Downstairs in the basement rehearsal room, sumptuous Wagnerian sounds are drifting into the hallway. Bergen National Opera is rehearsing a new The Flying Dutchman production. Senta is staring enraptured at the Dutchman´s portrait. Daland is greedily fingering a sack of jewels. Director John Ramster, glasses deep in his spiky hair, is brooding over the score. And almost everyone has a cold.
One floor up, tubas and trombones crowd the corridors, shiny-buttoned uniforms abound and band-masters are talking importantly into mobile phones about flugelhorn solos and how the band from Odda had just robbed them of third place in the mid-junior league. February, don´t forget, means the NMS National Championships, when Bergen swells with chest-busting brassy pride and the streets around Grieghallen bristle with the curious self-importance of navy suits and peaked caps.
But on the third floor, a gentle rhythmic clicking floats from the doors as though some dreamy animal is tapping its teeth. Outside on a long rail, hang dresses for the Dutchman chorus – the sort of between-the-wars rather fetching tea dresses with nipped-in waists, covered buttons over the bosom and swirly skirts. Such dresses need cardigans, and the BNO staff knitters are busy. They seem to be everywhere. In the wardrobe room, our costume chief is pulling a fluff of blue wool from a satchel. In Artistic Administration, there´s a shawl in process. I go, a little bewildered, into the communications office, to enquire… and Ida Marie, temporary assistant, whips a half-jumper from her bag. BNO, it must be said, has a staff team with initiative… and a chorus who now won´t catch a chill.
Dutchman´s designer, Bridget Kimak, has been committed to rooting Wagner´s version of the story in its Norwegian setting – Sandvika, on the southern coast. The set is an abstract marvel of stark coastline and a ‘ship’ which looks as commanding as a Richard Serra sculpture. On stage, the chorus ladies will knit for their menfolk, rather than sew. First we´ll see the start of jumpers, and as the opera progresses, the garments will grow. The yarn is local – beautiful oiled wool from Hillesvåg Ullvarefabrikk*, a fourth generation family business begun in the late 20th century – from fierce Norwegian sheep grazing close by. There are no fancy patterns here – these Nordic sailors wear a clear navy or cream.
Knitting and opera, however is not a first. As part of Stavanger2008, European Capital of Culture, we presented Odysseus Unwound, composer Julian Grant´s wonderful opera which, improbably, brought together a team of knitters from Shetland – formidable ladies who could click at virtuosic speed – with opera singers from London, all masterminded by Bill Bankes-Jones´s tirelessly inventive company Tete-a-Tete. While Stavanger2008 came into the process relatively late-on, Tete-a-Tete´s initiative was astounding. Flying Englishmen, they sailed to Shetland with Julian Grant and a clutch of singers. Imagine the scene, in a far Northern village hall – ladies who have never left the island confronted with artists distinctly Southern and urban; needles and arias at the ready; an operatic score of sounds curious, strange-coloured and fantastical to folk-tuned ears.
Julian remembers: “My personal epiphany notwithstanding, it struck us all that the Odyssey is rife with references to the crafts we were investigating, most obviously Penelope at her loom; then there was Odysseus’s island hopping, which resonated most naturally with life in the Shetlands. Yet there was still trepidation… Would this improbable cocktail of talent work at all? Starting with a simple skills-sharing session (knitting singers and singing knitters) within days what had seemed improbable became inevitable.”
His version of the story, with librettist Hattie Naylor, somewhat bucked our sloppy thinking – they had no truck with a glamourous swash-buckling Odysseus “to whom” Julian says “we are introduced in our childhood is first as a hero of brightly coloured children’s books, a victim of superior forces who has fabulous Boys’ Own adventures, outwitting monsters and treacherous ladies of dubious repute” For a more realistic story, he suggested, we should read, The Iliad about the terrible carnage of Troy, and the needless destruction of Cicones. Julian took a sober view: “Odysseus is a flawed con man, a smooth and suave psychopath, whose tales of his own adventures conjure up a nightmare of blood-letting, which ultimately does him in.”
The opera, for six singers, five craftspeople and seven instrumentalists, in fact premiered in timely fashion at the National Knitting Show at Alexandra Palace before its journey to Norway. We staged it in Sandnes, home – until the 1980s – to a vast knitting industry; today the sheds are a shopping mall. In Sandnes Culture House, I´m not quite sure who was the more startled – the Shetland knitters or the audience. But the musical language was arresting – touching, fierce and luscious.
Meanwhile in Bergen, the knitting continues. Edvard Grieg Kor´s first soprano – the ensemble is the hub of BNO´s chorus – is hard at work, and so, she says, is her mother. If there is rigour in the rehearsal room, it is matched by tension of a different sort as yarn is tweaked and stretched, sleeves emerge and hemlines achieve a woolly frill.
For sure, every premiere has its own glorious personality. On March 10th, Wagner´s opera will triumph and will deliver new truths in John Ramster´s vision, sung by stupendous voices. But there´s a certain pride in the design. In amongst Bridget´s dramatic set are costumes truly, veritably home-made. Now, pass me my pins….
More info: The Flying Dutchman
*Hillesvåg Ullvarfabrikk : ull.no