The word ‘opera’ evokes visions of celebrated singers filling plush opera houses with large voices conveying equally large emotions. Nothing could seem further away from the concerns of present-day composers of 'new music'. Yet, a large number of them have embraced precisely this genre as an outlet for their creative efforts.
Perhaps it is exactly the strong identity of opera, and the institutions that surround it, that has provided contemporary composers with something to throw themselves against. A genre ripe for deconstruction and reinvention. Music in the company of language, scenography and visuals is an enticing and multi-facetted setting to examine the world we now find ourselves in.
MATIAS VESTERGÅRD HANSEN
Matias Vestergård Hansen is a rarity on the new music scene – a composer that moves fluently and with great invention through genres and expressions revealing a brilliant and meticulous musical brain.
In 2023 Matias Vestergård’s opera Lisbon Floor (2021) was awarded The Reumert for Opera of The Year, the most prestigious Danish award celebrating excellence in Danish theatre.
Lisbon Floor is a dark and funny horror opera that takes place in a run-down luxury high rise, where an ensemble of seven characters end up in numerous entanglements. The Reumert jury stated, ‘Composer Matias Vestergård and librettist Lea Marie Løppenthin created whimsical timbres and bewildered dialogue, sung as a whirlwind of morbid comedy and weird sensitivity.’
Vestergård’s sharp theatrical instinct also shows in earlier works e.g. in the opera Titanic – A Murder Mystery Opera (2016). He is inspired by elements as varied as photography, plainchant and poetry. His response to text is acute and probing but can be playful too, as heard in the three chiseled miniatures that make up Tre Kalendersange (2018), premiered by the Danish National Vocal Ensemble and its chief conductor Marcus Creed and the To Løppenthin Sange (2019), the latter extending a long tradition of irony in Danish music.
Simon Steen-Andersen has long been concerned with expanding the realm of music 'from within'. He considers musical sound as inextricably connected to the situations and actions that create it – the behavior, media and society that bring it about.
Steen-Andersen’s works live in the passages between the simple and the complex – in a field in which orchestral music, video art, choreography, performance, music theatre and installation are mixed with sampling, pop-cultural references and game-aesthetics in surprising and thought-provoking ways. His works therefore present a pronounced expansion of music, where no material is too fine or too simple to be given careful attention, taken apart, and assembled anew.
Simon Steen-Andersen’s most recent opera Don Giovanni’s Inferno (2023) is a good example of this expansive approach to creating music; The opera is composed from the musical material of 400 years of opera history. We follow Don Giovanni after he was consumed by the flames of the inferno in Mozart’s opera and meets other doomed characters who have escaped from works by Puccini, Wagner, Verdi, Berlioz, Gounod and Monteverdi. Steen-Andersen has created a twisted classical meta-opera, comprising broken clichés, post-apocalyptic infernal misfits, up-side-down arias, mechanical contraptions and much more. The opera is premiered in Strasbourg in September 2023.
Also, the opera Buenos Aires (2014) grows out of these same concerns. It is an opera for singers deprived of the opportunity to sing which incorporates video and audio technology in an examination of the constituent elements of song, sound, air, freedom and coercion, but also of the genre itself.
Niels Rønsholdt works with the opera genre as 'reconstructive opera', where elements from traditional opera - storytelling, strong characters, classical singing - are combined with elements from post-dramatic theatre, performance and conceptual stage art.
This creates a form of opera that is accessible to a wide audience and at the same time brings a significant renewal of the genre's possibilities and language. Most recently, Niels Rønsholdt has collaborated with stage director Louise Beck on the opera Den sidste olie (The Last Rite) (2022) which was nominated for the Reumert Award for Opera of The Year in 2023.
In Den sidste olie, the artistic duo successfully developed an operatic language which emphasizes text comprehension and aesthetic simplicity, while at the same time being both dynamic and characteristic.
Den sidste olie is a chamber opera which deals with exploitation as the driving force in the world. The story begins in 1721 - the year of Denmark’s colonization of Greenland - and unfolds the theme of eternal over-exploitation of territories and people. Østerbro Ice Skating Rink formed the framework for the world premiere of a monumental, sensuous and chilled opera experience. Based on the musical idiom of baroque opera - the predominant style in the Age of Enlightenment - Niels Rønsholdt and Louise Beck create a brand new and original work which takes us from the beginning of oil extraction to the destruction that we are clearly seeing the signs of today.
Niels Rønsholdt’s involvement with opera began two decades ago with Inside Your Mouth, Sucking the Sun (2002-04), a chamber opera based on the letters from Napoleon Bonaparte to his empress Josephine. The work, created together with media artist and interaction designer Signe Klejs, has been described as 'an ambitious endeavor to reinvent or evaluate the traditional opera drama'.
Since then, Klejs and Rønsholdt have created a number of works taking the operatic genre as a point of departure.
In contrast to the cool detachment sometimes taken to characterize the avant-garde, the music of Steingrímur Rohloff has always embraced an emotional nerve.
Rohloff has a special way of working with the power of musical extremes and the fabulous possibilities of melodies and harmonies. His music often carries deep and dark stories, and the light and the dark are often closely connected as it shows in his most recent operatic work, War Requiem (2022).
War Requiem deals with war from a universal perspective – ‘it is about all wars throughout history,’ Steingrímur Rohloff explains and adds that most people will probably interpret the work as completely current because, during the compositional process, the subject became eerily present again given Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
The work is based on texts by the playwright Bent Nørgaard and revolves around five archetypes in a time of war: The Warrior, The Child, The Veteran, The Comforter and The Mother. War Requiem is written for five vocal soloists, choir, orchestra and electronic sounds, and was premiered in 2023.
In Rohloff’s opera Babel (2014) he has created a piece of music theatre that exceeds conventional operatic conventions. Here, he enriches the tradition with interactions, video-doubles, percussion pieces that turn into rituals, imaginary languages and arias on film.
The narrative centers around a figure from a story by Borges: A blind man in an infinite library with an infinite number of books containing all letters and signs, a library containing all people in all versions of themselves. The books and the pursuit of their unattainable content leaves him unable to sleep, plagued by the phantoms and images that emerge from his desires. A commentary both on and through modern multimedia.
Line Tjørnhøj often deals with themes that are unfamiliar in the contemporary music scene. She creates deeply expressive music for tense moral and social dilemmas, thereby giving a voice to tabooed people and subjects.
Line Tjørnhøj has collaborated with an array of singers, musicians, choreographers and visual artists. Her works are praised for their originality, beauty and extraordinary, expanded vocal techniques.
LUFT from 2020 deals with the themes of jealousy, loss of honour and revenge, and we follow a young woman's lonely quest to free herself from a family burdened by violence and abuse.
The strong main character, the daughter tries to change her destiny, and we follow her search for the courage to break the silence that surrounds the violence and her struggle in the hope of a better future. LUFT gives the abused child a voice and deals with a misunderstood myth that 'love conquers all'. The tragic consequences that, in the worst case, such trauma can have on people for several generations are central to the story - it is an emotional and dramaturgical turning point that forces us to face the sins of the past.
Tjørnhøj’s earliest operatic works Anorexia Sacra (2006) and Stabat Mater (2009) confront the audience with issues relating to sexual identity and religious fundamentalism. This ushered entirely new female characters on to the opera stage, creating new voices for such figures.