Fig Trees

Opera Games

My first important and formative opera experiences were not in theatres or concert halls. Opera became my favorite art form through my parents’ stereos and tvs while listening ecstatically to boxed-sets of Mozart and Wagner and watching “live from the Met” broadcasts. It wasn’t just the catchy tunes, glorious voices and fantastic over-the-topness of the music that hooked me. I loved how the records looked and felt; the grandiose self importance of the packaging and libretto booklets; the wonderful translations, provided to break the Italian and German codes belted out by the unintelligible, Viking-helmeted, over-emotive singers. I loved the tv commentators with their deep knowledge of endless and arcane facts and histories. My love of opera was formed through heavily mediated circumstances and non-musical associations (listening to my favorite bits again and again, staying up late, etc.). I experienced “real” opera for the first time relatively recently, and found myself vaguely disappointed. I was missing my childhood living rooms.

When John Greyson and I started our operatic adventure we established quite early on that our medium would be video rather than live theatre. We recognized the difficulties inherent in writing effective contemporary opera. I have long maintained that the necessary middle ground between maudlin Broadwayism and barely listenable post-Schoenbergian chromaticism is almost impossible to achieve in the naked earnestness of a contemporary opera theatre. We decided also that each scene of our piece would employ a different compositional “game”: a technological aspect embedded in the actual composition which would render it both more interesting within a video context and inherently unperformable in the traditional sense. We set out to create a singular, specifically “video-ized” opera.

The musical world of Fig Trees is one of simplicity and basic euphony (it’s “easy on the ears”). This is the case for many reasons, the most important being our unabashed and deeply seated desire to create something pleasurable. My favorite music, opera included, has always been full of tunes and repetitions. All the best operas have big, bold seductive pop songs in them, from Monteverdi’s Orfeo, 1607 (arguably the first great opera and chock full o’ hits) to Berg’s Wozzeck, 1925 (especially Marie’s lullaby in act 1) to AdamsEl Nino, 2000. The big challenge is to create warm and generous music which isn’t banal. To this end John and I decided to emphasize the tradition of operatic ensemble; those wonderful instances in vocal trios, quartets, sextets, etc., where a group of simultaneously sung but lyrically and melodically independent parts combine to create a gorgeous whole, full of emotional and harmonic richness. Oftentimes specific words and meanings are unintelligible in these contexts, but this only adds to the sensation of being washed in beautiful sound and sometimes mercifully obscures sub-standard librettos (not needed in our case, of course!). Most of the scenes in our opera emulate this great opera tradition and in so doing, incorporate one of our central theoretical motifs: that real social change, such as the gaining of readily accessible anti-retroviral drugs for people with AIDS in South Africa is achieved by a vast multitude, not by singular, indeed, “operatic” heroes. Musical polyphony in our context represents the ultimate democratization of history’s rich and layered narrative.

Our opera’s first scene, The Queens Throat, is our most “operatic” piece, complete with tragic death and a loudly proclaimed tenorial high Bb. As Zackie attempts to make his deeply heartfelt and vulnerable speech, various translators interrupt with increasingly inaccurate interpretations, overlapping with and enveloping our hero. It isn’t until he chooses to speak (sing) in Afrikaans that the inept translators are dumbstruck. In this piece I wanted to evoke the sound world of Henry Purcell; tragic but dignified. Here “opera” becomes a symbolic landscape of public imagination and projection: Zackie Achmat as Verdi’s Violetta, dying on a high note; martyred to cleanse the world of it’s cloying addiction to tragedy and unfailingly bad taste.

In Cut Throat I tried to emulate the mediaeval tradition of polyphony, in which different equally important lines are sung simultaneously. (It wasn’t until the mid-sixteenth century that vocal music shifted to accompanied solo parts, leading to the development of real opera). Each singer is recorded on a separate, perpetually repeating loop. Because the loops are slightly different in length, their interaction becomes random, creating an endless, ever-changing, self-composing scene.

Pils Slip is completely palindromic, musically and lyrically. Zackie and Nathan only sound like they’re singing the same words because the words read identically forwards and backwards. After writing the melody for Zackie’s part I simply turned the score upside down and there was Nathan’s line. This resulted in a wonderful retrograde inversional harmony with repeated major sevenths and a single unison note, B, in the middle of the treble clef. Once again the piece essentially wrote itself. The game in this scene involves occasionally running sound and picture backwards and then forwards again, resulting in technologically enhanced, palindromic moments which are impossible to reproduce live.

Our Staircase Motet is the most complex and involved piece in Fig Trees. It consists of twenty simultaneous vocal lines, sung or whispered by counter tenors, tenors and baritones representing twenty different composers. There are also interjections from Virgil Thomson and Zackie Achmat. Each composer is associated with one or more letters of the alphabet (eg: B for Benjamin Britten). In the final “tutti” version of the piece, all the voices sing or whisper at once, creating a kind of quiet cacophony. The game is played by spelling words – combining the letters representing the different composers – which we’ve done with PIGEONS ON THE GRASS ALAS (a famous quote from The Stein/Thomson opera, Four Saints In Three Acts). I was inspired by a choral piece by Cornelius Cardew, The Great Learning, 1968, in which complex chords are sung with gentle dynamics and whispers, creating an almost soothing ambience out of jagged harmonies.

The Sushi Train scene consists of four singers simultaneously reading newspaper articles about themselves. I chose in this instance to set the vocal lines completely without regard for intelligibility; to allow the proximity of the camera to determine the clarity of the words. That is, if there is a close-up of Gertrude Stein, her words will be sonically featured for the length of the shot. In this way I managed to pass the buck to our director, who happens coincidentally to be our librettist. Even within this composer/director game-playing, we were determined to keep actual intelligibility to a minimum, reflecting our belief that opera, in English, often comes off like uni nigiri: challenging at the best of times, and often downright stinky.

The T-Shirts piece is composed in the most twentieth centuryish of our various sound worlds. But instead of forcing our singers into the heinous task of having to learn obnoxious chromatic vocal lines (this would have exponentially increased their fees!) I left it to the accompanying strings and sound effects to make things spiky. Instead the vocal parts are completely diatonic and ready-to-wear. The game in this scene consisted of John preparing a fully edited short documentary for me to “opera-cise” (I’m aware that this sounds like a high-priced Tae-bo substitute). In this context we are looking to the operatic tradition as a means of grand heroification; a kind of elevation of the every day into the mythic realm. Thus, Mandela saying “good morning” or joking about excessive posing is just as important and epic in significance as Wagner’s Wotan proclaiming the Twilight Of The Gods, as long as it’s a sung utterance. Speaking of Wagner, this, as well as several of the scenes in Fig Trees, revolves around a central rising and falling leitmotif (“Oh, Zackie Achmat we love you”). Because this melodic figure is so central and essential to our opera, I have named it the Chalmers Foundation motif.

The penultimate scene of Fig Trees, Fig Orchard , is another exercise in saving the composer a lot of difficult and time-consuming work. We simply took the piano/voice reduction of the last scene of Four Saints In Three Acts and turned it upside down and backwards. From my wholly conservative, indeed counter-revolutionary musical perspective this worked out on many levels. First of all, the key signature, written as it always is on the left side of the page, was now rendered non-existent, as were any chromatic accidentals. This resulted in a completely euphonious, delightful piece in

C major. The libretto was equally well served by this process, because Gertrude Stein read backwards scans very much like a newly discovered, unknown work by Gertrude Stein. As with our sushi train, I suppose what goes around comes around.

In girum imus nocte…

David Wall, Toronto, August 2003

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