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Saariaho’s Musical Path to Simone

SAARIAHO’S MUSICAL PATH TO SIMONE

SCO’s Artistic Director discusses the work of Saariaho
By Jack Symonds

Why did I so strongly want to bring Kaija Saariaho’s La Passion de Simone to Sydney Chamber Opera? Simply because the fusion of Saariaho’s unique musical style with the ideas and persona of Simone Weil seemed a perfect match, and one ripe for investigation on the stage by a probing creative team.

Saariaho’s music has been a love of mine since I was a teenager- I must have played albums of her string concertos and orchestral works a hundred times. The universe of sound she invariably unveils in the first five seconds of a piece is musically unique and expressively sui generis: I can’t think of any composer who makes music the way she does.

The glistening webs of tone that open each work seem to stretch from the bottom to the top of one’s aural perception, ushering in an ocean of music that teems with a seemingly impossible abundance of sonic life. Much has been written comparing Saariaho’s music to natural phenomena; waves, lava, the slow unfolding of flowers. The essence of her art is to bend the instrumental and vocal colours available to create a sense of sound reborn from the grit of white noise, embracing the purest fundamentals of music making in striking new ways.

A little bit of history for those wanting to know where Simone came from: in the 1990s Saariaho really began to integrate her early explorations of electronics in Paris with her instrumental writing. It’s like the whole orchestra heaves with an electronic force trying to break out of what it means to play ‘correctly’. She refined this into works of considerable drama, density and savage beauty- listen especially to the orchestral diptych Du cristal …à la fumée. That piece does what it promises: gradually turns a very hard, crystal-like musical object into the aural equivalent of smoke by a kind of musical alchemy where everything melts and becomes effervescent. This process is here perfected, and never left her musical arsenal; La Passion de Simone seems to be built on this principle of writing. What I love about this earlier style is that even though it’s sometimes almost impossibly dense, her clarity of composition and orchestration means that it’s like one hears almost limitless depths of ideas and textures in some kind of vast, uncharted world.

Gradually, the density begins to clear. A piece like Graal Théâtre is every bit as complex in its thought patterns as Du cristal, but the lines are cleaner and the whole sound world more iridescent; the colours are chosen with delicacy rather than the immense textural strength of before. This is a violin concerto, and the violin’s long, singing lines perhaps prepared the way for her long-awaited détente with the solo voice.

Kaija Saariaho Graal Theatre Violin concerto

It was the original singer of Simone, soprano Dawn Upshaw, who initially seems to have inspired Saariaho to begin to write more – and differently – for the voice. The soprano and electronics piece Lonh, and soprano, female choir and orchestra work Château de l’âme seem to be gateways to the operas, and to Saariaho’s more recent music in general. The singing lines she was making room for are now, very naturally, vocal melodies. She also seemed to happen upon a distinctive vocal style almost immediately. Sung melodies act like extraordinary, lyrical ornaments on the orchestral or instrumental texture creating long, hypnotic lines of arresting beauty. They seem sensually arching, always with clear high points and expressive directness. Her background in electronics and composition using the natural overtone series (‘Spectralism’) means that the vertical harmonies which produce these horizontal lines are extremely resonant and have a real connection to each other – even though they are complex. The way Saariaho spaces notes on top of each other is carefully done so that we can hear every single pitch precisely, making the music feel inevitable and somehow ‘right’.

Her big hit was the opera L’amour de loin from 2000– a dreamy, medieval troubadour work which is perhaps the absolute epitome of her style, recently staged by Robert Lepage at the Metropolitan Opera. The old troubadour-inspired songs and chants which form the backdrop to this opera really seem to have gotten under her skin and even emerge, transformed in subsequent pieces. The next opera was perhaps a surprise in its directness and brutality: Adriana Mater is about a woman raped in war, becoming pregnant, and the story of her bringing up a son who becomes a violent, complex man. All the implicit, lava-violence of the early ‘90s music comes bursting out in that piece which still manages to contain a final scene painting the most moving portrait of maternal love and forgiveness I think I’ve ever heard in opera. Simone was next and, I think, successfully marries the brutality of Adriana with the voluptuousness and languor of L’amour de loin.

L'Amour de Loin: "Si tu t'appelles Amour", staged by Robert Lepage at the Metropolitan Opera

All the best qualities of Saariaho’s music are on display in this extraordinary piece from 2006. The enveloping mystery of the opening immediately conjures the paradoxical, strange figure of Simone Weil with a pool of sound that seems as if it has existed forever, waiting for this story to be told. 

The solo soprano takes on Simone as an idea: she sings to her, about her, through her, around her and speaks as her, allowing Saariaho to use instruments, voices and text to paint a more complex and fully-realised Simone than any single performer could ever portray. The additional use of choral voices adds immeasurably – they are embedded in the tapestry of the orchestra, and I see them giving words and definite meaning to the instruments to articulate this imagined, musical Simone.

The vocal melodies and words are then spun in time over a constantly shifting instrumental backdrop of resonance. It’s this sense that everything is always melting, transforming and alive that is essential to capture in every aspect of realising her work.

..."The universe of sound she invariably unveils in the first five seconds of a piece is musically unique and expressively sui generis: I can’t think of any composer who makes music the way she does."

There is also an ever-present feeling of timelessness, and a deliberate confusion of the unfolding of musical time versus clock time. In a great Saariaho performance you should feel like you have no idea how long you’ve been there – five minutes could stretch into eternity, or the whole thing could feel like an upbeat to a single, new second. I will never forget the feeling of seeing the world premiere of Lumière et pesanteur in 2009. It’s actually a short orchestral piece, a transcription of the 8th ‘Station’ of Simone. I hadn’t heard Simone at all then, but the sense that this six or so minutes was complete, perfected, suspended time in an exquisite unfolding world- like the most delicate plant opening in timelapse- has never left me. Since then, I knew I had to find a way to bring a major piece of Saariaho’s to Sydney, and Simone is, unbelievably, the first of her larger works to ever be performed in Australia.

