Pubs, alternative arts festivals and roller derby meets. These places have little to nothing in common. Yet each has been a setting for Eve Klein’s operatic performances.
It may seem incongruous, though Klein insists that these non-traditional scenarios are more welcoming than one might think.
“The operatic voice or singing technique is easy enough to identify, so in a way people quickly recognise and understand what it is – that brings them up close to the music with a real sense of immediacy. So I really haven’t had a problem performing opera in these places at all. Actually, people get excited – it’s a bit different, it’s exciting for them. The fact that I’m singing opera in new spaces is allowing me to demonstrate that there can be alternate modes of engagement and presentation of the art form.”
Presenting opera in unconventional spaces is utterly consistent with Klein’s approach to music on a broader scale. She started her career as a contemporary musician, and allowed her interest in electronic and ambient music to interweave with her operatic writing in the past few years.
When reflecting on why she has chosen to explore the potentialities at the intersection of opera and contemporary electronic music, Klein notes that the dual roles of singing and producing have enabled this expansive modus operandi to become an established frame of reference for her compositional work.
“In some ways, this contemporary approach to operatic composition, for example where there are found and electronic sounds, was a logical connection given what I was doing prior to my opera career. Opera needs to be contemporised, it needs to go into new spaces,” states Klein in a very matter of fact way.
“As an opera singer who sings traditional opera, I feel like opera has allowed itself to stay in the 19th century for a very long time, and in many ways it sort of skipped the 20th century - it skipped the way we have produced music over the past four or five decades. Perhaps because my approach to music as a contemporary musician has always been from the point of view that you sing, you write, you play and it’s in the computer and it’s mixed … well, I couldn’t leave this behind.
“In modern-day composition we add layers, we add ambiences, we add our own sound worlds. Those technologically-made ambiences and colours can add different and unusual layers of inflection. That these are lost from classical music is sad and frustrating – really a missed opportunity. We as modern-day listeners are used to production, we almost expect these spaces – it seems foreign to strip these out again.”
This observation certainly brings clarity and context to Klein’s position, for it is well accepted that a performer of classical music, even in this pluralistic day and age, is most usually expected to adopt the spaces and ambiences of the composer and their “time”.
There are certainly musicians who seek to push the boundaries that traditionally fence in classical music – locally, the best example might be the Australian Chamber Orchestra – on the whole it is reasonably clear that many people find art music or classical music difficult to approach because it is presented in these spaces or ambiences that we don’t “know” or “inhabit”. It is also the expectation that the listener has a satisfactory level of “background knowledge” required to participate in this music at a satisfactory level.
Klein ploughs this threshold in her composition. She moves operatic singing into a different space that becomes the lynchpin for both the aesthetic of the music as well as the overall presentation of the opera and its potential inherent meaning on a number of levels.
To properly consider Klein’s position and the context from where these comments spring, it is pertinent to turn to her most important musical composition of the past few years, The Pomegranate Cycle. A contemporary operatic work, The Pomegranate Cycle was written over a four year period for Klein’s Doctorate in Music under the supervision of Julian Knowles, who as well as being a renowned composer and performer specialising in new and emerging technologies is also Professor in Music at the Creative Industries Faculty at Queensland University of Technology (QUT).
As described in Klein’s thesis abstract, the project “investigates the potential of self-directed, technologically mediated compositions as a means of reconfiguring gender stereotypes within the operatic tradition.” From this single descriptive sentence alone, one is presented with the intent and content of the work and there is an immediate counterpoint drawn between traditional and contemporary opera. Further, what is possibly most interesting about this counterpoint is that it allows Klein to investigate issues relating to women, violence and power which construct the fate of female characters in not only traditional opera, but in the real lives of women past and present.
“All opera characters – male and female – are pigeonholed, and this pigeonholing especially emerges from the 19th century operatic canon. To illustrate, sopranos are usually idealised women, ‘princesses’ who experience some kind of turmoil of spirit or otherwise, and sacrifices herself or IS sacrificed to reach a particular end. The purpose of this typecasting is to reinforce the morals of that time, societal values essentially. Following on from this, mezzo sopranos are used to represent or embody witches, old women, mothers. For men, the archetypes continue, although they are far less constricting of their gender. Really, in the accepted body of operatic works that exist, there are very few exceptions where the vocal range doesn’t become subject to these archetypes.”
Consequently, the flow-on effect from these roles and the weight of their history is that any individual who has a particular vocal range then becomes typified, so even a performer of the current day cannot escape being painted as these roles. As Klein acknowledges, with operatic singing most performers have to specialise anyway – so the range of roles available is fairly limited, at best possibly fifty different roles in a highly successful career.
“For contemporary women entering the operatic tradition, it is troubling to play representations of your gender that are archaic and plainly inappropriate,” states Klein. However, she sees this as an opportunity for her approach to what is embodied in The Pomegranate Cycle. The work is a vehicle for cutting across the limitations of the operatic tradition by subverting and controlling the way the narrative operates. This handling of the narrative is directly linked to the manner in which the voice and the libretti are placed amongst the musical signifiers. Further, the work creates numerous opportunities for the audience to engage with the music and identify with the performer and the performance in provocative and unexpected ways.
Small scale in its performance resourcing – one singer, one dancer and one laptop performer – The Pomegranate Cycle is accompanied by an almost 110 minute long film projection. This visual content is central to the performance of the work, both with respect to addressing the imperative for a ‘staging’ component as well as providing further material for the ascribed context and intent of The Pomegranate Cycle.
