Sara Elisabeth Holmertz

The Otherness of Self

The texts are collections of my old notes, loose words, and random Streams of consciousness. Things I’d scribbled down now and then since the beginning of the project in 2016. There are also quotes from Rainer Maria Rilke’s ”Sonnets to Orhpeus”, and inscriptions from ancient greek tombs. 


Chapter 7 -Touching The Otherness

New perspective on Euridice and Proserpina+ the making of The tree with a name


The film, the texts, and the music are not supposed to stand on their own.

”The tree with a name” is an echo, a backdrop, a commentator, a comment, an interpreter, an interpretation, a mirror, a pair of magical glasses, another voice, an ”Otherness” to ”L’Orfeo.”


While I worked on the characters and their roles (see chapter 5) for months (years!)  I had been certain I knew who they were. I understood them, even if I didn’t always like them. Actually, if I am honest I didn’t like them at all: Orfeo was pompous, Euridice childish, Proserpina submissive, Messagiera self-pitying, Caronte a grumpy old man and Plutone a misogynist psychopath! There, character work done!

But, Michael Chekov asks us to be careful when we work on characters. He says: " …try to penetrate their thinking without imposing upon them your modern points of view, moral concepts, social principles, or anything else that is of a personal matter or opinion. Try to understand them through their way of living and the circumstance of their lives.  Reject the dogmatic and misleading notion that the human personality never changes but remains the same at all times and in all ages. (I once heard a prominent actor say, ”Hamlet was just a guy like myself”! In an instant he had betrayed that inner laziness which failed to enter more thoroughly into Hamlet’s personality, and his lack of interest in anything beyond the limits of his own psychology.FN

I had done exactly that: imposed my modern views, my moral concepts and social principles on them. They were pictures of me, ”guys like myself”. I had ”betrayed the inner laziness.” I had even seen them as women today even if Susan McClary already had warned me not to be ”inclined to believe in the immutability of genderFN. I did it all wrong! What I thought I had understood about them had only been reflections of myself and of my preconceptions. 


So, I had to start again. Reflect them in a new light and treat them better.

 In chapter 5, I discussed my ambiguity towards portraying male figures on stage - how I found them almost too comfortable and ”easy”- and how the female figures were much harder to find. One would think that I, a woman, wouldn’t have so much trouble with them. They are like me! But no! They aren’t! 

How could I change this? How could I make them more like ”Beyoncé," in the opera by Rebecka Ahvenniemi presented in chapter 6. She who lives her entire life in the male gaze, and has learned how to move her body, and voice according to the expectations. ”Beyonce” knows this might be problematic, but she is "more than you made me, more than the sum of your fantasies, yeah.

I wanted to use this power, making Proserpina and Euridice as problematic as Beyoncé, and as comfortable to sing as Orfeo and Plutone.

I decided that I would tell the story of Euridice and Proserpina. By giving them the prerogative of the story, providing them with new words to say, new music to sing, and an environment where they could be…more, I hoped to be able to view them with a clearer set of eyes, not only with the male coloured gaze I’d had.


From the start of this project, I knew that I somehow would be commenting with a contemporary voice, on Monteverdi’s opera in my final production. I wasn’t sure how. A completely new opera reflecting the music Monteverdi? The original idea had been to commission an opera, or music theatre, by Norwegian composer Henrik Hellstenius, but the applications were not accepted and there were no money for it. This had put me in a precarious situation - I wasn’t even sure I could land my artistic research project - but maybe this was a blessing in disguise? It wasn’t a new opera I should make. No, I had to take the consequence on how I have formed and seen the characters through my eyes and vision. I had to let myself be seen and interpreted through someone else eyes!


I contacted the film artist Wolfgang Lehmann, who agreed to make a film with me. Lehmann is a German film artist, residing in Stockholm. He has worked with music, musicians and staged performances on several occasions.FN  

Our aesthetics are quite different. Where I strive for ”down to earth” and a simpleness. Wolfgang is more ethereal and abstract. Even so, his double set of eyes - his own and his camera - would hopefully provide new insight, not only in the characters, but in myself.