Director Peter Sellars has said of Saariaho’s work that “in the 21st century…we have a responsibility to do more than sit around and tell sad stories. Here we see there will be a future. And that future has been guaranteed all over the world by women, women who in impossible situations nourish and cultivate human dignity.” Simone Weil: figure of impossible, paradoxical grace, Kaija Saariaho: composer of some of today’s greatest and most distinctive music, and the Australian dream team of director Imara Savage and designer Elizabeth Gadsby are just the people to show us this future.

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A Passion for Transcendence

A PASSION FOR TRANSCENDENCE

Creatives find their concept for La Passion de Simone
by Annarosa Berman

The idea for the form of La Passion de Simone, a work for solo soprano, chorus and ensemble based on the life of the philosopher Simone Weil, came from the passion play tradition according to composer Kaija Saariaho. Yet when the director for Sydney Chamber Opera’s new production for Sydney Festival, Imara Savage, and designer, Elizabeth Gadsby, began to explore Saariaho’s score and Amin Maalouf’s libretto, they were initially confused.

Says Savage: “The different sections are labelled as Stations, so as a theatre maker you think, okay, this is a passion play – there are discreet episodes that lead to the main character’s death. Except that the music does not necessarily reflect such episodic stations- it is much more subtly structured and complex.” Maalouf’s libretto did not fit the passion play mould in any obvious way either – as Savage puts it: “How do you stage somebody’s thoughts changing?”

Savage and Gadsby, who in the early, conceptual stages of a production think of themselves as co-directing, approached SCO artistic director and conductor of the production Jack Symonds for help. “Can you tell us what the music is doing, and why? ” they asked. Symonds responded with an essay explaining, among other things, how Saariaho’s score can be thought of as operating like sonic waves that sometimes build to what could be perceived as a climax, yet are never resolved.

“Elizabeth and I both connected with Weil’s view that you gain knowledge through endurance and suffering,” Savage says. “If you walk into suffering rather than pulling away from it, you transcend it to a place of spirituality, where death is not the end. When we started thinking about Weil’s life in these terms, it became easier, because the music strongly reflects it.”

In keeping with this insight, Gadsby began to grasp the drama of the music when she realised that it was constantly moving from one thing to the next, like particles in space. “It’s not dramatic in the sense that it builds up and then settles – it never settles. It goes towards something and then shifts and moves somewhere else. Therein lies the drama.”

La Passion de Simone, Image by Mike Daly

What sustains the narrative is Weil being in a constant state of endurance, with the assurance that if she endures long enough, there will be some kind of knowledge gained. Savage says: “La Passion de Simone is a meditation on suffering. It asks you to contemplate what it means to step into suffering, like Weil did. She gave away all her worldly possessions and rationed her food in accordance with what people could eat in wartime France, for example. She suffered so that she could empathise with others who suffered.”

Gadsby likens this “constant state of endurance” to the experience of picking up a stone and examining it from multiple angles. “You look at it from every possible perspective and then you go, well what does this object taste like? And what does it feel like to try and be a stone? That’s what Simone did: she emulated other people’s experiences in order to have compassion for them. She went to war, went to work in a factory, starved herself.”

Once director and designer grasped how the music sustained the drama, the next question was, how does one represent, on stage, a constant state of flux?

Gadsby says: “The idea of watching something dissolve, then reform in front of your eyes, came up. Imara said, how do you stage that? So we started thinking of gestures that would create a sense of watching matter decompose and reform, and we settled on white rice as a material that could fall in a constant stream, or be in a constant state of flux.”

As [Amara] Savage puts it: “How do you stage somebody’s thoughts changing?”

But singing an opera while a pile of rice is falling on you would be challenging, plus the women didn’t think Symonds would be thrilled with the sound of rice constantly falling on stage during the performance. There was also the structure of the libretto to contend with: the soprano, sung by Jane Sheldon, embodies Weil, while simultaneously observing her as narrator. Savage and Gadsby found a solution that was both practical and artistically satisfying when they asked video artist Mike Daley to create a video installation of Sheldon standing underneath four tonnes of rice piling up around her. Thus, the Sheldon in the video talks, and observes Weil, while Sheldon on stage sings, and embodies Weil.

If the image of Weil slowly being subsumed by rice is a relatively static one, that is the intention. Savage says: “As designer/director, your task is to keep the audience stimulated by creating and changing images. But in Passion, the music is going around the cosmos, and the libretto, besides being full of philosophical contradictions, goes from God to politics to lived experiences to Weil as a child to Weil on her death bed. The libretto and the score need something to anchor it, or you’d be doing the same thing three times over.”

Gadsby adds: “The music gives the emotional content and the libretto acts as intellectual foil to that. What we are trying to do is to create a space where the audience can sit with all the information and emotional content that they’re given. The central image, although it is constantly moving towards something else, stays the same.”

“You look at it from every possible perspective and then you go, well what does this object taste like? And what does it feel like to try and be a stone? That’s what Simone did: she emulated other people’s experiences in order to have compassion for them. She went to war, went to work in a factory, starved herself.”

Direction and design ideas grew organically from the two women discussing the work. “That’s generally how Elizabeth works,” says Savage, to which Gadsby adds: “The best design happens when the designer and director’s brains merge, so you don’t know whose idea was what. Imara bombards me with ideas: sometimes I’d open my inbox and find twenty emails from her, and a hundred images and written thoughts. She pours all this information on me, and I then piece together the most important ideas and we discuss them.”

