Rebecka Ahvenniemi: I have asked myself how I, as a composer, and as a woman, can approach the opera format today, when almost the entire reference basis is created by men.
It is not irrelevant who made the libretto or music for an opera. In itself, the opera form reflects society, the political and social structures at any given time - including gender ideals. Anyone who has access to this also has access to define.
Elisabeth: I think that is part of my personal problem with Opera as genre. Even if I know we are, as you said, part of a culture and history, I have to respond to it from where I stand today, and at the same time understand of the time it was created. But all these young, beautiful women who sings and then dies (as Euridice and, in a way Proserpina) or being banished (Messagiera FN)… The same kind women who get killed in every crime-noir… So, there are some things that haven’t changed.
Ida Habbestad: Also, in terms of content, opera has often themed political and social structures. Your input was, among other things, to choose Beyoncé as a reference?
R.A: Beyoncé symbolizes the tension between being a woman in a position of power, and at the same time, being just that: a woman. Beyoncé is rich and famous. She is a songwriter, music producer, pop singer, and feminist. At the same time, she expresses herself through extremely sexualized female roles in her music, which can be seen as problematic from a feminist perspective.
R.A In the beginning of this opera (”Beyoncé and beyond”), the star is born from Orpheus' dream. However, the focus is on her, and she arises as a result of Orpheus's imagination.
Here, I recreated a musical aesthetic based on Monteverdi's operatic style (as well as Purcell, Mozart e.a). I have also experimented with the tension between the vocal technique in the Renaissance and early Baroque, and improvisational singing in R & B style, which is not necessarily very far away.
Elisabeth varies between chest sound and head sound, depending on the style…
E…and those shifts were sometimes very fast. You could make me go from ”Beyoncé” to Monteverdi in the middle of a melismatic ”wailing.” John Potter (as I have returned to many times) claims that modern pop singers might be closer to the late renaissance singing ideal than modern classical singers. In this opera, I got to test that. And as with my earlier experiments with Susanna Wallumrød (whom I will come back to in a bit), I decided that I like this connection, and feel vocally connected to it.
And of course your Orpheus link is extremely suitable for me! (laughs)
I.H: How have you thought about the dissemination of text - also musical - in your work?
R.A: I have written large parts of the libretto performed vocally in a constructed Italian-Latin-like language, which sounds like an "opera language". There is also an English text.
E: At first, I did not take the text seriously but played more with it. Because it is a constructed language I could do this - some of the respect we can have for a language we don’t fully master disappeared. Later, the seriousness crept in, so to speak, without me noticing even it.
R.A: One purpose was to make the text genre we actually encounter in rap, R&B, and pop songs more visible. The lyrics become more striking when they are detached from their original context and format.
E: It also made me sing the quite explicit lyrics with a distance that made them appear even stronger. It is an intriguing way of writing a libretto. You used so many parameters: sounds, semantics, nonsense…
Going back to Monteverdi and L’Orfeo, I can totally see Proserpina in this story. She is a QUEEN, but our modern gaze tends to view her sexual playfulness as submissive and victimized. Definitely Euridice! She is characterized as an innocent woman - but is also a tree nymph, who’s name means Wisdom.
R.A: Yes, it's not just a sad story of the oppression of women. When the main character is born, she doesn't have a name, she is just beautiful (like Euridice). After a little while we see a distinctly strong personality; she is diva, ambitious, and pompous.
It was the ambiguity and duality in Rebecka’s opera that aroused my desire to explore Proserpina and Euridice in a new way. They are also sexualized women, who can easily be interpreted as the Madonna and the Whore in our eyes. I felt really ashamed when I, a woman and feminist in the 21st-century, realized I had formed them as the stereotyped weak women they appear on the paper. When I could see them as whole persons, with stories and wills of their own, the entire narrative changed. I used the energy, and also parts of Rebecka’s music, when I worked on ”The Tree with a name” with Wolfgang Lehmann (see chapter 7). Beyoncé was a fabulous and powerful igniter for this.