Giving contemporary opera an entirely new sound

Gothenborg, Sweden · With the premiere of 'SHANGHAI' approaching, Line Tjørnhøj shares her thoughts on the very untraditional new opera.

Photo: Åsa Rosén

In the summer of 2015, the Göteborg Opera and ShareMusic & Performing Arts placed an open call for an operatic score.

One hundred and fifty-five composers from all over the world answered the call. In the end, the artistic leaders of the two organisations went with Edition·S composer Line Tjørnhøj.

Now, two years later, the opera SHANGHAI is set to premiere on April 7 in Skövde, Sweden. For the past year, Tjørnhøj has worked closely with the performers to produce the score, composed specifically for the unique voices cast for this production – a cast including both opera singers and performers with disabilities.

A unique cast
In order to level the field, Tjørnhøj made a few radical choices. "I've avoided traditional operatic songwriting. It would have become too clear that some of the cast are professional singers and some aren't. That's not the experience I wanted the audience to focus on."

Instead, both performers, singers and musicians are asked to step out of their comfort zone. "For example, the percussionist will be on stage... but without any instruments," Tjørnhøj tells. And even though the cast includes a wonderful mezzo-soprano – who also gets to sing beautifully, of course – she sings a love duet with the performer Joakim, who can't control his voice.

The disabled performers of the cast may have been a little anxious to be part of this kind of experiment. But, according to Tjørnhøj, so is the percussionist and everyone else. "Very slowly, this anxiety has turned into fascination. The professional singers are facing a challenge equal to the performers being on stage for the first time. It's not necessarily easier to be a skilled mezzo-soprano from Gothenborg and have to do this."

Breaking free of modern life
SHANGHAI tells the simple story of a troubled man. Finding his own existence derailed, he tries to drag a number of people down with him into an extreme universe of self-destruction. Asked to describe the opera in her own words, Tjørnhøj characterizes it as “a touching, humorous and adventurous story about the fight between good and evil”.

In SHANGHAI, each character dreams of a luxury cruise to a destination named SHANGHAI, a symbol of freedom to people trying to escape the limitations of modern life. “Normality has become a very narrow category,” Tjørnhøj says. “We try to escape labels of all sorts based on sexuality, gender, body and roles.”

The incredible human voice
What seems to set people apart, though, is the multiplicity of the human voice. For people familiar with previous works of Tjørnhøj, it comes as no surprise that the compositional focus of SHANGHAI is an innovative mixture of the traditional operatic voice and the most basic elements of the human voice.

“I hope the audience will experience just how incredibly rich and expressive the human voice is,” she says. “In addition to setting a new standard for inclusive opera, I also believe we’re giving contemporary opera an entirely new sound.”

Line Tjørnhøj is greateful that the Göteborg Opera and ShareMusic & Performing Arts chose her to compose the score for SHANGHAI. “It’s an amazing pioneering process they set up,” Tjørnhøj tells of the two organisations, who work to create a more inclusive creative environment. “In an effort to reflect society in general, their aim is to show how a diverse group of performers might contribute and add quality to a professional opera production.”

SHANGHAI opens on April 7. 19 performances are scheduled until May 14.

The Göteborg Opera, April 7 – May 14
Line Tjørnhøj, composer
Erik Fägerborn, librettist
Stephen Langridge, director
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