Many people would struggle to make head or tail of the “indiscriminate” research that she shares with Gadsby in the conceptual phase, Savage says, but Gadsby always manages to create a synthesis. “I said, ‘Rice? No, maybe not.’ And Elizabeth said, ‘Rice? Yes!’” They discussed the symbolism of rice: how it stands for consumption and nurturing, but in some Buddhist traditions where you’d eat one small bowl of rice a day, also for asceticism. And when mandalas are built from rice, for meditative qualities. “It resonated with so many ideas in the work,” Gadsby says.

In the end, La Passion de Simone’s creative team found their answers by focusing not on its links to the passion play, but on Simone Weil’s fractured and contradictory identity. “She’s an activist but also a philosopher, she was Jewish but became Christian and was interested in Eastern religions,” Savage says. “She’s a multi-faceted woman who cannot be pinpointed into a particular thing. In fact, it would have been a disservice to have tried to describe her in fifteen stations.”

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Vocal Mobbing & Prelanguage

VOCAL MOBBING, PRELANGUAGE &
SECRET CODES

An interview with Damien Ricketson, composer of The Howling Girls
By Pierce Wilcox

The first thing Damien Ricketson does is shatter my notion of the composer as a driven scribbler cooped up in their ivory tower.  ‘It hasn’t been one of those situations where I sit in my bedroom, concoct a score, then it gets handed to a director,’ the composer of The Howling Girls tells me. He sees the entire project as a co-creation between him and director Adena Jacobs, where the typical division of labour is blurred; she was on board from the beginning, and he’s still in the room playing a creative role as the project moves into staging rehearsals.

They were in sync from the beginning, he explains, with a shared interest building a opera that took on the human voice itself. He tells me they were interested in ‘what it means to have a voice: both literally as in the singing voice, and politically as in agency.’ Their early ideas shared this common thread, covering everything from Ophelia’s moment of drowning in Hamlet being exploded out into an ‘aquatic howl against her situation’ to the Slavic myth of Rusalka, familiar in pop culture from The Little Mermaid, ‘again about a girl having to sacrifice her voice in order to fulfil her desires.’

The work crystallised when both Damien and Adena read Susan Faludi’s book The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America, which includes the infamous story of five girls presenting at hospitals in post-9/11 New York City unable to speak for no medical reason. ‘We’d both been reading this book through the Trump election campaign,’ Damien tells me. ‘It seemed a very terrifying end point for this book.’

Written in 2007, Faludi’s book seems to foreshadow the direction an anxious America and the West would take through to the present. ‘She [Faludi] tracks how female commentary just… shrinks in the years in the wake of the September 11 attacks, and how the mythology of this John Wayne type, cowboy-cum-fireman, your Strong-Jawed Man, is put back to the fore as the protector and the saviour.’ For Adena and Damien, it gave shape to their ideas and yoked them to a feminist political undercurrent. ‘It’s associated with this whole notion of having a voice, losing your voice, and trying to regain your voice.’

Damien goes out of his way to assure me that they’re not telling the story of these girls, or any story as you’d conventionally define it. ‘There’s no narrative, there’s no libretto, there’s no orchestra! A lot of the foundations of what you might call opera are not there.’

It’s easy to imagine this as difficult, cerebral art – the terror of every marketing department – but Damien is going for the opposite. ‘It’s an attempt to create a music that almost bypasses the brain and acts directly on the body. In terms of an audience experience, it’s… direct, visceral, primal.’ Not everyone has the cultural references to process the depths of some avant-garde performance, but everyone knows what it’s like to scream.

‘There’s a choking cadenza!’ He almost laughs at this sentence, previously unuttered in human history. He wants the audience to feel like they’re part of Jane Sheldon, the brave soprano who has trained in specific breathing techniques to handle the demands of this piece. ‘I turned to many non verbal vocalisations that you typically associate with high emotional arousal: howling, but also sobbing, moaning, crying…. Laughter’s one as well. That doesn’t make much of an appearance,’ he admits.

None of these are language, but they all communicate in the most expressive manner, which is something humans might have done long before the invention of words. Damien tells me about ‘vocal mobbing’, a theorised mode of pre-language. ‘People used to sing in this great, throbbing, almost cicada-like chanting as a means of creating a sonic shell around themselves,’ which might have warded off potential threats.

Communication without language is a paradox he’s excited to live inside, in a work full of paradoxes. ‘I’ve been working in this contradictory space of using a lot of involuntary sounds, but in a highly controlled, composed kind of way…. On one hand it’s very abstract, without narrative, but there is also a very literal directness about it.’

I ask him about another paradox: a composer who leaves gaps in their work. He’s always been interested in creating incomplete or open works, on the principle that it’s provocative to the imagination, both of his collaborators and his audiences.

‘The ruins of the ancient city, or a secret code… it’s exactly the missing knowledge that excites the brain to try to fill it in, to imagine it or discover it or unlock it.’ It’s sometimes a literal theme in his work, which has in the past evoked ancient or forgotten musical conditions.

It’s also a theme he explores formally, creating scores that are open to fluidity in their interpretation. He’s excited by the way this ‘elicits a necessary creative engagement from a performer, not just a technical engagement. Trying to facilitate someone else’s imagination. I love this situation where you bounce off one another, and the composer is not the isolated lone genius in their bedroom.’

On set for The Howling Girls,Carriageworks.

‘There’s no narrative, there’s no libretto, there’s no orchestra! A lot of the foundations of what you might call opera are not there.’

