Future sounds from Bergen

Oslo, minus several degrees, the landscape monochrome with luminous streaky skies. Bergen National Opera is in the capital at Operaen with a fine mix of nationalities and three Nordic composers to develop new operas for premiere in March.

This morning we slither over hard-packed ice to the rehearsal room to work on Øyvind Mæland´s new opera – one of three short works which Bergen National Opera has commissioned for Borealis Festival. The violinist is missing, the bass player is deep in discussion with conductor Steffen Kammler, and the singers are practising small swooping sounds and spitting consonants. Øyvind´s little opera is about tiny emotions – twitchy moments of apprehension, compassion, embarrassment – and the music is lucid, varied, and wonderfully eccentric.

Yesterday, Rebecka Sofia Ahvenniemi´s opera – a ‘trailer’ involving Beyoncé and female power – provoked fierce conversation. Ahvenniemi herself, an animated elf of fizzing energy, has a way with words: “Guitar” she says “you have an important role in creating confusion at this point.” The guitarist plucks with enthusiasm. Rebecka´s music here is full of collisions. Baroque vocal lines underline splintering string sounds, and Beyoncé song quotes croon over Straussian harmony. “Let´s go into this late-Romantic porridge a little earlier” she says briskly, adjusting her score.

In the canteen, singers from Operaen´s in-process production of Bellini´s Norma – the director is upcoming young Norwegian star – are noisily at lunch. A large baritone in fur, cape, Tolkien-like garb, is munching salad and barking on his phone. Long straggly hair, large boots and facial hair abound, along with Hollywood blondes and some startling make-up. Meanwhile the ballet corps are fiddling with their feet and giggling – other than a tiny ballerina who is crying quietly in the corner. Our guest BNO director, Sjaron Minailo, is wrangling cheerfully with dramaturg Gaea Schoeters. “How can you ask the composers about their ‘point of urgency’” says Gaea, rolling her eyes “it´s such a nineties question”. Sjaron mimes indignation “Really? Well how do we put it for our new cool age? Where´s the edge? I want to know their critical message.”

He had asked this of all of the writers at yesterday´s session. Our third composer, the quiet, thoughtful Lars Skoglund, had talked about how his opera – which takes place in a library where three people, an awkward triangle, converse in fractured whispers – reflected his fascination about how conversations chose words in a space where texts line the walls. Rebecka had talked about female assertiveness – a line in her opera talks about Beyoncé wanting to ‘wear a suit, go to meetings’. Our only male singer present, Halvor Melien, a proud recent attendee at a Beyoncé concert, spoke up fiercely ‘What! I don´t recognise the male sexuality you´re talking about!’ and we hastily moved on to how new violin bowing might produce white noise, and how to scream elegantly “without sounding like a horse” says Halvor helpfully, recovering tranquillity.

On Day Two, Annelies Van Parys – award-winning Belgian composer whose Private View Bergen National Opera co-produced with seven European partners in 2016/17 and is now with us here as a mentor – is discussing microphone techniques with singers Elisabeth Holmertz  and Lore Lixenberg, Lars Skoglund is handing out revisions and Øyvind Mæland is doubling as rehearsal pianist. Ahvenniemi is in the canteen writing furiously.

Exciting times – to have three new works in development, each one brilliantly individual in its sound world, each one topical, each one visually distinctive, is remarkable. Don´t let´s worry about our future opera. It´s all in good hands.

Mary Miller

January 9, 2018

Il turco in Norwegia

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“Wow” says Pietro Spagnoli, great Rossinian buffo baritone “we´re talking Rossini to Broadway!”

At Bergen National Opera, everyone is breathless from high kicks, razzle-dazzle, fancy moves and footwork. The dancers are sweating lightly, stretching their lycra-clad legs and fiddling with their feet. The chorus is gasping quietly and practising jerky movements as though searching for a wasp lost in their clothing – dance director Sean Curran´s routines are not, for sure, in their usual repertoire. The soloists are beaming and chattering in Italian by the coffee machine.

Welcome to Il Turco in Italia directed by American opera supremo Mark Lamos – a riotous combination of highly sophisticated ensemble, fabulous arias, touching moments and carefully choreographed mayhem.

