“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 with the people who formed his philosophy: his wife and fellow left-wing activist Dora Kellner, his friend Gershom Scholem, and the 19th-century poet Friedrich H?lderlin. These conversations are the creation of the American “sound-poet” Charles Bernstein, who like many librettists was asked to supply a text that the composer could reorder at will. Each scene is vastly different from its neighbour in form and texture. For example, Shadowtime III, “The Doctrine of Similarity,” is scored for chorus and orchestra and deals with Benjamin’s ideas on representation; Shadowtime IV represents Benjamin’s descent into the underworld, rendered by a solo pianist in a Las Vegas bar, dressed in a Liberace costume.
Why such devotion to a figure who in his own eyes was a failure? Because failure was a measure of Benjamin’s heroic refusal to follow convention. “The reason Benjamin dies early on is that I am not directly concerned with him as an individual, as tragic as his fate undoubtedly was; rather, I am concerned with the far greater tragedy of Weimar Republic intellectuals,” Ferneyhough explains. “The phantasmagoric scene five directly deals with this as Benjamin’s avatar undergoes a trial by 11 groups of symbolic figures, some of whom are historical figures, some taken from Jewish and other mythologies.”
Ferneyhough’s music recalls Benjamin’s labyrinthine complexities, and has a tone similarly poised between intoxication and melancholy. It should be a potent combination.
“Shadowtime” premieres on 25th May at the Prinzregententheater Munich, with additional performances on 27th and 28th May. It can also be seen from 25th-31st October 2004 at the Op?ra Comique, Paris; 12th-31st July 2005 at the Lincoln Center, New York; 1st-15th September 2005 at Sadler’s Wells, London