The Howling Girls is the latest in a series of multi-modal pieces that emphasise the creativity of their performers and co-collaborators. Fractured Again featured a glass artist and a video artist, while The Secret Noise was a fully staged work with actors and dancers. Damien sees his first opera as an extension of these explorations, while his work as co-artistic director of Ensemble Offspring, the lauded new music ensemble, has encouraged him to treat every performer as a potential multi-instrumentalist. ‘That’s the [percussionist]’s realm… always looking at objects around them and innately curious to ask what sounds they can produce.’

It’s a curiosity he shares, and he’s written far outside the norm, creating scores for arcane, old or exotic instruments, and even experimented with building his own. The score for The Howling Girls features a set of instruments that do more than produce sound. In a playful way, they respond to the themes of the work, and offer new opportunities to stage its ideas.

There’s a theremin, played by Jack Symonds, who also serves as musical director. ‘It’s a wonderful contradiction of being a gestural, physical instrument, without ever being touched. There are associations, with [Jack] being a conductor, with the notion of sign language and attempts to communicate. The piece ends with – rather than him controlling a specific melody – an attempt at sign language.

It features an instrument with the sound of raw fear: the Aztec death whistle. Damien’s journey towards this horror started with an article about psychological responses to sound. ‘People have used sound as a tool to create fear in others. You know the German dive bombers in the Second World War? That siren-like sound when they come at you-’ he makes the neeeewwww sound familiar from old war movies- ‘it’s not natural. They put baffles on the end of their wings that, as they accelerate, catch the wind and make this terrifying sound. It was… psychological warfare. I never knew.’

In the same article was a tantalising reference to an Aztec death whistle that took him down a Google rabbit hole. ‘Thank you, Internet! A few clicks later there’s a video, and it sounds like a B-grade splatter film scream. That’s great. I’ll get a few of those.’

Even a bass drum, which to the uninitiated has one function, takes on playful new roles in this score. ‘On one level it’s an amplified surface on which things can happen, whether they be scrapes or rice dropping… to more literal kinds of things, it gets whacked when Jane has her choking cadenza. You can literally view it as someone whacking you on the back, trying to dislodge what’s in your throat. The image I had was a defibrillator – the violence that comes with resuscitation.’

These seem like surprising innovations, but for Damien the real departure was going electronic. ‘It’s not my main shtick as a composer… but it was a conscious and logical response to these themes. If it’s about being inside Jane’s body, that immediately suggests a heavily amplified aesthetic, really feeling like we’re in her throat. I want a music that works directly on the body, and one of the most obvious examples of that are those sub-frequencies where you feel it, rather than hear it.’

He’s been assisted in this electronic direction by sound designer Bob Scott. ‘I give him sounds, mock-ups, and he’s been lifting it to another level. He’s almost like an orchestrator.’

It’s a fitting closing moment of modesty and generosity for a composer who places so much emphasis on the creativity of others.

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Bypassing the Rational

BYPASSING THE RATIONAL

An interview with Adena Jacobs, director of The Howling Girls
By Pierce Wilcox

When I speak to Adena Jacobs it’s almost the end of the first week of rehearsal for The Howling Girls, and while other directors might be intimidated by the challenging first days of staging a new opera, for her it comes as a relief. The lead artists have spent so long with this project existing only in their minds. Adena and composer Damien Ricketson have worked conceptually on the project for around three years, and soprano Jane Sheldon has spent months hard at work mastering the incredible technical challenges of the score. Now, Adena says, it’s about experiencing the work in person, in their bodies, and finally ‘getting out of our heads’.

This moment has been a long time coming. SCO’s Artistic Director, Jack Symonds, played creative Cupid back in the summer of 2015 and paired Adena with Damien Ricketson with the faith that together they’d make something strange and brilliant. ‘Our initial meetings were like dating. Artistic dating!’ Adena laughs. They’d never seen each other’s work, and decided to meet up every day for a week, going to concerts, art galleries, and theatre performances, getting to know each other’s processes and what excited them as artists.

The arranged marriage stuck, and Adena speaks with enthusiasm about Damien’s approach. ‘He was from the very beginning excited to have a creative collaborator, a director, as part of the conception of the piece. I think that’s quite rare.’ They developed a collaborative style that encouraged improvisation, testing and experiment, or in one case, ‘making a bizarre instrument in your living room and showing it on Skype!’.

She didn’t know Damien’s music before starting the project, but rapidly gained an appreciation for his style. ‘His music is very open, and gives you space as the listener and as the observer in the end to experience… a series of states. It puts you through something, through an experience- and I think that’s really beautiful. It puts me in a different mode. The process of working with him is interpretive as well as generative, and he’s still willing to shift and respond and change.’ Damien has been in the room for this week of rehearsals, testimony to their ongoing creative partnership. ‘He’s in the mess of it, all the time, which is cool!’

Wizard of Oz, performed at Belvoir 2015

Like all great partnerships, they wanted the same things. ‘We wanted to do something distilled and singular, a ritual experience,’ Adena explains, in which a soprano either sang themselves hoarse or staged some kind of a ritual – of death or ecstasy.

Having a third partner in the marriage helped: they knew they were making a work for the virtuosic Jane Sheldon. Knowing that Jane was doing the piece, they came together through an idea Adena describes as ‘an extreme durational event, as performed by an extraordinary soprano.’

Adena has spent most of her career in devised theatre, creating abstract and strongly visual responses to canonical texts, everything from the Bacchae of Euripides to The Wizard of Oz. Her normal process, she tells me, starts with being attracted to a particular image inside a myth or a story, but this time was different.

Like all great partnerships, they wanted the same things. ‘We wanted to do something distilled and singular, a ritual experience,’ Adena explains, in which a soprano either sang themselves hoarse or staged some kind of a ritual – of death or ecstasy.

