the birds singing in the garden’ which a modern artist might reject. In these special situations we can apologise for these simple but true pictures.”

When it came to bringing the words to the stage, Buecheler was inspired when he heard Neil Hannon’s musical project The Divine Comedy – most famous in the UK for his Britpop-era hits Something For The Weekend, Becoming More Like Alfie and National Express.

“It was clear to me Neil would be a perfect composer for this text,” says Buecheler, who asked long-time English collaborator Tim Clarke to translate his original German text into English.

The pair met in London, with Hannon agreeing to do the project after reading Buecheler’s words.

“He said, ‘I’m a pop music composer and pop artist, why do you think I could write music for a chamber opera?’,” recalls Buecheler. “I told him all his Divine Comedy songs were dramatic pieces – and that I thought he was an opera composer.”

In May takes the form of letters from a son to the father he has sent away as he goes through his final months of chemotherapy and cancer treatment.

The whole story is sung, while the son’s lover Anna – played by Belgian actress and vocalist Leentje Van de Cruys – is the only character to appear on stage.

She is accompanied by Swedish pianist Fredrik Holm and the London-based Ligeti String Quartet, while Simon Wainwright of Imitating The Dog creates atmospheric lighting.

“Anna is a sheer fiction,” says Buecheler, who admits otherwise there are a lot of autobiographical elements to the story.

“I felt Anna could be there on stage as a dancer, being the incorporation of the character’s thoughts and feelings.

“The director Matt Fenton has taken a risk making a piece of musical theatre with no action or interaction and with only one character on stage.

“It’s a little bit avant garde and experimental – theatre managers could get nervous about such a production as an audience expects more people on stage and more dialogue.

“When we had the opening in Lancaster [in the Nuffield Theatre at the Lancaster Institute for Contemporary Arts last May] the audience seemed absolutely fascinated – they said it was rich and full.

“What you see on stage feeds the imagination of an audience. Your own internal imagination is much stronger than any pre-fabricated piece.

“Perhaps that’s the secret of why books are interesting and fascinating – the imagination is much more convincing than any Hollywood two-million-dollar budget.”

  • SICK! Festival: In May, The Old Market, Upper Market Street, Hove, Wednesday, March 19
  • Starts 8pm, tickets £12/£10. Call 01273 699733