Festival time – with fierce activists and persistent pacifists


After joyful times poking fun at Tsar Nicholas II (with more than a nod to our uneasy Northern neighbour Tsar Putin) in Bergen National Opera´s riotous recent production of the Golden Cockerel, we now remain on global and political musical territory with the upcoming production of Orlando Gough´s Stemmer (the title translates as both Voices and Votes), opening Festspillene i Bergen (the Bergen International Festival) on Wednesday May 21st.

The plan in conceiving the piece, a co-production with Festspillene, was to celebrate 200 years of the Norwegian constitution written on the country´s liberation from Denmark. But we wanted to do so without replicating Norway´s 17th of May National Day, an explosion of brilliant costumes representing every ’kommune’ near and far, waving flags, clamorous bands and drums, processions and – usually – terrible weather. No; we wanted to look at the journey towards freedom and Norway´s remarkable document of national intent through a wider lens. And Gough, an absolute master of musical diversity whose language embraces, literally, a world of voices, is a rarity in his ability to embrace other cultures into his music without any breath of pastiche.

So, a week today, we embark on the production process for an extraordinary work involving Sami, Tamil, South African, Swedish, Palestinian, Somali, Norwegian, Iraqi, Sri Lankan, Burundian, Congolese, and Ethiopian artists, not to mention the plethora of nationalities in the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra and a choir of 200 adults and children. And while the music may reflect the harmonies and dischords of these countries, the spoken text from two actors of Bergen´s Den Nationale Scene declaims powerful words from a whole variety of great orators, Norwegian, Indian and African.

How pertinent, you may say. How wonderfully politically correct. To the possible dismay of some, however, the performances are certainly less than likely to be so. Two of our soloists, both female, are fiercely inflammatory activists in their lives and in their art. Our Tamil musician and singer, Manickam Yogeswaran, is conversely a gentle yet persistent pacifist. The group of teenagers whose blueprint for a new constitution ends the work have created a catalogue of surprising thoughts. And Gough, a great lover of megaphones, shouting choruses and sparky cross-cutting rhythms and fearless in his creativity, has already written a gloriously subversive programme note. He begins: ’Coming from a country (England) that had succumbed to neo-liberalism, first under the ghastly Margaret Thatcher and then, almost more shockingly, under the ghastly Tony Blair, and was already falling head over heels into an ugly financial crisis, Norway seemed a haven of social democracy and good sense. But of course there´s more to it than that …’

You catch the drift. Stemmer was never going to be a comfortable reflection which might encourage a self-righteous wallowing in the virtues of nationalism. What it is, though, is a masterpiece of marvellous collisions: clashing statements, soaring musical lines and profound emotional and intellectual provocation. The music does exactly what opera should do – it makes us feel and think.

Meanwhile, as my homeland Scotland contemplates its future – autonomy or status quo as part of an uneasy United Kingdom – one wonders whether the successors of the ’ghastly neo-liberals’ should venture to Norway to experience the Stemmer premiere. It might really be the start of something.

Mary Miller

May 6, 2014

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