The Bacchae. Photo by Pia Johnson

‘I had done a series of works like that back to back, and felt a bit exhausted, and wanted to do something from a new place.’ Instead, she began with the formal principles that united her and Damien. ‘We didn’t want the work to be narrative driven… we wanted it to be pure, and distilled, and experiential.’

Knowing that, they pulled apart the ideas they’d had for Jane, and realised it all came back to the voice. The concept of de-voicing brought them to the story of the Rusalka, the Slavic water sprite who must lose her voice to become mortal and find love. You might know this as Disney’s The Little Mermaid.

Adena then remembered a story she’d read about five girls who found themselves unable to speak following the 9/11 attacks, and fed that into the work. What transpired is in no way a literal telling of their story, but might echo their experience of horror, psychic anxiety, and a possible grasp for release.

It’s an idea common to much of Adena’s work, which has been preoccupied with the place of the voice and the difficulty of language. ‘Why somebody would be silent in the face of something is a mystery,’ she says, asking the question of these girls and their fellow silent witnesses through history. ‘It could be borne from a refusal or a choice, as much as a retreat, or an escape, or a sense of paralysis. Or a symptom of something that can’t be named.’

When I complain that, as a librettist, Adena’s textless opera has put me out of a job, she assures me that it’s not out of disdain for language. ‘I enjoy literature more than theatre,’ she confides. The problem, for her, is that ‘in traditional theatre our brain goes into a particular place when we hear words being spoken,’ while she wants to ‘communicate in forms that bypass the rational.’

Skipping the brain to hit you straight in the body, her work operates much like these girls and women, who are so often rendered voiceless, or when they do speak, are not listened to or believed. ‘Because the verbal becomes difficult, politically or psychologically, it’s like their body is communicating in some other way.’

Those bodies speak in ways that can’t always be controlled, which Adena knows well, having worked with young female performers multiple times. Her collaboration with teenage girls in The Bacchae was polarising and telling, with some audience members and critics focusing on the reality of these bodies far more than the ideas they were communicating. It’s an experience Adena has considered with rigorous clarity. ‘The politics of performance immediately sets up a dynamic where there’s a paying audience and figures on stage who are both the subjects and the objects. While they control many elements of the performance, they can’t control what the audience is seeing or thinking in their minds. That dynamic is inbuilt into many young women’s experiences of walking down the street, where you can perform a certain identity but you can’t control the gaze of others.’

Book of Exodus, Photo by Pia Johnson

Even the title plays into that political question, and she assures me it won’t be what people expect. ‘It enters into the iconography of young girls and horror, but also subverts it in quite fundamental ways… It’s not a punk band, it’s not a riot, it’s not pussy riot, it’s not cheerleaders.’

What it is remains a secret, but her design team guarantees it will be stunning and surprising. She has nothing but praise for Eugyeene Teh on set & costume design, and Jenny Hector on lighting, with whom she recently collaborated on The Book of Exodus Part II. ‘What’s good about both of them is that they think in terms of form, and they’re both very intuitive. They’ve felt like a natural extension of the team. I feel like the design is using Carriageworks Bay 20 to its maximum capacity, which is exciting for a piece that ranges between the very intimate and the cosmic.’

Those shifts in scale are essential for a work that moves between the specific and the general. The performers are all women, but Adena and Damien didn’t set out to make an explicitly feminist opera, unlike many of Adena’s other works. ‘It feels like these female performers are channeling a more universal kind of energy. We’re coming together to channel a particular kind of anxiety, or terror, that feels most interesting through the bodies and voices of women.’

She returns to the 9/11 girls, who ‘absorbed everybody’s psychic horror of the event.’ If we imagine the girls in a doctor’s surgery, we encounter a specific, female experience of ‘not being believed or listened to in an institutional context.’ But what they are unable to express is something larger and shared by everyone.

‘It’s not about the experience of being howling girls, or being a woman,’ Adena insists. Rather than an opera about hysteria, she’s interested in our representations of hysteria, and the way we project it onto women and young women above all else. ‘It’s trying to understand why we need female vocalists to express this range of emotions and ideas.’

I end by asking her if she wants her audiences to leave terrified. ‘The work has to be dark to warrant its release at the end. I wouldn’t say there’s catharsis, but it does feel like there’s a sense of potential, or future-looking, which is quite beautiful. There’s an odd sense of salvation.’

You heard it here first: if you want to be saved, come to The Howling Girls.

Image: Polly Borland, MOUTH 2017, Archival pigment print, edition of 6, image courtesy Murray White Room, Melbourne

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Brought to life

Brought to life

Biographica fuses renaissance with modern
by Annarosa Berman

Mary Finsterer and Tom Wright’s new chamber opera, Biographica, staged by Sydney Chamber Opera as part of the 2017 Sydney Festival, grew from an idea that took more that seventeen years to germinate. Fascinated by ancient history and mythology, Finsterer had long been playing with the idea of an opera based on the concept of the ancient Greek practice of palaestra, or wrestling, which can also be a wrestling of thoughts and ideas. What she needed was a story on which to hang the idea.

“The question was, what were we going to see on stage?” she says, when we speak for this article. In the library one day, she came across a book about Gerolamo Cardano, an eccentric renaissance genius who wrote the first texts on the mathematics of gambling and cheating. He was also a world-renowned surgeon and a pioneer of sign language. He revolutionised complex numbers and, having lived in a time where the line between science and mysticism was frequently blurred, drew upon both to seek an understanding to life and immortality. “Cardano’s life provided a vehicle for a story about thoughts, wrestling and debating,” Finsterer says.

