Sunday, January 6, 2013

Sunday Feature: Dáirine Ní Mheadhra on Ana Sokolović and Svadba - Wedding

Jacqueline Woodley

The Art of Making Opera with composer Ana Sokolović
by Dáirine Ní Mheadhra
(production photos and shot of Ms Mheadra by John Lauener)

I’m the co-Artistic Director and conductor for Queen of Puddings Music Theatre in Toronto. I co-founded the company with my husband John Hess back in 1994 in order to commission, develop, and produce new Canadian chamber operas. We’ve both been musicians since the age of four, and opera, with its inherent mix of music and text is for us the most explosive music form. Reading text on its own conjures such evocative images, and then when you add music it nearly blows your head off….that’s if both text and music are excellent, of course. 

Jacqueline Woodley

We’ve created many new chamber operas over the years – a particularly exciting thing to do in Canada as the two words ‘Canadian’ and ‘Opera’ still rarely come together in this country. If you think about it, most of the European countries have been creating new operas for centuries. Mozart and Rossini were creating new opera in their time but because Canada is such a new country, the very first Canadian opera of significance was created only decades ago. Through the works that we commission and produce at Queen of Puddings, we’re helping to build a Canadian operatic canon, which is rather neat really, being in on the ground floor.  

Many people ask us how we spot the composers that we think will write a great opera. Well, let me choose just one composer, and then describe how the opera comes to life.

The composer we’ve commissioned more than any other is Ana Sokolović, a Serbian-Canadian living in Montréal. In 1999 I was talking to my colleague Véronique Lacroix and asked her to give me her top three names of the most talented composers in Montréal. She spoke very highly of Ana Sokolović, so I got in touch with her and asked her to send me a CD of her work. For me, there’s only one criteria when choosing to work with a composer – am I moved by their music? And this decision is made instantly. When Ana’s CD arrived, I loaded it and after listening to about ten seconds of her music I knew I wanted to work with her. It had it all – emotional authenticity, sophistication, lightness and depth, humour, craft, and that extra heavenly magic that all great composers have, which you feel as a gnawing and expansion in your heart.

The first thing to discuss with a composer always, always, always….is the text. The words are what inspire them to write beautiful music so the text has to be chosen with care and delicacy. For this first commission to Ana in 2000, I asked her to write a 10 minute work for six female singers, a cappella. It was to be part of a larger show called Sirens/Sirènes for which we’d commissioned six different composers to write new works. She asked a writer friend of hers, Nathalie Mamias, to write a text based on the title ‘Six Voix pour Sirènes/Six Reines’ – and here her sense of humour was already asserting itself. The text Nathalie wrote was scintillating and it pushed all of Ana’s buttons. 

Sokolovic (photo credit: Donat)
My all-time favourite part of being an Artistic Director is when the music score comes through to me. The most intense moment is when I open the first page and then flick through the score as I get an instant feel for the structure and feel of the work. It’s a complete rush. When I looked at Ana’s Sirènes score, my eyes and ears wound around to the back of my head. I couldn’t believe what she’d done. It was my first introduction to her fantastical vocal music vocabulary – hugely unorthodox, and fabulous. I looked at the words, but I didn’t need them, because the music made me feel exactly the emotion of the text. Extraordinary cranium buzzing, onomatopoeic and ravishing word painting.

Following this project, we wanted Ana to write a full-length chamber opera for us. We were hyperventilating with intensity in our desperation to see what else she could come up with. But she was having a hard time finding a suitable text, so we knew we had to help her. We searched and searched and searched……..and then four years later, a most unlikely thing happened. We were in Cork, Ireland, in a bookshop. My husband John was sitting on the floor in a corner looking at books and I heard… ‘I think I’ve found the text for Ana. Have you heard of The Midnight Court?’ ‘Of course I have! That’s Brian Merriman’s famous Irish epic poem…Cúirt an Mheán-Oíche.’ What John had stumbled upon was Frank O’ Connor’s English translation of this 1,000 line poem, a comic and erotic masterpiece, and the most made for opera text ever written – huge operatic images with Frank O’ Connor’s stunning language.  Marvellous. We showed it to Ana, and she was hooked.

But of course, there are things called ‘rights’ and all of that. So I had to get permission to adapt this poem into an opera libretto. I knew Frank O’ Connor had died in 1965 but I found out that his wife was still very alive and living in Dalkey, Co. Dublin. I wrote her an old-fashioned letter asking her permission which she graciously granted, and gave me the name of the shark solicitor in London who managed the O’ Connor estate. Not pleasant that part. Then I had to find a writer who could fashion an operatic libretto out of this poem, and I thought of the Englishman Paul Bentley who created such a handsome libretto out of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Another letter, and Paul was also on board. And he did a stunning job. So Ana finally had her libretto and she started writing The Midnight Court Opera.

