Sara Elisabeth Holmertz

The Otherness of Self

Chapter 10

No, I take it back! Of course I can change the world! We can all change the world. We have to. Every day! Let us be Conceited ("et prétentieuse") and believe we are powerful and god-like enough to do that. If not us, who? Let us all be Orfeo!


Contributing in the films: Andreas Stensland Løwe, Fredrik Bock, Ensemble Odd Size, Hanne Dieserud, Wolfgang Lehmann, Felicia Fortes, Kenneth Karlsson, Rolf Wallin, Carola Bauckholt, Rebecka Ahvenniemi, Millimiedia, BNO, NMH, Claudio Monteverdi, Alessandro Striggio, Orfeo&co

Thank you!

I know I’m not alone struggling to find my place, voice, and language in a field that is still finding itself: What is Artistic Research and What’s in it for you or me?

Is there a unique argument for artistic research?….artistic research can be justified by the argument that it makes better artists. By creating a deeper understanding and a body of knowledge about their work, artists can develop their artistic work, their being as artists, maybe also their function in society and so on. Yes, this is a possible argument for artistic research, too.”Vadén FN


As always I have striven to be relevant, for my own sake as much as for others- but has this project contributed to making better art? Better artists? Greater common knowledge? 

What about more interesting art? 

More relevant art? 

More independent artists? 

More authentic artists? 

This is not for me to say.

I realise, of course, that I cannot change the world, even if, deep down I wish I could. Neither with my Artistic Research project nor my art. Unless we see everything we do as stones thrown into water, making rings that grow bigger and bigger, changing the world everyday…  


René Jacobs talks about the moral of the Orfeo myth. As he sees it: 






I've always been curious about what happens when we put different components together. Like peaches and chilli. Like a lute and a grand piano. Like those particular musicians and that specific composer. Like Caronte and me. Like Orfeo and Euridice. Like me and Ensemble Odd Size...Had we've aimed to only touch each other through touch, we wouldn't have succeeded. It's pure physics. Again, Karen Barad: 

"A common explanation for the physics of touching is that one thing it does not involve is . . . well, touching. That is, there is no actual contact involved. You may think you are touching a coffee mug when you are about to raise it to your mouth, but your hand is not actually touching the mug. Sure, you can feel the smooth surface of the mug’s exterior right where your fingers come into contact with it (or seem to), but what you are actually sensing, physicists tell us, is the electromagnetic repulsion between the electrons of the atoms that make up your fingers and those that make up the mug. (Electrons are tiny negatively charged particles that surround the nuclei of atoms, and having the same charges they repel one another, much like powerful little magnets. As you decrease the distance between them the repulsive force increases.) Try as you might, you cannot bring two electrons into direct contact with each other."FN

But, in this project, the touch and the contact between Me, Elisabeth, the characters in Orfeo, the musicians, and the stage have created entirely new personas and places for my voice to resonate. Where I am right now, I feel the Sameness, and Otherness of Myself at the same time. I am not quite the same, not quite the Other. The Otherness of the self turned out to be impossible to capture. In fact, the Otherness was already there. The feelings I have towards the characters in L’Orfeo, to the whole project and to my self, can be expressed like filmmaker Trin Minh-ha says: 

"The moment the insider steps out from the inside, she's no longer a mere insider. She necessarily looks in from the outside while also looking out from the inside. Not quite the same, not quite the other…

…She is, in other words, this inappropriate other or same who moves about with always at least two gestures: that of affirming "I am like you" while persisting in her difference and that of reminding "I am different" while unsettling every definition of Otherness arrived at.”FN


To begin with I was inspired to embody and further explore Magnus Tessings Schenider’s thesis, and academic research on Role Doubling in early 17th-century opera. I wanted to find out how, as a classically trained singer who feels equally at home in Early Music and in New Music- how I would behave, feel and react in these varying musical settings and musical roles? What would happen if I put them together instead of keeping them apart? How would the Baroque Me affect the New music me, and the Concert Singer Me affect the Actor Me? I have challenged the views on what a classical baroque soprano/singer can be today; I have experimented and explored different vocal techniques while staying within the classical/baroque frame; I have challenged myself to be an actor as much as a singer, and to use the text in an even more theatrical way (while still maintaining my singing persona). 