“In essence, the entire work is based on the Rape of Persephone (from Greek mythology: Persephone, Homer’s “formidable, venerable majestic queen of the shades” was abducted by Hades, the god-king of the underworld). So from the outset, The Pomegranate Cycle is dealing with violence and examining the way in which society characterises women who have been the victims of violence. The opera reveals ways to rethink the way that we forever deal with these women, and to extend this, it really cuts to the core of why we retell stories of violence. I think we deal with the stories of violence because we don’t have a satisfactory way of dealing with the impact of violence directly on our stories, our lives.”
The libretto for The Pomegranate Cycle was written by Klein, and while she has performed substantial excerpts of the work out of context, most people understand the narrative with even just a hint of its theatrical staging. To further draw this out, the film projection is edited to directly inflect on the libretti as well as to occupy contemporary metaphorical, poetical, and political spaces, including drawing its material from sources such as Wikileaks. One example of this is video footage of an American helicopter shooting people down in the streets of Baghdad. The use of such highly-charged contemporary content allows the narrative to incorporate themes which we are presented with often. This is a space and ambience we regularly inhabit.
Considering the opportunities and constraints of the small (but economic) resourcing of the opera, it is worth delving further about how the visual aspects of opera, including its presentation, influences Klein’s work. “The Pomegranate Cycle was [also] written to be an ambient work, a piece that you could have on in the background and allow yourself to drift in and out of. However, because it is an opera, it has a narrative that progresses in a linear way – it has an ambiguous story that can only be clarified in the staging.”
The film projection and the theatrical staging created by the singer together draw out the opera’s thematic structure, where the introductory track of The Pomegranate Cycle is a spoken word soundscape. The delivery is like that of a newsreader, heavily punctuated and enunciated, announcing the place of the factual in the opera’s content and intent.
“I have deliberately used the operatic voice to highlight how women are represented, and particularly as to how this is connected to the definition of opera. As an extension of this signification and exploration, rather than using ‘landmark choruses’ that are typical of traditional opera, in The Pomegranate Cycle I have used synthesized voices and different instrumental and electronic sounds to disrupt tradition. For example, the synthesized chorus parts – the chorus usually being the voice of society – is made of up “dodgy” proto-instruments. This allows me to highlight the way that choruses are traditionally used and then subvert this meaning. I’ve been very Baroque in the way that the choruses are written, sometimes there are up to eight parts. But in spite of any familiarity with this form, the slightly unkempt sound production is designed to unsettle the audience, because from a production point of view there is something not quite right, something ruptured in the opera experience.”
Comprising of sixteen songs, The Pomegranate Cycle embraces this aforementioned rupturing in such a way that its import and intent is reasonably clear to the listener by the time of reaching the fourth song, ‘Ripping’. Essentially a sonic representation of rape, this song – with its abrasive lines overlaid with tearing, disjunctive clattering motifs – accompanies the dancer who performs with the film projection behind. As a direct adjunct to ‘Ripping’ is the fifth song, ‘Narcissus Bloom and The Rape Of The Pomegranate’, one of the most expansive in The Pomegranate Cycle. This song flows into the long lines of the Arvo Part-inflected ‘Searching’, where whispering vocal lines are accompanied by string effects and a disquieting morse code-like rhythm that reminds the listener of many possible sound sources. Not least, this method of engagement with the electronic and ambient points the listener towards the electro-acoustic and post-classical heritage of the work.
The insistence of the morse-code pattern resurfaces in a far more sinister and demonstrative fashion on the tenth movement/song ‘Burning’. Without a vocal line, and with intense rhythms beyond the physical means of most humans, the fires of hell roll around furiously, and the opera comes to its turning point. In this final third of The Pomegranate Cycle, a reflective sobriety embraces the music, with subtle harp sounds and fuzzy white noise delicately interwoven behind the gorgeous vocal line.
In a way, whilst there is a provocative electronic subversion inherent in the disruptive industrial clicks, blips and tears that punctuate the work, it is the sheer beauty of Klein’s voice, heard against itself, against the samples and lines, against the disembodied choruses, that is the glue by which The Pomegranate Cycle is most potently held together. Here, at the point of Klein’s voice and its placement in the structure of the music, are operatic traditions celebrated, challenged and reframed. The listener is drawn out and feels the lament of Persephone’s mother Demeter whilst being enabled to reflect constructively on violence and destruction in relation to women’s rights. This is contemporary music at its most relevant – it is simultaneously inward and outward focused in addressing the challenge of its existence and its capacity to produce something great.
To return to the intent of the work and translate its place amongst contemporary electronic music as well as contemporary classical music, it is worth considering who might stage this outside of its composer. Any contemporary music performer who has a passion for traditional music will be conflicted about the amount of space that traditional, well-worn works occupy in the programs of most established institutions, whether these be chamber groups, orchestras or opera companies.
When questioned on this point, Klein is pretty direct about her position. “Whilst theatre is constantly being refreshed and there is a strong tradition of contemporary theatre and plays, both in this country and internationally, there isn’t such a vibrancy in the ongoing “refreshing” of the musical canon in the contemporary space. We need to allow and provide more space, literally and physically, to support present-day composers so that they are able to undertake a broader range of explorations within and around the classical or art music genre.”