Mark, along with designer George Souglides, last illuminated BNO in 2014 with Rimsky-Korsakov´s The Golden Cockerel – a Norwegian premiere which put Russian opera firmly on the Bergen map – and which created pictures never to be erased from memory: a golden cage shimmering above the stage with a jittering boy/bird as the eponymous cockerel; a wicked Eastern queen in a dazzling scarlet feather coat singing seductive lines to bewitch a foolish, doddering Tsar; a blasted landscape under a blood-red moon with ruined trees and a scattered, broken army. Unforgettable.

But Turco! It couldn´t be more different. Now, listen carefully – like most Italian opera, the plot is tortuous. We are at the seaside – maybe even in Pesaro, Rossini´s eccentric, enchanting home town. A poet, Prosdocimo, is looking for a story for his next libretto and in front of him, an interesting tale begins to unfold. Old Geronio (Spagnoli´s role) has a tiresomely flirtatious young wife Fiorilla, a girl troubled by a voracious need for male attention, preferably not from her husband. A Turkish ship sails in captained by the glamorous Selim – do not look to this opera for political correctness – and Fiorilla wastes no time. Meanwhile, Selim´s old girlfriend and a pack of gypsies are in hot pursuit. In the end, after a domestic ruction, a masked ball, a critical letter, it all resolves… How? You will just have to wait and see.

Meanwhile, upstairs on Grieghallen´s third floor, a mix of Hungarian, Norwegian and German costume makers are draping bling onto delighted extra cast members. The clothes are outrageous, all froth, silk turbans, shocking pink trousers and bosomy dresses. There are harlequins in primary colours and pom-poms, crazy hats, and skirts the size of Victorian overmantels.

Along the corridor, Øystein is working with his puppets, little gesturing, weaving miniatures of the principal characters, clad in matching extravagant silks. Little Fiorilla is learning to stretch her wooden hand to slap mini Geronio. He is organising his dangling feet to swerve smartly away.

But right now, we have a half hour break. Spagnoli has taken his dog for a walk – he never travels without her – and our office has adopted her with somewhat soppy adoration. The dancers are outside smoking, and Fiorilla, Spanish soprano Sylvia Schwartz is on the phone to Rome, to her children´s nanny.

Mark is composing an email to the Metropolitan Opera, New York – they´ll revive one of his Verdi productions next year – and we are trying to catch our breath. We´ve just had cake for Mark´s birthday, and the sugar high compounds the atmosphere of overall exhilaration. In ten minutes, Rossini will swirl gloriously back on stage, the music will bewitch us and our toes will start to tap.

Broadway, Pesaro, Italy, Bergen – here we come, with the Norwegian premiere of an opera like no other. Bring your dancing shoes – isn´t that what the aisles are for? – and settle in for a night on the town, at the seaside, in the company of our cast of sparkling stars.

Mary Miller

11/03/2017

The European Cultural Parliament meets in Pristina: politics, art, equality, strong coffee and opera

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Arriving in Pristina for the annual European Cultural Parliament meeting, we gather in the gleaming new airport foyer, all glass and marble, and so squeaky clean that one daren´t finger a surface. The airline magazine has already pointed out two unmissable Kosovan experiences: Pristina´s exciting nightlife and excellent morning coffee. These may, we feel, be related.

Driving into the city, a less upbeat scene is immediately apparent. Around the new airport are grim reminders of the old war airbase. Concrete bunkers and half demolished walls squat under barbed wire. Derelict vehicles lurk in lurching doorways. But the countryside is beautiful. Gentle hills, greenery, red roofs, verdant fields of vegetables. On into the city – we wave in passing at the cheery statue of Bill Clinton (Kosovo still loves the US for its unflinching support for its independence) – then pull up at the sumptuous Swiss Diamond Hotel where a flurry of flunkeys rushes to assist. ”Why is it, in these damnable conflicted Balkan countries, that there are always these ridiculous hostelries funded by the Swiss” mutters an elderly Austrian philosopher.

The coffee is indeed excellent. We walk past a half-built Roman Catholic church which looks untouched for several years, past the bizarre national library which appears to have been designed to replicate some strange tangled triffid, past innumerable posters of (Albanian) Mother Theresa, to the national museum filled with a mix of vibrant contemporary art and installations. A posse of disturbingly handsome political minders slide into the room, flanking the minister of culture Memli Krasniqi who talks passionately about culture and quality, and how fundamental both are to the growth of an emerging nation. Krasniqi will remain part of proceedings all weekend, an impressive and articulate contributor.