Matthew Lutton, the creative consultant for Biographica, introduced the composer to librettist Tom Wright, who immediately grasped the concept of an opera built on the premise of ideas wrestling with each other and personified in the life of Gerolamo Cardano. Finsterer, Lutton and Wright workshopped the concept, and concluded that the story needed to be told as a series of contrasting portraits, rather than as a linear history. “The portraits are juxtaposed to create a sense of ideas colliding,” Finsterer says, “Placing them like one would in a gallery, reflects the idea that a life comprises many and often conflicting elements.”

“Cardano’s life provided a vehicle for a story about thoughts, wrestling and debating,” Finsterer says.

The Song Company, under the direction of Roland Peelman, performed some of the early material, but it was clear that staging the completed work would need the multi-faceted resources of an opera company. In 2012 some of the material was presented at Melbourne’s NOVA, an initiative established by Victorian Opera and Chamber Made Opera. It was here that former Sydney Festival director Lieven Bertels offered his support. His successor, Wesley Enoch, made the decision to include Biographica in the 2017 Sydney Festival with Sydney Chamber Opera and Ensemble Offspring. Having received this support, a search was undertaken to find a director, not only with the depth of experience required to work quickly to bring all the elements together, but someone with a bold vision capable of creating a visually arresting design to match the lushness and confidence of the music. This resulted in the appointment of Janice Muller.

Biographica, Photo by Lisa Tomasetti

Finsterer’s interest in renaissance and baroque music contrasts with her well established practice in the modernist aesthetic. “I respond to the particular requirements of the project at hand.  I don’t like being restricted by a particular style”, she remarks. Finsterer’s ability to adapt her technique to diverse circumstances has not gone unnoticed by prominent musicologist Richard Toop, who once said of her work, “Like Stravinsky before her, Mary Finsterer has a remarkable capacity to adjust the basic characteristics of her music to very different circumstances, without any sense of compromise.”

In Biographica, her aim was to capture an essence of renaissance music by filtering it through a contemporary lens. Thus, the music is built on harmony made from 3-note chords. “I use this tertian harmony as the basic building block, but in ordering that elemental material, I draw from serialism to assist me with chord progressions and voice–leading. I’m interested in finding ways to take the listeners to places that are perhaps unexpected or even surprising”, Finsterer explains.

Admirers of Finsterer’s music might think that her compositional style has changed in this work. But she says, “The material is derived from the Renaissance, yet the method by which it’s constructed draws from the modernist aesthetic. I wanted to bring the two worlds together. I realise that the outer layers of the music are quite different but I don’t feel that I’m writing very different music at all.”

In writing an opera, a big part of attending to the task at hand is to write vocal lines to which opera singers can feel a connection. “In opera it’s very important to have clean, clear vocal lines,” Finsterer says. “In Biographica, because the harmony stems from the tertian system, extracting material to support the vocal lines is an enjoyable part of the process.”

To some it might come as a surprise to learn that Finsterer had been working on Biographica for almost two decades. She says, “It’s been part of my life for a long time; but it’s not as if I’ve been working on it constantly. I like having a large–scale piece in the background while I’m working on other projects. This enables me to compose many works, drawing on the same research.”

Will she be writing for the theatre in future? Fortunately, yes. “I feel that Biographica has initiated ideas for more opera,” she says.

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Biographica Wrap-up

biographica
wrap-up

Biographica shines at Sydney Festival
by Annarosa Berman

Sydney Chamber Opera and Ensemble Offspring’s world première of Mary Finsterer and Tom Wright’s Biographica, a twelve-scene snapshot of the life and work of Renaissance polymath, Gerolamo Cardano, attracted high praise from critics at the Sydney Festival earlier this year.

The Australian’s Murray Black lauded the opera’s dramatic power, which stems from the “intriguing duality” of Cardano’s character: an intellectual genius, he is emotionally flawed. Finsterer and Wright dramatise this duality by making the role of Cardano a non-singing one, while a quintet of singers portray family members to whom he shows appalling coldness.

Of Finsterer’s score, Black writes that it “proves to be as wide-ranging and eclectic as Cardano’s intellectual pursuits”, its “complex yet crystalline textures, evocative instrumental colours and intricate rhythms” resulting in an “absorbing, appealing sound world.” Tom Wright’s libretto, says Partial Durations’ Alistair Noble, is “complex and subtly nuanced”, its layered textures effectively presenting the “complexity of the stories and characters”.

... Biographica is “inventive, engaging, stimulating, and moving”; and, “an outstanding new opera” which “deserves a permanent place in the repertory” - Murray Black

Biographica, Photo by Lisa Tomasetti

As Cardano, beloved Australian actor Mitchell Butel garnered high praise. Limelight’s Angus McPherson writes that Butel’s “striking intensity” held the show together. The family members were well received too: Jane Sheldon as Cardano’s mother, sang with “frightening power”, “from soaring fear to guttural rage” (Keith Gallasch, RealTime), while Jessica O’Donoghue “found an elegant awkwardness” for Cardano’s tragic daughter (Alistair Noble, Partial Durations.). Mezzo-soprano Anna Fraser shone as the unfaithful wife poisoned by Cardano’s son, sung by Simon Lobelson, her “full, characterful mezzo” standing in stark contrast to Lobelson’s “cold, smooth baritone”. (Angus McPherson, Limelight). Tenor Andrew Goodwin, as the kleptomaniac son, Aldo, “sustained pure expressive tonal evenness” (Peter McCallum, Sydney Morning Herald).

Janice Muller’s direction was simple, direct and effectively lit by Matt Cox, according to McCallum, and conductor Jack Symonds “controlled the balance of iridescent purity and gritty noise in the sound to create an aural equivalent reminiscent of Oscar Wilde’s image of a person lying in the gutter staring at the stars”.

In conclusion, Biographica is “inventive, engaging, stimulating, and moving”; and, “an outstanding new opera” which “deserves a permanent place in the repertory”, says Murray Black.

