Tan Dun´s music always attracts a polemic clash between those who love the exotic carpet of sounds, and those who take issue with his East/West collision of styles and his unabashed contradictions in expressing musical traditions. The argument has long raged between cultural commentators: whether East and West should attempt to blur the edges of their vast cultural differences in the interests of a new fusion, or remain deliberately and distinctively different. So, it was challenging – and exciting – to open Bergen International Festival with Tan Dun´s little performed opera Marco Polo in its Scandinavian premiere. The piece, whatever its swerves between familiar Western sounds and Asian exotica does emphasise the totally different Eastern conception of time passing. The music, despite its moments of theatricality, breathes slowly and creates a kind of miasma. This is not an opera which grips its audience by virtue of its narrative, nor in truth by a coherent libretto. But its soundworld is fantastical and intriguing, swerving from lush long phrases to tinkling, whirring insect-like sounds to brittle pipa and tabla riffs.
Designer and video artist Netia Jones´s production created a piece of installation art in stunning pictures, gloriously eccentric costumes, a chorus in black and white like cartoon piano keys, and few props. Her team were a joy to work with – precise, reliable, friendly, they used their highly limited preparation time (eight days, start to finish) without a wasted moment. The cast, a mix of American and Chinese, were perhaps a little less accommodating, with some fine diva moments around dresses and dressing rooms and absent arias – we had cut the opera by 40 minutes – but hurrah for conductor Baldur Brönniman for his no-messing-about approach to rehearsals, for Fredrika Brillembourg for her fabulous voice and attitude, and for Zhang Yun for astonishing vocal and physical acrobatics. Ultimately, whatever the initial grumbles and jet-lagged emotions, we ended up with an intense sense of ensemble, and we found a lot of new friends.
The previous week I`d been in Aarhus, Denmark talking about developing new opera, and taking part, along with a fine mix of young composers and opera/theatre practitioners at the city´s theatre festival and coOperate development lab, in an interesting ’critical response’ process led by the London Sinfonietta´s CEO, Andrew Burke. We also saw work in progress by Lasse Piasecki which will be continued at Bergen National Opera´s September academy on dramaturgy, to be led by composer Judith Weir and Berlin Staatsoper´s Jens Schroth.
And, we set our new opera Alt om min Familie (All about my Family) on course with a four day workshop for the young singers, working with director Pernille Elimar, composer Atle Halstensen, conductor Kjell Seim and chorus master Håkon Matti Skrede. After months of volatile conversations, fretting about scores, production dramas and general anxiety, the days passed with a growing sense of rising spirit. It’s a fantastic piece. Writing for youth about teenage angst is for sure a minefield, but 18yr-old librettist Astrid Niebuhr has created a brilliant balance of fun-poking and pathos, balanced by Atle´s clever, witty and rhythm-rich music. More workshops in September, to which we´ll invite possible co-producers and interested parties. We´re all still singing the tunes. I can´t wait.
But right now, BNO´s staff is just back from a study trip to Riga. Study trip…. Hm. Well, we debated our strategy, programming and processes long and hard, saw two productions at Latvian National Opera which generated much opinion, criticism and general mouthing off, spent an afternoon on Jurmala´s long white pristine beach and sampled, long into the night, Riga´s formidable selection of native beers. But I´d defend the leisure time to anyone. It´s great to talk, argue, eat and digest together – and even to congratulate ourselves on what a good team we have. And we do.
Now we have to tackle next season, budget issues, arguments with the orchestra about a surfeit of Carl Nielsen, lack of air in the office, and whether the set model just presented for a Verdi opera in 2014 will fit in the hall. Business as usual; this week without any beer.
(Picture: Thor Brødreskift)