Jim Carroll

Music, Life and everything else

Tomorrow, In A Year

In 2010, I talked to Olof Dreijer from The Knife about the duo’s work on Tomorrow, In A Year, Danish theatre company Hotel Pro Forma’s Darwin-inspired opera. Tonight and tomorrow night, the opera will be performed at Cork Opera House …

Fri, Jun 24, 2011, 11:19

   

In 2010, I talked to Olof Dreijer from The Knife about the duo’s work on Tomorrow, In A Year, Danish theatre company Hotel Pro Forma’s Darwin-inspired opera. Tonight and tomorrow night, the opera will be performed at Cork Opera House as part of the Cork Midsummer Festival. After the jump, Peter Crawley talks to Hotel Pro Forma’s Ralf Richardt Strøbech about the company’s adventures in opera.

Is opera overdue an evolutionary leap? Like any species, it has developed, adapted and mutated over time, from tentative beginnings to walking upright to finding its stride. There was the classical-period genius of Mozart, the heavy purpose of Wagner, the frank emotion of Verdi. Its innovators and radicals multiplied between Kurt Weill, Arnold Schoenberg, Philip Glass and John Adams, although lately it has been used as a postmodern punchline: Anna Nicole or Jerry Springer: The Opera. So, did the makers of Tomorrow in a Year: A Darwin Electro Opera consider that experimenting with the form would be a natural selection?

Ralf Richardt Strøbech, the co-director of the Danish theatre company Hotel Pro Forma’s Darwin-inspired opera, seems to boast every genetic advantage; tall, blonde, blue-eyed with a background in art and architecture and the effortless ability to correctly use the word ‘whom’ in a second language. He considers the question carefully. “Opera was really the only form capable of containing a subject as huge as Darwin and evolution,” he says. “Opera traditionally deals with matters of life and death. But I’m not a traditionalist. I wouldn’t risk making a conventional opera. Here it’s more about the technics and machinery than Boy meets girl and they commit suicide.”

It’s the technics, or more precisely the electronics, that has earned Tomorrow In a Year most of its attention. First debuted in 2009, its score was composed and recorded by the beautifully unsettling Swedish brother-sister duo, The Knife. Olof Dreijer and Karin Dreijer Andersson have served it with sometimes startling, sometimes sensuous textures, as though balanced precisely between technology and natural world. “I find electronic music quite operatic to begin with,” says Strøbech. “It’s music made for landscapes. When you drive in your car it’s fantastic to listen to The Knife.”

Neither Dreijer not Dreijer Andersson had worked in opera before – in fact they had never seen an opera before – but Strøbech sensed a formal kinship in them. “They never play themselves in their music. They perform a role somehow. They are externalised from their own personae.” Indeed, you’re most likely to see them (if at all) in costumes or behind creepy masks, while their most identifiable technique (which Karin also uses for solo project, Fever Rey) is to pitchshift their voices into alien registers. “With The Knife you also get a slight sense of narrative, but it’s not a story. It’s more like a worldview put into a musical form.”

That, near enough, is also the idea behind the opera: to give artistic expression to Charles Darwin’s theories and life experience. (The production premiered on the bicentennial of his On the Origin of Species.) In a manner befitting a scientist, it is an experimental work. Once they had found a common origin, Strøbech and The Knife developed their work separately, the musicians taking inspiration from Darwin’s study of pigeons and their own field recordings in the Amazon and Iceland, while Strøbech buried himself in Darwin’s scientific writings, diaries and letters. You could call it Parallel Evolution. “If you have shared values, then it is better to refine your own material separately,” says Strøbech. “Artistic production is really about relaxing and letting stuff come to you. You get an idea – you don’t take an idea.”

There may have been more friction when their experiments first came together than Strøbech allows. “Writing for mezzo soprano felt impossible in the beginning,” Karin has admitted. Asked to sing a single note throughout the opera, the opera singer Kristina Wahlin, who shares the libretto with a pop singer and an actor, may have felt she was being asked to do a machine’s job. “The tension between our way of doing things has been really interesting,” conceded Olof.

I wondered if recorded electronica, matched to live singers, was a contradictory approach to take to both opera and natural science?

“I perceive the backing track as a context,” reasons Strøbech,” and on top of that you have the live voice, which is very much organic. The electronic music functions more as the rocks and boulders of nature. It’s not really related to digital and analogue, but biological and mineral.” Darwin himself almost fantasised about becoming an automaton, once remarking, “I am turned into a sort of machine for observing facts and grinding out conclusions.”

But both The Knife and Strøbech gravitated towards the man. One woozy, moving soundscape, entitled Annie’s Box, refers to the death of Darwin’s 11-year-old daughter and Strøbech recites a heart-breaking correspondence from Darwin to his wife from a sanatorium: “12 o’clock: She wanders and talks a good deal today” “3 o’clock: She is certainly now going on very well.” And finally, the next day: “She went to her final sleep most tranquilly, most sweetly at 12 o’clock today.” On stage, which Strøbech designed as a malleable space of platforms video projections and lasers, the shadows of Darwin’s greenhouse follow the passage of the day and the fading of his daughter’s life. It is not a way of capturing Darwin’s feelings, but of reproducing the conditions of those moments.

This opera cannot hope to have the same radical impact of Darwin’s world-changing theory, Strøbech knows – although he admits that it can inspire radically different emotions. “If you expect me to invent a new form of opera, it’s not that. It’s just an opera. It’s not a theory. Science radically alters the way we perceive the world, which a work of art could never do in the same way.”

And yet scientists and artists, at their purest, may be more closely related than we think: they both experiment, question beyond what they know, and make discoveries. “I completely believe that scientists and artists are the same kind of species,” Strøbech smiles. “I really hope the next evolutionary step will be not to rely on so much categorisation.”

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