Ana and I get on very well, and we talk to each other all the way through the composition process. She bounces her ideas off me so it’s not unusual to get a phone call from her saying ‘Doyreena (my name is a problem for everyone….) what do you think if in the last scene I suddenly press the rewind button and the singers sing everything backwards?’ ‘Ana, I think that’s a fantastic idea.’ ‘Good. Great. Thank you.’ Click. She wanted to keep a fairy spell in The Midnight Court that was in the original Irish Gaelic, but of course needed to know exactly where the stresses were in the words so that she could write the music properly. As Irish Gaelic is my first language, she’d phone me late at night when her kids had gone to bed and we’d go at it. Two words would take 20 minutes. ‘Magairlín Meidhreach’. First syllable Ma. Meh? No, Mah. Maw? No, Mah, Mah, MAH…OK…next syllable Gair. Ger? No, Gur. Gerrr? No, Gurrrr. Ahhh, Gorrrr? No, Gu, Gu, Gur…  You get the picture. (cont'd)

Woodley (centre) with Shannon Mercer, Krisztina Szabó, Carla Huhtanen, Laura Albino, Andrea Ludwig

Our production of Ana’s The Midnight Court Opera was a smashing success, voted one of the top ten Toronto shows for 2005. And it was invited to the Linbury Theatre at England’s Covent Garden Opera, the first Canadian opera company and Canadian opera to perform at that venue. I still burst with pride with the thrill of that.

And then I had a crazy idea. Why not commission a one-woman opera, with no instruments at all. I tried to interest several composers in doing this, but they all thought I was nuts. It is the most difficult thing to do, as there’s so little to work with – just one voice. I asked Ana and she just said ‘I’ll think about it.’ And I knew that even she thought I was nuts. Then two weeks later she phoned me back and said ‘Ok – I’ll do it.’ She decided the opera would be called Love Songs and that it would portray four different states of love: romantic love, kids love, love for parents, and love shattered by loss. The texts would be existing love poetry that inspired her. We had the greatest time finding suitable poems and I wept many times on discovering heartbreaking poetry like Paul Éluard’s Certitude or Dán do Lara by Ireland’s Michael Hartnett. And then Ana came up with something extraordinary – she framed the whole cycle with music in which the singer sings ‘I love you’ in 100 languages. Pure genius. By now, we’ve performed our production of Love Songs in five countries, including to the Prince and Princess of Holland at the Holland Festival, and it was voted the best production at the Zagreb Music Biennale Festival in 2009.

And now to the grand finale. What do you ask of a composer who’s done everything? Well….there was that marvellous work for six female singers back in 2000. But, it was only 10 minutes long, and it had such an impact that, well, wouldn’t it be wonderful if it went on for an hour? Ana, how would you feel about writing a full-length opera for six female singers, a cappella? Yes, I would love to, but Doyreeena, what text? We began by commissioning a writer in Montreal that Ana wanted to work with, and it began so so promisingly. But in the business of opera librettos, the first draft is never ever the last draft. There are multiple drafts as the text has to be tightened and squeezed to within an inch of its life to make way for the big huge emotional sucker called music. I think the writer thought the first draft was the last, and hadn’t envisioned going at something repeatedly. Gone. And now what to do? (cont'd)

Woodley, Huhtanen, Albino

Ana and I didn’t talk for several weeks, and then one day she phoned me and asked how I would feel about her using old Serbian folk texts to fashion a libretto around a universal theme like a marriage. I clapped my hands with glee – what a brilliant idea. All of Ana’s music is inspired by her Balkan heritage and by using Serbian folk texts, she’d be diving into the very source of her creativity. I could hardly wait. She decided the opera would be called Svadba-Wedding and sung in Serbian. The action of the opera would take place the night before Milica’s wedding, when her best friends would keep her company all night long while preparing her for the impending marriage. Ana decided on seven scenes: Girlfriends sing, Colouring hair, Love suit/dance, Competition/Alphabet & patty cakes, Bath, Dressing, Farewell. The scenes would unfold, not in a linear narrative, but in a playful interconnection animated through drama, distilling magic and fantasy from ordinary moments. Then she went off to Serbia to find the exact right texts that would suit the emotional state of each scene. She researched hundreds of texts at the library in Belgrade, and came back with the ones she would use. She phoned me up and said ‘Doyreeena, this time the audience might not know what is going on intellectually, but they will really really feel emotionally what is going on.’ Then she started writing the music. 

We premiered the new opera Svadba -Wedding in Toronto in June 2011 to great critical and audience acclaim. Audiences did indeed feel what was going on, and Svadba proved to be a cathartic experience for everybody. Every night after conducting the performance, audience members met me at the bottom of the stairs in the theatre. I could see they had all been very moved by the opera but couldn’t really express what it was. But of course Ana had achieved her goal – they had all felt deeply for one hour and the emotional experience had made an unforgettable imprint on the consciousness. 

We have just toured Svadba to Europe. For the last 10 years, I’ve been trying to bring Ana’s operatic work back to Serbia as it has never been heard there. Trying and trying and trying. And finally this October we did it. We brought Svadba to the Bemus Festival in Belgrade, singing in Serbian for the Serbians, the first audience that didn’t need surtitles. And it was the most touching experience of my professional life since coming to Canada. Ana’s parents were there, all her relatives, her friends, her composition teachers, composer friends from all over the Balkans, all the friends I have made in Belgrade over 10 years, and in particular Olgica Markinkovic – the wonderful local Canadian cultural attaché at the Canadian Embassy in Belgrade who pushed with me all those years to bring Ana’s work home. Well Olgica, we did it. Svadba was a huge hit, with plenty of marvellous critical reviews. Ana was a hero in her home town. Then we brought Svadba to Dublin, my own home town, and we got a standing ovation. Dynamite. Back in Canada now, and we’re in Svadba rehearsal again, as we tour to Calgary, Edmonton, and Vancouver next week. I hope the joyous life of this Svadba opera goes on for a very very long time. Because for the life of me, I can’t think what the hell else I could ask Ana to write. 

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