Investigating how the physical and intellectual processes of acting affect my singing, through using techniques and ideas from 20th-century physical theatre, Commedia dell' Arte, and storytelling I’ve developed into a new kind of performer: devising a new idea of what it is to be a singer- an Actor-Singer! Indeed, I do understand this is a personal interpretation of the word and phenomenon: the “Actor-Singer”, but for me, this new role allows me to play with my voice, and use music in ways I had not realised before. 


Through drawing in these theatrical elements to my production of L’Orfeo, I believe I came closer in spirit to 17th-century actor-singers, such as ”La Florinda” and Anna Renzi. The direct body language I explored in the physical theatre forms, gave my voice a presence which I firmly believe was (and still is) needed for the 17th-century opera house, and for the telling of ‘Stories through Music’- the original Favola in Musica


Performing all the roles forced me to make fast shifts between each character which made my voice react fast and almost instinctively to the signals sent by thoughts, neurons, and co-musicians. There was no time to think and judge - only act. 

Experiencing the shifts between these different roles also forced me to see myself from different perspectives and made me understand (if I didn’t already know) how much more there is to see in all of us. 

Instead of being La Voce FN (as I did before) my voice lives in me, in my body (It is not me) and can take the vocal shape of almost anything, and anyone, I desire. 

My voice has other potentials than just sounding like Elisabeth, which makes it is by far more interesting.


There is also an ethical issue here: I want the people I work with to be themselves too, or to ”play themselves” as the Norwegian jazz pianist Helge Lien put it many years ago. I do not wish to force my artistic ideas unto their musical strings. 

Moreover, Monteverdi’s music had to play the same essential part in the process and performance as it has done throughout my entire life. I had to respect him, the libretto by Alessandro Striggio, and the intentions I interpreted in the score. I needed to sing his music.

- Concluding Orfeo?

The project’s innately scattered nature has presented many challenges and pitfalls and challenges. I have touched on many various subjects: vocal techniques, dramaturgy, HIP, mythology, philosophy of the Self and Otherness and Nothingness, neuroscience, baroque theatre, and acting in general. I realise this could be regarded as a weakness in the project, but when I collect these fragments, this amassed heap, I see that I have dug deep: not only into L’Orfeo, but Baroque Opera today and Contemporary Music; even into what a singer can be today. 

She is a product of a history as old as mankind; encompassing folk music, MTV, Mozart, pop, improv-jazz, Wagner, and just about everything we hear.. and we hear such a lot!  This must be detectable in our voices today - and more, because our voices also live in our bodies, and our bodies live in this world- now. We should embrace and acknowledge all of this- to deny it is to deny a part of ourselves. 


My wish is that this research project will encourage other singers and musicians who want to open their inner Pandora Boxes (I mean, how bad can it be..?). I wish we could all explore how a shifting mind can transform our instrument. As classical singers, we are used to being put into boxes at a very young age. Someone, a teacher or an agent, tells you that you are a soubrette, lyrical alto, or Heldentenor and then you sing arias and songs according to you" fach." For many singers, this is more than enough! For them, there is a sense of freedom in it. For others, like me, it's strangling. 


It would be wonderful if this project could provide tools or inspiration for music teachers who wish to widen their students' minds, making them more independent and courageous.

I want to add fuel to the fantasy of minds that have been institutionalised, and to a market more focused on finance than the independence of artists. I believe that there is a need for classical musicians who can be co-creative as both artists and performers. If they can’t do this, they will remain always in the hands of others: conductors, directors, composers, agents, etc. 


I also hope this project can be used in research on the Madrigal Comedy, a subject I barely touched in this research, even though it’s an important link between Commedia dell’arte and Opera. Daniel Stighäll’s work will surely be a great contribution to this field.


Another topic I didn’t touch on, however important, is the singing techniques I used. One obvious reason is that there are others who write about it much better than I do (e.g. Orren Brown, Jo Estill, and Susanna Eken)Another reason is that while many singers today have excellent technique, they sound more and more similar to one another (NB! My opinion!). I want this project to encourage singers to develop their own sounds. In the long run, this would lead to healthier voices, and perhaps more psychological comfort with whatever that might bring. This might very well be a topic for a later paper or essay.