Another mission accomplished for Sydney Chamber Opera and the artists who enable the company to pursue its ideals.

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Notes on Writing ‘Notes’

Notes on
Writing 'Notes'

by Pierce Wilcox (librettist of Notes from Underground, Fly Away Peter, Victory Over the Sun)

When I sat down to write the libretto for Notes from Underground, I had one genuine writing credit to my name: a cod-intellectual, sub-Stoppardian piece of magic realist amateur theatre that was immediately and rightly consigned to the dustbins of history. (Everyone has one bad play inside of them, desperate to be freed, and I like to think I got mine out of the way early.)

My juvenilia was in the past. Opera felt like the future. A sentence that’s rarely been written, but something that was crucial to our process of creating Notes, and an idea that SCO keeps proving possible with every new and groundbreaking production.

At the time, all of that was distant. What was an opera? Who was an opera? Why was an opera? This wasn’t going to be Mimi or Butterfly swooning as hunky baritones swaggered across the stage in electric blue plus-fours. That much I knew. But the possibilities of the art form were something I had no idea of when we embarked on this project. I didn’t know what could be done, which meant I had no idea what couldn’t be done. So, like a mad scientist in a Hammer Horror film, everything I’ve made has come from a spirit of unhinged experimentation that cares not a jot for mortal limits.

Mad, they called us! Mad! Or in our case, ‘unstageable’, an allegation levelled at pretty much everything SCO has gone on to stage, with invariable success.

Notes from Underground, Photo by Zan Wimberley

For our first trick, the task was to take a novel of two halves – the first a philosophical diatribe, the second a memory – and turn it into a work of music drama that told a story bounded by time. Something that carried the audience relentlessly forward while still allowing space for reflection and meditation, a gap to be filled by hope and its dark counterpart, regret.

Composer and SCO’s now-Artistic Director Jack Symonds and I yoked the two halves together, so that Dostoevsky’s wonderful, mad narrator readers call ‘The Underground Man’ is present to witness the story he tells in the second half of the novella. They’re not separated by chapter headings: they’re looking at each other across the gap of years, the young man hopeful and forward-looking, the older man embittered by his younger self’s mistakes and his own stasis.

The rage and despair of the first half isn’t theory any more. It’s reality. We didn’t want to hear the Underground Man talk about his thoughts on life and love in isolation, we wanted to see them tested and played out onstage, a theatre of his own mind, where the grandeur of opera gives them the vast dignity that the Man so sorely wishes he could preserve in his own life.

That was the structure. What did it meant to put pen to paper?

I have no idea. I use a laptop because we are young and vibrant and also I always lose my stationery.

Adapting a novel into a libretto was unlike anything I had done as a writer. In prose, you have the scope for passages of rich description, and you can stop time to plunge deep into a character’s psyche and expose their most intricate fears and desires. In theatre, your primary tool is dialogue, and you’re trying to write the way humans actually talk, in all their diversity and strangeness and wit and honesty, as well as leaving space for everything they don’t, can’t, won’t say underneath.

Photo: Pierce models costumes from Victory Over the Sun (Courtesy Sarah Cottier Gallery)

“I am                 (I am)
I am                 (I am)
I am wicked I am sick..”

Opera is different. It’s poetry. Sparse, sparkling poetry. You’re finding the perfect word for that moment, something that can communicate location, mental state, action, intent, ideology – and ideally all at once in as few syllables as possible. My cheapest trick is to use compound words, or neologise my own by jamming two unexpected words together and hoping meaning sparks in the collision. Frankenwords! Like that, which in itself is a frankenword! Gosh language is exciting. I might need a lie down soon.

So you search for a word that can be sung, a word that says everything a whole paragraph or chapter might say in the luxurious expanse of a novel, and you put it down.

A little example: The first line of the novel Notes, the beginning of the Man’s diatribe, is ‘I am an ill man, I am a spiteful man.’
… Or it isn’t. Did I mention this is in translation? I had three different versions open on my desk to solve this first line. ‘I am an unwell person’ was obviously out. Clinical and polite. This was an introduction, and a nasty one, a man laying his soul open. Definite articles could go, and he was obviously a man because he was being played by one. One translation went from ‘sick’ to ‘wicked’, and although out of context they sounded like things a 90s kid would say about a cool new surfboard, they felt right – clipped and nasty in the mouth. But his villainy felt more important to foreground: this is a man whose ‘sickness’ is either a moral degeneracy or a psychosomatic ailment, so we should meet that after we meet his wickedness.

That, and this is someone obsessed with himself, with the act of self-definition. He’s constantly telling people who he is and what he’s about, and yet struggles to pin himself down. And in our version, he’s staring at a younger self who also wants to define himself, but has no idea yet who he’s going to be.

So we begin with both men, older and younger, singing ‘I am’. An introduction to the audience, an attempt to justify and explain themselves for the wonderful and terrible things they’re about to do

I am                 (I am)
I am                 (I am)
I am wicked
I am sick.

That’s the first ten words. Then it gets properly bonkers. Enjoy. (Lightning crackles, evil laugh, fade out.)

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A Strange Kind of Poetry

A STRANGE
KIND OF POETRY

Pierce Wilcox on the art of libretto writing
By Annarosa Berman

A friend recently asked librettist Pierce Wilcox how it felt to have written two librettos in two years. Wilcox’s answer was, “Well, it feels different to everyone else I know!”

In Australia today, opportunities to write librettos are scarce. Yet by mid next year Wilcox will have had three libretti performed in close succession: Fly Away Peter, based on the novel by David Malouf, Victory Over the Sun, a reworking of Michail Matyushin’s futurist opera, to be performed for the opening of the Sydney Biennale next March, and Notes from Underground, based on the Dostoyevsky novella, which has its second run later in 2016 in a completely new production and revision.

