“A theatre of thoughts” is how Brian Ferneyhough describes his first opera Shadowtime, which premieres in Munich in late May. It’s a dismaying description for anyone who treasures opera’s power to render human passions in all their raw immediacy. An opera that deals with ideas rather than feelings might seem a contradiction in terms.
But not to Ferneyhough, for whom opera as traditionally conceived is a closed book. He’s hardly ever been to an opera, and admits to knowing nothing about it. Of course, this may turn out to be a liability. So many recent operas have been stillborn because their composers have had no conception of what makes good theatre. But it does give Ferneyhough the freedom to reinvent music-theatre from first principles, a freedom he’s seized with both hands.
Shadowtime is the latest and perhaps most radical attempt to refashion opera for the modern era, a project that’s now nearly a century old. First came expressionist opera, which peered into the dark recesses of human nature. Then in the 1920s came the riveting blend of left-wing didacticism and populism of Brecht/Weill collaborations such as The Threepenny Opera. In the 1950s and 1960s a new smaller-scale form emerged, which turned its back on the inflated apparatus and star singers of grand opera. For want of a better term it called itself “music-theatre,” and it ranged in style from the stark formalism of Birtwistle’s Bow Down to the penetrating psychodrama of Peter Maxwell Davies’s The Lighthouse.
There are traces of all these in Ferneyhough, but he goes way beyond any of them. His piece is in seven scenes, which follow no chronological order, tell no story, and in some cases involve no words. The one scene that approaches anything like realism is the first, which retells the last hours of the great German-Jewish philosopher of culture, Walter Benjamin. On 25th September 1940, late at night, Benjamin and a friend arrived at a hotel in the Pyrenees, hoping to flee the next day to Lisbon, and then to the US. But his papers were not in order, and the hotel manager told him he must return to France. That night Benjamin, only 48 years old but in poor health, and distraught at having to abandon his library, committed suicide.
The rest of the opera is a kind of exposition and interrogation of Benjamin’s ideas. We see him in imagined conversation…