...And Even The Light Disappeared (Abstraction, Absurdity, Adámek)
Is it possible to say what an opera is about?
It might be, but that’s exactly what I do not want to do.
(interview with Martin Smolka, programme of Days of New Opera Festival)
If you are writing about Open List, you can say in the very beginning that this production is in many ways so abstract that the review is thus an irretrievably lost attempt at transferring the experience of the audience, both visual and aural, into a written form. Furthermore, the review is also an attempt at an analysis, which is something the production goes against to a considerable extent. On the other hand, there is a list of facts that are (relatively)indisputable: Open List is a work of musical composer Martin Smolka and librettist and director Jiří Adámek. It was commissioned by the Days of New Opera Festival in Ostrava, where it premiered in June 2014 and its (so far?) only reprise was performed. Its genre is spoken opera and both authors repeatedly describe the production as non-opera/anti-opera. Moreover, Smolka and Adámek instead of using the word singers use the neologism “speakgers”.
There is such overflow of specifications that it might seem a little pointless. In the genre of new opera it is difficult indeed to come up with something new, which would noticeably disrupt the conventional forms, as has been repeatedly proved by the festivals Ostrava Days (focused on new music, organized in odd years) and the younger Days of New Opera Festival (organized in even years). At Ostrava Days 2013,for example, in Nekvasil’s new production of Lohengrin by Salvatore Sciarrino, the singer of the leading and the only role, accompanied by an absolutely cacophonic orchestra, was smacking her lips noisily and rolling saliva in her mouth. In other words, a disruption of the established forms is rather difficult without the established forms themselves. What makes the production Open List truly interesting, however, is its way to pure abstraction and the manner, in which it keeps on escaping audience’s expectations. It must be stressed that all the performers – the soloists of Boca Loca Lab in particular – were really stunning and because of them the production was very well received by the opera critics. It is quite surprising how good the audio recording by Czech Radio is. The following review, however, deals with Open Sesame as a theatre performance.
The production was inspired by Umberto Eco’s novel The Infinity of Lists (2009), a kind of commented literature anthology and art almanac written as a sequel to similarly structured books On Ugliness (2007) and History of Beauty (2004). The theme of Infinity of Lists seems rather marginal: the poetics of “lists” in the history of art, from Hesiodos’ description of the birth of Greek gods to, for example, Andy Warhol’s cycle of graphics Campbell’s Soup depicting its various flavours. Jiří Adámek and his theatre group Boca Loca Lab are well known for their experiments with words, and thus the form of a list seems a very logical choice. The first minutes of the opera more or less confirm the expectations of everyone, who knows their work. Four member of Boca Loca Lab (BLL), Vendula Holičková, Bára Mišíková, Pavol Smolárik, and Daniel Šváb, walk to the auditorium and stand in front of the spectators. They begin to recite rhythmically simple lists: Greek alphabet, a list of abbreviations, excerpts from name indexes, citations from English dictionary, mnemonic tools for Morse code, or the endings of the chemical nomenclature of oxides. The greatest merit of this scene is typical for the work of BLL: absolute acting and technical precision of the performers, but also Adámek’s sensitivity to the sound of language, its paradoxical layering and humour thus created.
After a couple of minutes, the stream of speech is suddenly interrupted by the sound of the orchestra – a lofty, attractive melody with sweeping sound of strings, which, to my untrained ears, could easily pass for any traditional opera from the end of the 19th century. The problem is, however, that taken in the context of the entire work, it is similar to the fragmentary excerpts: it begins abruptly and immediately disappears again. This composition principle is related to Georges Aperghis’ “structuring without the beginning and end,” as Adámek comments in his monograph Theatre Bound by Music, which focuses on “his” kind of music theatre. It is also linked to the method of repetition, layering, and variation. When the flurry of melody finishes, the “speakgers” begin to speak. They gradually move from the “simple” rhythmical recitation to a voice-band style of work with the text. As they use polyphony and changing melody, the structure becomes more complicated. When the choir begins to sing ceremonially (the names of famous pairs of lovers)from the orchestra pit, the “speakgers” finally walk from the auditorium onto the stage and the lights in the theatre go down. The parts of the “speakgers”, the choir, and the orchestra begin to mingle. The texts become more and more difficult. Adámek includes a short anthology of the motif of rose in the world poetry, from Shakespeare, via Goethe to Gertrude Stein. The four protagonists move in the spotlights of a line of reflectors hanging on a rod two metres above the stage. The orchestra plays a slightly changed variation of the lofty melody they played in the beginning, but they finish it with a provocative dissonance. From this moment on, Smolka uses the contrasts and cacophony very often.