I knew I was taking a risk by inviting another artist to do such an essential part of my work. I also suspected that my research would be deeply influenced by his aesthetics and tastes. All the same I was hoping to find some of the same friction I sometimes get from co-musicians, when we move in the same direction, but playing with different timing.


The filming itself took place in Oslo at the beginning of September 2019. The settings were the 12th-century cellar at Oslo Ladegård, The Ekeberg Park, and by the bowery banks of the Alna River. It was all very easy and simple: I stood still, lay on the ground, embraced a tree (as you do) while Wolfgang filmed me. In the hours we were out we didn’t talk much, we just did our thing. I didn’t act as either Proserpina or Euridice, but my thoughts were of course with them. I let the surroundings, the trees, the river and the old walls and vaults, do their magic. I just tried to be present and to trust that Wolfgang saw things I did not.

Wolfgang went home, I sent him the sound material (I will come back to that) and let him do his job - his magic. The choice to let him make the decisions regarding the film itself was a conscious one. It was necessary for me to make myself as vulnerable as possible, because I had considered myself too safe and had come to comfortable conclusions that only stopped my process.

In the days and weeks that followed I returned to these sessions in my mind. The black water in the steady flowing Alna River made me think of Styx (although, I don’t believe the river in Oslo is as terrifying and intimidating as the one separating life from death), which in turn gave Proserpina a grandness I hadn’t imagined before. I had seen her as a damaged woman in an abusive marriage, but here she was a strong and fierce queen!

And the memory of bark on my body and in my hands gave me a physical connection to the Tree Nymph Euridice! A woman, wise and strong, with roots far below the living world.  Ann Wroe, in the beautiful book ”Orpheus and Euridice A graphic-poetic exploration,” writes: ”It does not matter what kind of tree Euridice is./ trees go where humans can’t. They are rooted, and the roots work way down through the earth/Look again at Euridice the tree. Her name, itself mysterious, probably means ’wisdom’ or ’wide ruling’, magnificent and silent as the boughs or the oak. To go down into the earth is also to seek for knowledge./In the earliest version of the myth Orpheus is simply a shaman and she is Wisdom, far closer to  powerful Persephone than the helpless, frightened, empty-headed girl we have come to know since.”FN

Neither Euridice nor Proserpina was the victims my own prejudices had turned them into. Indeed they were ”more than you made of me, oh, fantasies yeah” as ”Beyoncé” would have said.FN


In this chapter I will talk about the film I made together with artist Wolfgang Lehmann, how that changed the way I saw Euridice and Proserpina and how that changed the whole thing.

Some of the music in chapter 6 will find a L’Orfeo connection here.


The method resembles the work of the wonderful singer and artistic research fellow Misha Penton (Bath Spa UniversityFN), whom I met and connected with at the symposium ”Voice and the un-known” in Malmö,  January 2019FN. Not only do I aspire to ”redefine and re-describe female characters from the western canon of myth and literature” as she does, but I was also deeply inspired by her videos, her ”Micro Operas,” where she is singing with, and to herself. What I experience in her work is a clarity that only a integration of perspectives can give. FN


When Vitangelo Moscarda, the protagonist in Luigi Pirandello’s novel ”One, No One and One Hundred Thousand” found out that he was not who he was (”…according to everyone else”), it drove him half insane. “Was it really my own, that image glimpsed in a flash? Am I really like that, from the outside, when—all the while living—I do not think of myself? For others, then, I am that stranger whom I surprised in a mirror; I am he and not the I whom I know; I am that one there whom I myself at first, upon becoming aware of him, did not recognize. I am that stranger whom I am unable to see living except like that, in a thoughtless second. A stranger whom others alone can see and know, not I.”FN

                  There are so many selves inside us.