I, Elisabeth Holmertz, will use my experience and new knowledge directly in many upcoming projects: Two new operas for babies (Idea by Christina Lindgren, music by Maja Ratkje and Eivind Buene) at the Norwegian Opera, participating in Daniel Stighälls newly composed Madrigal Comedy ”Nattugglor” (music by Jan Sandström, libretto by Tuva-Lisa Rangström) and Rebecka Ahvenniemi aims to take ”Beyoncé and Beyond” further  (and beyond!)with a cd-recording. Hanne Dieserud and I will work on a new project, starting in the Autumn 2020. I think none of these projects would be realized without ”The Otherness of the Self”-project.

Ensemble Odd Size and I will go on forever.



The most important lessons, methods, theories, and tools I have collected during the process (with the help from all the methods, theories, and  people I've worked with and reflected over in this "Manual"):


  • Make yourself vulnerable by taking artistic risks. It is in itself is the most essential part of all art. 
  • The fundamental necessity of breaking the rules!
  • Use your voice without overthinking. Finding simpleness. When you don’t over articulate the text, you can give space to the poetry and open nothingness in the words.
  • Less is more. It really is. Less, not more. 
  • Ambiguity can be used as a strength.
  • Striving for unity in the musical duality! Or not! It can also just be respected for what it is.
  • Reminding yourself of how little we get from the score. Even when we are provided with basic conditions to know how the composer wants her/his music (she/he might f.ex be alive), we can’t really know unless we ask. If not, we can only guess. Be open to that. (I think that is a beautiful and respectful starting point.)
  • Finding space for the voice in the room, in the character, in the music. 
  • Be firm and decisive even in the unknown! Just go for it!
  • Remember! Being in the body! Who’s body? My body!
  • The Voice lives in me! It is not me! Don't take it so personally!
  • Give yourself permission to just make sounds.
  • See yourself through the eyes of others and become more mindful when looking at other human beings (and listening to their voices). 
  • Even if still letting us (you, Orfeo, Euridice; etc.) sing with the specific voices you gave them in the opera, know that we have a thousand more voices that we could sing with (if we wanted to). 
  • Be aware of ”non-vibrato”! 





S. I the beginning, you had lots of different ideas and approaches: you in a black jumpsuit, wearing masks, playing with dolls, changing costumes, hiding behind screens, using props, composing completely new music, using primal screams…

E. Oh, I would have loved a primal scream! They always seem to strike a chord. Why didn't I do that? Why didn’t I scream more?

S. Honestly, your voice and your body wouldn't take it. Not at the time. Your heart wasn't in the primal scream, so to speak. It didn't vibrate within you.

Obviously, you could have chosen a more experimental and extreme approach (More Artaud!! More Commedia dell'Arte!!!), but you couldn't have done that without compromising your artistic integrity. Had you done it any other way, it wouldn't have been your Orfeo - it would have been someone else's project. 

Most importantly, the performance had to be able to stand for itself and having its own artistic value. Not ”just” being a product of artistic research and an experiment.




”Fluidity may have been an integral part of the production itself, Holmertz doubling possibly dissolving the distinction between Orfeo and Euridice in the spectator’s mind, uniting the narcissism of the former and the devotion of the latter in one and the same woman”.FN

”When a performance is over, what remains? Fun can be forgotten, but powerful emotion also disappears and good arguments lose their thread. When emotion and argument are harnessed to a wish from the audience to see more clearly into itself - them something in the mind burns.”

Peter Brook.FN

Orfeo son Io!

”…art has power, but not the power of changing the world; the conceited (”et prétentieuse”) artist, who thinks he can change the world, with his art, will be punished. That’s what happens to Orpheus because he thinks that his singing, or his poems (since he is also a poet), will have such enormous power that they can change the laws of nature, which here are laid down by Pluto. The moral is an eternal one; and I believe that in every period there have been artists far too ready to take themselves for gods…So we should see in this a lesson of humility…” FN