As a teenager Wilcox dreamed of being a director or playwright. It came as a surprise when in his final year of uni, Sydney Chamber Opera co-founder Louis Garrick asked him if he would like to write a libretto based on Dostoyevsky’s novella, Notes from Underground. “Louis said, ‘Look, do you want to write a libretto for this guy, Jack Symonds? He’s just graduating from uni and he’s a composer and he’s brilliant.” Wilcox laughs when he recalls his reaction. “I said, ‘Oooo….kay. But 90% of me felt, oh shit, I don’t know enough about this!”

Help arrived in the form of homework from Symonds, who suggested that Wilcox read David Harsent’s libretto for The Minotaur, Meredith Oakes’ The Tempest, David Malouf’s Voss and Myfanwy Piper’s Death in Venice.

In those early days, what now seems obvious was baffling and ludicrous. “Jack would say, ‘This is a wonderful word to read, but you can’t sing it.’ It also took a while to grasp that the librettist leaves vast amounts of space for the music, which tells most of the story and communicates the emotion. “I was reading the librettos thinking, ‘Who is this guy? Where does that woman fit in? Why does he love her? This page is just bird noises!’

Wilcox also learned that in libretto writing, clarity was essential. “If the soprano is going to sing three words that encapsulate everything that’s going on dramatically, poetically and symbolically, choosing the right word and making sure that it’s as short and sharp and clear as possible, is crucial.”

But if the words have to be short, they also have to be dense and infused with meaning. “In opera, words are often repeated, they take a long time to sing, and they are shown in the surtitles.  So you can throw a strange kind of poetry at the audience, knowing that they will have time to pick it apart.” Intricate words also provide a variety of hooks for the composer.

Fly Away Peter, Photo by Samuel Hodge

To some, the choice of Notes from Underground as basis for an opera seemed like a crazy idea. It consists of two parts, the first being a philosophical rant by a man who, in an impotent fury that everything has gone wrong in the St Petersburg of his day, has locked himself away from society. The second part is his recollection of the incident that caused the rant. Symonds wanted the two storylines to unfold simultaneously, so that the diatribe inspired by the event, and the event itself, would happen on stage at the same time. Wilcox says: “The conceit broke the novel open in a powerful way. The older character could look at his younger self and mock and jeer.”

Wilcox’s job was finding resonances between the two parts of the novel, and weaving them together. “Jack and I proceeded in fits and starts; it was a constant conversation rather than me going away and writing the whole thing. We collaborated on everything.”

Wilcox’s second libretto, for Fly Away Peter, presented a different set of challenges. To begin with, writing a libretto based on a novel by one of Australia’s most iconic living authors, was “hugely intimidating”. Wilcox laughs. “As a person David Malouf is warm and generous, but intellectually, he’s very threatening!”

Luckily Malouf understood the young creative team’s dilemma; when writing the libretto for Richard Meale’s Voss, based on Patrick White’s novel, he too, had to come up with his own approach to a landmark novel by a giant of Australian literature. “David made it clear that his novel was a thing apart from our opera; that we should have confidence and faith in our own work.”

There were other challenges. Like that in Malouf’s novels the action is internal and the characters are transformed in the spiritual realm. Says Wilcox: “Creating an opera with almost no scenes presented an interesting dilemma. What we tried to capture instead was David’s poetic voice.”

 

Notes from Underground, as basis for an opera

“In opera, words are often repeated, they take a long time to sing, and they are shown in the surtitles. So you can throw a strange kind of poetry at the audience, knowing that they will have time to pick it apart.”

It helped that Wilcox and Fly Away Peter composer Elliott Gyger had an instant rapport. Wilcox laughs when he remembers their interaction:  “Jack and I were young people starting out, so there was this youthful energy about our collaboration. Elliot is a bold writer and a man of vision, but he’s certainly much more restrained than the two of us were!”

With Victory Over the Sun, which SCO is “recreating” with major Sydney visual artist Justene Williams and composer/SCO Artistic Associate Huw Belling for the opening of next year’s Sydney Biennale, it’s back to crazy exuberance. The libretto, Wilcox’s third, is partially written in so-called “Zaum” language, and when asked for his take on how this works in opera, he bursts out laughing. “I don’t think anyone knows how this works! People have been claiming to know how it works for over a century now; but no two scholars have been able to reach agreement on the issue!”

Zaum, “a language created by madmen”, is a linguistic sound experiment that aims to take language beyond rational meaning. It is full of onomatopoeia and dense with cultural references that are entirely lost on modern audiences. “We have no idea what it was like for the audience when it was first performed. We think they probably felt assaulted. Which is what the creators were aiming for.”

Translating this “text” for a contemporary Sydney audience, while retaining the deliberate nonsense of the original, is the challenge. “You want something that is a little bit beyond the audience’s conception. Like backwards talking in a horror film. You want people to think, that sounds like English, but I can’t understand it.”

It might help to bear in mind that Victory Over the Sun is about the future going to war with the past. “At least, that’s what we think it’s about!”

With the enthusiasm that is typical of SCO, Wilcox says that the creative team is blown away by the possibilities of the work. “But it’s a strange project even by our standards.”

Never having dreamed of being a librettist, now that he is, Wilcox finds the experience immensely rewarding. “Libretto writing provides an opportunity to use the skills of word craft and literature and the shaping of meaning through text. But it also brings you into contact with art forms and creatives that you would never have met through writing essays or plays or novels.”

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We acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation as the traditional custodians of the land on which we work and perform. We honour their elders both past and present, and extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

© 2020 Sydney Chamber Opera | Site designed & built by Anderson Chang