The original title for the research project was ”The Otherness of the self - A voce sola in dialogo” - solo voice in dialogue

”A voce sola in dialogo” is an instruction you can find in some of Monteverdi’s vocal music, f.ex in the motet ”Jubilet tota civitas” in Selva Morale e spirituale. This motet can be sung by two singers, but is often performed by one singer. When the score says Canto (”sing”), the singer is turned to the audience. When it says Tacet (”silence”), she/he either sings very soft, or turns her/his back to the audience and sings). The effect is that she is in dialogue with her self, or that she is her own echo.

Even though I left that title, I still kept the essence of the words in my project. Indeed I am a solo singer in dialogue with myself!

Therefore it made sense to only chose music for solo voice - either composed or improvised. I recorded them (in Blueberry fields studios with sound engineer Øystein Sevåg) and we combined the pieces in a way that made them be in dialogue with themselves.FN


How I used the film in the final production of my artistic research

In the performance, 24/1-2020, I used ”The tree with a namn” to frame L’Orfeo. 

”Euridice speaks” is shown before act one -we hear her voice before anyone else’s. The next time we meet Euridice, is in the original opera when Orfeo proclaims his love to her and she proclaims her’s to him (”Orfeo I am no longer my own”). She appears to be only a young girl, whose sole purpose is to be Orfeo’s love, but we know that what we see on stage right now, is just one interpretation of her. We have seen her as a tree nymph with leaves and roots… 

The same with the second part, when ”Proserpina/Persephone speaks”, gives us an introduction to Hades, and the relationship to Plutone/Hades. A relationship that might be more equal than my modern preconceptions initially saw.

The third time the film comes on, it intervenes Monteverdi’s opera. When Orfeo is about to do his fatal, and human, mistake, it is the film that works as the doubts and strings that pulls his mind to turn… Orfeo, who is me, turns around and sees Euridice, who is also me. 

I am ”the other” and I am myself, ”in dialogo.”

The Otherness of myself - a symbol of the narcissism in the myth of Orfeo (and my ambiguity)?

I didn’t invent completely new characters - I only showed other possibilities of interpreting the characters Euridice, Proserpina as well as their roles (and here I refer to the discussions in chapter 5).



Music Euridice speaks:

  • A merge of ”Emil”+"Die Alte” - Carola Bauckholt (see chapter 6)
  • extracts from L’Orfeo- Claudio Monteverdi
  • ”…though what made it has gone”- Rolf Wallin (en echo of Messaggiera, the other nypmh and messenger)
  • ”Evening Rain” - James Dillon 
  • from ”Beyoncé and Beyond”- Rebecka Ahveniemmi.FN

What happened with L’Orfeo after this process?

  • The process itself provided me with a deeper understanding of all the things I hadn’t known or taken into account. F.ex Euridice was  ”…far closer to  powerful Persephone…”FN
  • Changing the perspective of Euridice, I also changed Orfeo. If Euridice could be ”Wisdom”, as Ann Wroe says, and ”follows her roots” down to the underworld by own choice, then Orfeo really could have been ”the shaman.” And her equal.FN
  • It changed my perspective on Proserpina, so Plutone had to change too - maybe, just maybe, he was the one who saw her true potential (not Demeter, the overprotective mother)?
  • Even if I still let them sing with the voices they use in L’Orfeo (airy and open), I knew that they have a thousand more voices that they could use (if they wanted to).
  • I had seen myself through the eyes of another and was therefor more mindful when looking at the characters. I just might see them in a less flattering light than they deserved.
  • Through Wolfgang Lehmann’s camera I saw myself in new perspectives and surroundings. I hadn’t known how (dreamy, sad, angry, determined, sensual, etc) I could appear. Of course this was useful for me to know when standing in front of the audience.
  • Wolfgang Lehmann’s film itself gave me a frame, and a backdrop for the stage in the end production.
  • The music examples in ”A tree with a name” reflect on my ”new music”-persona and links Monteverdi to today. I used music, that helped me form these characters (Wallin, Bauckholt, Ahvenniemi, etc), in an artistic framework of its own.
  • By taking this artistic risk, I made myself vulnerable, which in itself is an essential part of all art.