The first part, called Exposition, is followed by five subsequent parts of Open List. In the next part, called Fish, Adámek and Smolka move into a very different direction: the performers recite names of various fish species with a quieter, yet discordant music accompaniment. This scene arouses the only doubt I have about the otherwise very good production. The basis of Adámek’s work with words (and of the first part of Open List) is playfulness and sensitivity to the possibilities of language. Yet, in the meditative tempo of the second part, the language games become blurred. They stop making connections and become merely a part of a general music pattern. This approach is not bad in itself as Smolka’s music is definitely powerful, especially in the more dynamic passages. The problem is that a scene structured in such way needs an effective scenographic idea, and I am afraid that Adámek as a director succeeded only to a limited extent. The performers stand motionlessly in the darkness in front of a screen, onto which an abstract colourful projection is screened. It is undoubtedly a matter of personal taste of the audience, but to me, it seems that this scenic image of Open List succumbs to the danger already hidden in the meditative music. Frankly, it seems affectedly artistic. On one hand, the colourful projection appears to instruct us as to how a minimalist opera scenography should be made. On the other hand, in contrast to the previous scene and some of the following ones, it is not connected to the form, it does not create a line, nor a list. It merely rotates slowly and thus appears completely random. This impression is partly strengthened by the extravagant costumes by Ivana Kanhäuserová, which otherwise work very well. The four “speakgers” are dressed in unanimous robes, which seem almost extraterrestrial. In harmony with the central theme, the costumes create an effect of a “list of ‘speakgers’”. In contrast, the first costume worn by the only soloist Jan Mikušek, a contra tenor well-known from many opera and theatre projects, in its pure geometry is not visibly related to anything at all. It rather resembles a style often seen in Czech contemporary opera costume design. I do not claim that it is necessary to use the same formal key to all aspects of the opera, but in this case, it is a pity. Umberto Eco in Infinity of Lists deals with visual possibilities of lists and examines this theme in detail.
On the other hand, it must be added that a consistent, meaningful interconnection of all the aspects of the opera would undermine the desired effect of a gradual suspension of an intellectual grasp, which is the aim of the libretto of the performance. After Fish, the next part, Mirroring, includes of one the literary lists quoted by Eco – an enumeration of everything the protagonists saw in Jorge Luis Borges’ short story The Aleph, a point in space that contains all other points. Music flows slowly as a prolonged incessant undertow. From time to time, it is interrupted by a women’s choir, who sing gradually changing tirades of the refrain “I saw”. One of the “speakgers”, who remained alone on stage, always replies back by uttering the rest of the sentences from Borges’ text. (For example, “I saw a densely populated sea, I saw dawn and dusk, I saw crowds of people in America, I saw a silvery cobweb in the centre of a pyramid.”) Another rotating abstract projection is screed onto the screen at the back of the stage, but this time its meaning is clearer. At least for the spectators who recognize the quotation from The Aleph and remember that Borges describes The Aleph as a “small, rainbow-colour ball emanating an almost unbearable light”, which seems “to be spinning.”)
After a while, “the speakger” assumes the role of the choir and utters only occasionally the phrase “I saw” to the slowly flowing discordant music. The light, which illuminates him, gets dimmer and dimmer, while the projection gets brighter and brighter. The impression of abstract ungraspability is emphasized by the first number of Mikušek, who sings something in some foreign language, while a few women figurines with long hair hung by their feet swing above Mikušek’s head. Because of the stylized opera style of singing, I wasn’t able to recognize the language, let alone the content. Given it is Borges, it is very likely that the language might be an invented one. The break between these two scenes is thunderingly dramatic, but the actual accompaniment to the singing then becomes again disturbingly subdued and remains consistently cacophonic.
The next section, called The Pilgrims, deals with the excerpts from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (1972), i.e. fantastical descriptions of imaginary cities. In comparison with the previous part, The Pilgrims use a different strategy than the original. In The Aleph, Adámek used more or less the whole text, with small exceptions of a few points that are closely related to the story of the narrator’s deceased love and her cousin. From the short chapters of Invisible Cities, on the other hand, Adámek took only an idea, a few sentences, or the atmosphere. He disrupts any hints at logical structure, which is present is Calvino’s “poems in prose.” Yet, there is something else that connects The Pilgrims with Mirroring: alongside the slow “literary” passages, there are dynamic passages, which introduce or interrupt them. Adámek assigns “the speakgers” expanding and gradually developing lists of key words and associations to various themes, which they perform in a voice-band style, this time supported by more or less melodious accompaniment by the orchestra. These passages (together with the following section called Science, which does not have any literary inspiration, where Adámek works in a similar way with various scientific terms) return the composition back to the dynamic, playful atmosphere, which the opera had in the beginning.) In the “introductory” passage of The Pilgrims, in which the list of capital cities is sung, the contra tenor, dressed in a white suit, walks across the stage on cross-country skis. In Science, Mikušek appears on stage with goggles and flippers and sings “It is only fiction! Mere fiction!” This image is everything but an invitation for a rational interpretation of the work. Just as Borges, opera Open List points to the difficulty of capturing what can be seen in The Aleph, where in mere one moment, though a “gigantic moment”, “millions of pleasing and terrifying deeds” could be seen. The following passage from Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, which is the final part of the opera, suggests something similar. “I, too, moved with the all, but I could see the One, the Rock, the Guarantee, the luminous mist that is not body, that has no shape, weight, quantity, or quality, that does not see or hear, that cannot be sensed, that is in no place, in no time, and is not soul, intelligence, imagination, opinion, number, order, or measure. Neither darkness nor light, neither error nor truth.” After that only a prolonged, declining sound – and darkness.
Martin Smolka: Open List, libretto and directed by Jiří Adámek, set design and costumes Ivana Kanhäuserová, conductor Ondřej Vrabec, choir master Jurij Galatenko, National Theatre of Moravia and Silesia – Opera, premiere June 26, 2014, Days of New Opera Festival, Ostrava.
published in Svět a divadlo, issue 5, volume 2014
translated by Hana Pavelková
) It might be argued, with a little bit of good will, that the previous projection in Fish could be understood as a prelude to The Aleph scene. I am afraid that this interpretation is a bit too forced. Or maybe not, the intricate system of pendulums, which is closely related to the sixth part of the opera, appears also previously in part four. So perhaps...
) If I were more courageous with using musicological terminology, I could try to describe the structure of the whole opera as a rondo. However, the central motif does not repeat literally , but only as a formal principle.