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After 150 years, Vienna opera house stages first opera by a woman

Category: Women and Culture 
2019-11-27

The hallowed stage of the Vienna State Opera has seen a lot: superstar performers, premieres, scandals and moments of musical history. But in all its 150 years, the house has never staged an opera written by a woman. That will change next month, with the premiere of Olga Neuwirth’s operatic version of Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando: A Biography.

 

“I really want to shake up this old-fashioned, beautiful, wonderful place a bit,” said Neuwirth, a 51-year-old Austrian composer, in a backstage interview during rehearsals at the opera house.

Orlando, which has been called the first English-language trans novel due to its playful exploration of gender fluidity, has been a favourite of Neuwirth’s since she first read it at 15.

“It’s not only about gender bending, it questions all binary systems,” she said. “Orlando is a remarkable human being who questions every kind of duality and experiences a sense of ‘in-betweenness’ in both life and art. It’s about freedom of speech, about being who you are, to choose the identity you like and not be put into a drawer if you’re a man or a woman.”


Orlando begins Woolf’s novel as a young man in Elizabethan England, and ends it as a 36-year-old woman in 1928, the year the novel was published. “In every human being a vacillation from one sex to the other takes place, and often it is only the clothes that keep the male or female likeness, while underneath the sex is the very opposite of what is above,” the author wrote in one of many passages about gender and sexuality.

In Neuwirth’s 19-scene opera, the action will continue until the present day, the composer said. The role of Orlando’s child will be played by the transgender American cabaret artist Justin Vivian Bond, alongside a cast of classically trained opera singers.


Opera, which has been called the most misogynist art form owing to the propensity for terrible fates to befall female characters, is slowly changing, with more access for female composers and directors and an increasingly experimental trend involving new venues and formats.

 

 
In the big, traditional opera houses, things are moving more slowly, though here too there are occasional attempts to redress the balance. In 2016, the Metropolitan Opera in New York staged its first opera written by a woman for more than a century, L’amour de loin by the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho. In London, the Royal Opera House has promised to engage more female directors and creative teams to stage classic works from new perspectives.

All the key roles in creating Orlando were filled by women: Neuwirth wrote the libretto together with the playwright Catherine Filloux, the British director Polly Graham is in charge of staging the production, and performances will feature costumes designed by Rei Kawakubo, the founder of the fashion brand Comme des Garçons.

 

Neuwirth said that while opportunities and outlets for female composers had improved since she was studying three decades ago, the overall appetite for risk and investment in new music at major venues had diminished. “Most opera houses have unfortunately become museums, so the tendency to believe in contemporary composers to create something new with themes from nowadays in combination with challenging music has become much rarer than in the 1970,” she said.

An earlier Neuwirth commission from the Vienna State Opera was cancelled in 2004 after the house rejected the libretto written by Nobel-prize winning Austrian author Elfriede Jelinek. The opera was to deal with themes of child abuse by a Nazi doctor; in the end, it was never composed.

 

At the annual Wagner festival in Bayreuth this year, a production of Tannhäuser involving a British drag artist was booed by a minority of traditionalist spectators, and in Orlando there will be much more that could prove hard to swallow for conservative tastes: the characters, subject matter and the music itself.

In Neuwirth’s scoring, the Vienna State Opera orchestra shares the pit with an electric guitar and two synthesisers, as well as three choirs, with some singers placed inside the opera house’s giant chandelier.

Added to this are several electronic sonic layers, a jazz band that enters and exits the stage on a podium, and what Neuwirth described as “noisemakers” using props such as coconuts to make sound effects similar to those in live showings of silent movies.


In addition, the orchestra’s violinists will be playing with their strings tuned down a quarter tone. “They don’t like it very much,” she said, with a smile, and suggested that there was a possibility that some of the musicians would be unhappy when full rehearsals get under way. That’s partly the point, though. “This questioning of norms and asking ‘Who are we?’ already starts in the production of sound itself … Everything is about genre-bending and fluid form. Everyone has to jump over their own shadow and try to overcome their conventions,” she said.

There have already been signs of turbulence: the production’s initial director, Karoline Gruber, was replaced early in the process, and an explanatory “introduction matinee” planned for this Sunday was cancelled “to allow the performers on and off the stage to fully engage with the complex and challenging production”.

 

There is not much time to get it right, with the premiere scheduled for 8 December, when the Viennese public will be presented with a very new operatic experience. “I don’t know if this rather conservative audience, who want to hear the same repertoire over and over again, will be open for the queer journey of Orlando and my music,” said Neuwirth.


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