Opera has never been my strong suit. That is not to say I don’t like it but, woefully, I am a) not a singer and b) of my generation; my attention span is average-to-poor and my untrained brain wanders while one teeny tiny point is laboured in a seven minute aria. Imagine my relief when I found out that Tansy Davies’s first opera, Between Worlds, was only an hour and a half long. I could cope with that.
If opera is what I don’t know, what I do know is a decent amount about Tansy Davies. Davies’s boundary-blurring art music with references to Prince and Stevie Wonder formed a chapter of my undergraduate dissertation, so I was excited to hear that she had composed her first opera. What I wasn’t so excited about, though, was the subject: 9/11. For Between Worlds, Davies and librettist Nick Drake worked together closely to plan the story they wanted to tell, at one point in Davies’s house in France drawing a plan on 25 feet of wallpaper. The duo wove the drama and created the characters using the messages sent on September 11th released by WikiLeaks.
And so it was with a good knowledge of Tansy Davies’s work, a fairly decent grasp of 9/11 and something of a lack of opera expertise that I sat down in the Barbican Centre on Monday to watch Between Worlds. The opera follows five people – the mother of a young boy who, in her hurry, forgets her cell phone; a young man new to the city, afraid of heights, who plans to call his mother when he gets the time; a cheating husband who promises his wife he is going not to work but to the cardiologist; a young woman who hesitates to leave her girlfriend for the day; and a janitor whose family life is not revealed – trapped above the point of impact in the north tower. On the stage, these five inhabited the middle level of three, with their loved ones and the chorus below and the shaman above.
The tone of the opera is set in the eerie opening as the shaman rings a bell and whistles a jaunty tune over the discordant strings and percussion, and this is very much the feeling throughout the opera. A strong foreboding precedes the impact of the first plane, the impact causes confusion and horror and the reality of the protagonists’ fate is met with a bleak and mundane acceptance. The subject is approached truthfully, the drama is paced well and the abrupt conclusion is effective and fitting.
Opera is often fantastical, telling stories of mythical beings, ghostly apparitions, heaven and hell. In contrast, the emotional centre of Between Worlds is starkly realist, without melodrama or fanfare, but the supernatural requirement is fulfilled through the shaman character. Dressed in a suit and singing in beautiful countertenor, the shaman sits above the other characters as conduit between life, the afterlife, the supernatural realms, informing the opera’s title. Between supporting the janitor and creating a voicemail message for the mother of one of the protagonists, the shaman sings some of the opera’s most beautiful music. There can never be a happy ending to the 9/11 story in any medium, but the shaman provides the comfort and glimmer of hope needed to help people continue to deal with the tragedies of the modern world. Davies and Drake needed to deal with their chosen theme respectfully, and in that were successful. However, after that first challenge there are a plethora of other hurdles to leap to create a consummate piece of art.
The ENO’s press release proposed ‘perhaps only opera can take us collectively to the emotional place where human beings in extremis confront life and death; to the place where words cease, and only singing and music can help us forward’. Agreeing with this wholeheartedly, I found myself regrettably disappointed by the music of Between Worlds. The realist approach Davies and Drake took created an emotional effect by aiding an empathetic reaction in the audience, but perhaps that was not what was needed from an opera. Approaching the event with my sparse knowledge of the genre, I wanted the big aria. I wanted a beautiful, lush, romantic, sweeping, surging moment to express in music a grief and horror that cannot be expressed in words. The chorus, comprising half soloists and half ENO chorus, had incredible material that was executed powerfully. After the janitor leapt from the tower, a dancer on the floor and a dancer suspended in a harness executed a beautiful balletic duet. These two components added a great deal to the emotional impact of the opera, but Davies missed an opportunity. When the mother character receives her son’s voicemail, created by the shaman, I was expecting a Liebestod-esque (minus the lust, of course) expression of maternal grief. The anti-climaxes of the work were effective for the subject matter, but not necessarily for the opera itself.
On Monday, Drake, Davies and director Deborah Warner stayed for a post-performance Q&A, providing much of the information on the work’s conception detailed above. Sitting in front of Tansy Davies, I felt I had to ask her something, and hoped that I would think of a poignant question. I ended up clumsily asking if the composer drew on any particular works from the opera canon or if any influences crept unexpectedly into the work. Davies, in fact, isolated herself during the process and went for three months without seeing another person as she composed the final twenty minutes of the opera. There is no way as an academic musician to entirely separate oneself from the body of work and expectations surrounding opera, as a lifetime love and study of music ingrains certain things in all of us. This aside, the real question is, is it helpful to attempt to create in a vacuum?
Throughout its history, more notably since the modernist movement, music has been ever changing, fighting against preconceptions and pushing itself forward. In the twenty first century the most financially successful composers write for film, not those who push boundaries and pursue art and innovation above all else. The artists’ value is in the art itself and the contribution to the medium, and we need those geniuses to steer us toward the next big thing. Today’s composers would undo themselves if they were to suddenly forego innovation and go neo-Romantic or -Wagnerian when faced with the challenge of an opera. However, the lack of tradition for me was a problem purely because of the chosen story of Between Worlds. Ultimately, I felt that the size and weight of the subject needed the grandeur of the aria, partly to, by looking backwards, feel timeless. It has been nearly fourteen years since 9/11 and the wounds have not healed. The opera, therefore, does not need to be contemporaneous or a snapshot of current British music. There is no question as to whether the pain will continue to be felt for many years to come, but whether the opera will continue to be heard and performed is by no means certain.