Dinner, then vague talk about the unmissable Pristina nightlife. All at our table are too tired. An early start tomorrow demands clear heads to listen to Kosovo´s prime minister, debate issues around new nation branding, the rise of neo-popularism, and to explore the peculiarities of artists´ knowledge which can bring insight to the business world.

So next morning, we arrive under the stares of even more sultry-eyed minders attending the arrival of the prime minister, culture minister and deputy foreign minister. The PM Hashim Thaci is formidable – the man credited above all others with the liberation of his country; there are probably about 17 different Kosovan/Albanian/Serbian versions of this story, which we will hear over the next three days – but his speech is formulaic and low on charm. Deputy PM Petrit Selimi is another matter entirely. Selimi studied in Oslo thanks to Thorvald Stoltenberg, who heard Selimi speak as a teenager at an international seminar. His speech is fast, tricky, funny and super-bright to point of being slightly dangerous. The PM´s body language, on hearing this torrent of virtuosity, is telling. That the European Cultural Parliament is in Pristina at all means a great deal; it´s a solid affirmation of Kosovo´s European aspirations. So Thaci clearly wants us to be impressed – but his squirming shoulders perhaps recognises that this young protégé needs ’supervision’.

The minders and the minded leave, and we listen to some bureaucratic noise about new nations and Europe, then some formidable interventions from various boisterous Central European members. The culture minister talks to me about how he wants to develop Kosovan opera – certainly they have the singers – two terrific tenors already are ’hot’ globally, Saimir Pirgu and Rame Lahaj – a good young orchestra and a choir of 50. But no venue. We talk about site specific work – the pros and cons. I say ’just do it’.

The day proceeds. So many ideas, so much talking. So much misery over new populism: Farage in the UK, Le Pen in France, Islamophobia in Denmark. At the National Library, we are to explore the artistic psyche: the session is called ’What artists know that others don’t’. We hear propositions from Ireland and Sweden before a mad intervention by Slovenian violinist Miha Pogavich who plays Bach while scribbling on a flip-chart (this is to explain the building and release of emotional tension). Pogavich sits next to me on the bus en route to dinner. It turns out that he knows Bergen, is a friend of Steiner School´s music director Magne Skrede with whom he shared a project some decades ago in Africa. He insists on borrowing my phone to call him, and I listen, incredulous, as Magne – ever gentlemanly – attempts not to sound bewildered at this sudden, untimely late night ear-bash.

So, shall we explore the exciting Pristina night-life? Um, no. But some report next morning that they did find a bar with local raki – but no sign of gleeful Kosovan revellers.

As well perhaps, for Ambassador Pär Stenbäck now leads a formidable session on the Ukrainian situation and its implications for Europe, shared with the Ukranian academic, Kateryna Botanova. It is intense, with several interventions from Russian ECP members asking that ordinary Russian citizens not be demonised. The brutality of the conflict is not glossed over: feelings are acute and solutions few.

Then, I have the inappropriately timed task of leading a debate on The Role of Culture in Gender Inequality. My French feminist colleague, Blandine Pélissier, who I know has prepared a vituperative paper on mispractice in theatre, shrugs and says ’after such a politically sensitive session, this issue is suddenly not important’.

We try to keep the discussion within a men/women frame – despite some vociferous interruption from gay activist singer/festival director Emilio Pons. We argue that GLBT are not victims of discrimination working in the artistic milieu. Quoting Gina Krogh´s 1875 speech, I urge concentration on the different qualities that both sexes can offer. Eliza Hoxha, Kosovan architect and singer, talks brilliantly. Lunch. Pristina-strength coffee. Heads are spinning. More about Kosovo´s opera aspirations from the culture minister. Maybe we send a Bergen task force?

Three of us absent ourselves from the afternoon session to explore a unique local monastery from the 14thC where we battle with an elderly whiskery nun for permission to enter; then a visit to the charming ethnology museum. Terrific dinner with spicy Balkan food. No-one reports exciting local night-life except for a few hardy Belgian raki raiders who turn up late next morning.

On Sunday we write resolutions for the EU on behalf of the Parliament, and start to trickle back to the airport. At the departure gate cafe, a young girl with pale shadows below her eyes and slightly shaking hands serves us odd sloppy cake and fine coffee – perhaps at last we´ve found an expert in Pristina´s exciting nightlife. It just doesn´t seem the moment to ask…

Mary Miller

13 October 2014