”In death we are reduced to our name alone, fragile, weightless, fleeting, defenceless, covered over by the customary handful of dirt. Beautiful, ample, warm and vibrant, Euridice dwindles in her own name”

Michel Serre FN

Photo: Wolfgang Lehmann

Proserpina/Persephone speaks

Euridice speaks

Euridice speaks

Someone is calling me. 


I have a body 

I see light. 

I see Him. 

We are going up.
Towards light and the Otherness of Nothing. 


My heaviness is getting lighter. 


He stops. 


”To the still earth say: I flow. To the swift water speak: I am”.FN


I was a tree.
My roots danced in the earth. 

I was a tree.
My leaves danced barefoot in the wind. 

My voice was like child’s voice. My voice was like an old woman. My voice was openness. 

I slept the world. I emerged and slept.FN

I saw him before I heard him.
He; the healer; The mysterious shaman; The saviour of the people. Me, his Mary Magdalene?FN


When I heard him, I became his world.
I was no longer my own.
I was entangled in harmonies that could change the universe. We vibrated. We became More. 


The sweetness of him. The sweetness of his voice. The sweetness of his sighs. 

My branches were unbreakable. They swayed. 


I was a tree. My leaves danced barefoot in the wind.

But my roots... My roots went deep, deep, deep into the earth. They knew my real name. 


No, I don’t think I let the snake bite me, but the bite was like a kiss against my skin. 


”Where Is my death? O, will he still discover
this theme, before his song consumes itself? - Where am I falling to, from him?...a girl…almost". FN


Darkness. Nothingness. Down, down, down... to where my roots are dancing barefoot. 

I couldn’t feel my skin, my bones. I became nothingness.

 I was my name and nothing more.
”A breath of Nothing. A gust within the god. A wind”.FN

“In the dwelling of Hades you will find a spring on your left, and near it a white cypress; be careful not to approach this spring. You will find another from which cool waves from Lake Mnemosyne. Before you are guardians. To them you will say, “I am the child of Gaea and Uranus and this belong to a celestial race, as even you must know.”FN 


I am a nymph and I am Queen of Death! 


He saw me, wanted me, took me. No, I took him... My Hades. 

My heart was light. It was silly, childish. Open. Wide open. 

Now, it is his. He saw me, wanted me, took me.
No, I took him... 


Queen of Death. Queen of Life.
The darkness embraces me with its chilly softness. 

Give me more pomegranates. I will stay.
"Hades has cut me down like a young branch..."FN


The tree with a name

- a film by Wolfgang Lehmann and Elisabeth Holmertz

”Orpheus on the other hand takes risks, not wanting to leave as he came, but wanting more: energy, a body. He wants Euridice alive. He tries to convert the voice-woman, the word-woman, into body. Music would tear Eurydice away from the Underworld, where her dress, body and charm are stripped away, where she is reduced to software; the death of the body has turned her into a pallid icon floating through the Fields of Asphodel, a soft shape with neither body nor outline…"

Michel Serre FN

Music Proserpina / Persephone speaks:

  • ”The dreams” - Agnes Ida Petersen, text ”Tabacaria” by Fernando Pessoa/Álvaro de Campos ”I am nothing.  I will always be nothing.  I cannot wish to be anything.  Apart from that, I have in me all the dreams of the world”

This music resembles Proserpina’s music in L’Orfeo, its the melismas and the glissandi, but this music also possesses a power we don’t hear in the opera - a raw power, almost aggressive. She becomes a woman who owns her own life, instead of being the manipulative sex bomb we (I) can so easily perceive them to be


you are not who you are, according to everyone else.

Jesper Waldersten