Knit your own opera


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….

Mary Miller

More info: The Flying Dutchman

*Hillesvåg Ullvarfabrikk :

Irrepressibly outspoken, forcing reinvention – with Gerard Mortier opera has lost a king


There are those in arts leadership, some highly effective, of whom one could say ’his project was himself’. Of course personal ambition can be a fine thing and in its swirling wake, great things may happen. Egos dominate in most high level activities; Gerard Mortier, who died yesterday, most certainly had ego. His project, however, was not himself. Gerard Mortier, tiny, dynamic, charismatic and irrepressibly outspoken, had a mission to carry – drag if necessary – opera into the present, and to force this ancient form to reinvent itself continuously.

Meeting him, which usually involved a long wait as he whirled along corridors on two cell phones at once gesticulating with spikey fingers, smiling, mouthing apologies, talking in an articulate stream, was like experiencing the shudder of a small electric storm. Mortier was always in the moment – even if his moment was not entirely the one that you, yourself were expecting. He did not answer questions. He simply and with great charm told you what happened to be in his head at the time – or possibly a sanitised version, as he was perpetually at war with some politician, administrator, city authority, director, artist or sponsor.

He appeared to be utterly fearless. In retrospect it seems extraordinary that he stayed so long in Salzburg, running a revered festival in an immensely stuffy city twinkling with Mozart kitsch and feathered felt hats, with snorting insults levelled at his head every day of his 11-year tenure. But he had already blazed through a series of distinguished directorships in the major German houses, and renovated Brussels´s La Monnaie where he incurred an eye-watering deficit. Post-Salzburg, he swerved off to the Ruhr – an ambience less like gemütlich Austria one cannot imagine – and directed a festival of largely site-specific new work amongst the derelict factories and coal-blackened communities. He led Opera de Paris (where a Norwegian syndicate including Stavanger2008 and the company which is now Bergen National Opera co-commissioned Georg Frederik Haas/Jon Fosse´s Melancholia), flirted briefly and disastrously with the now defunct New York City Opera, and held his last post at Teatro Real, Madrid. Typically, while practically on his deathbed, he interfered roundly and imperiously with the process to appoint his successor, insisting that Spain itself had no suitable candidates.

Much has been made of his last commission from Charles Wuorinen, Brokeback Mountain from Annie Proulx´s story – a work he had originally intended for New York. Wuorinen´s dense, uncompromising musical language is just the stuff of Mortier´s artistic prescription for the audience, though it roundly bewildered the conservative Castilians. He attended the premiere despite being gaunt with illness; press pictures show him animated as ever, waving the spikey fingers, insistent, fierce.

We the audience owe him for countless new operas. He may not have treated us well – Mortier´s audience were not handled gently as humans with individual tastes and interests, more as a mass of beings lacking in courage and imagination – but for sure he taught the doubters that opening one´s mind can be exhilarating. He knew that undoubted truth – ask an audience what it wants, and it will want more of what it knows. No surprise. Few of us want what we cannot imagine. But Mortier understood that if artistic leadership is ambivalent, confused about its own taste, it will bewilder the audience. Mortier was certain: we need the new, the provocative and the startling, even if sometimes it fails.

Composers, directors, singers, artists of all kinds owe him something irreplaceable: he asked them all to take risks, and in taking that leap, he encouraged them to grow, be curious, exceed their boundaries, often by quite astonishing margins.

I don´t suppose for one moment that Mortier thought he was brave, or even assumed that he was always right. About the latter his enemies no doubt would totally disagree. His mission was absolute, and one imagines that as his life faded, his mind was still racing with plans and arguments, speeches unmade and music unsung.

Mortier´s project is now our responsibility to continue. Opera has lost a warrior of regal status. Now the king is dead. Long live the princes he has birthed and robed in pioneering spirit.

Mary Miller