We’re in the throws of a Lockdown and I’ve just had the privilege of presenting a paper on a potential opera I hope to write along with two other collaborators: a librettist and a scenographer. The presentation was conducted online and hosted by La Monnaie De Munt (an Opera house in the City of Brussels, Belgium) as part of enoa (the European Network of Opera Academies).
I have a video out that talks about the experience which you can view here.
The purpose of this event is to apply for funding from enoa that will support the creation of an opera that aims to ‘rethink opera’ in general. My team have come up with the project ‘queering opera’, and we are amongst a handful of selected groups out of a total of 150 applications.
Below is an abridged version of our presentation, which I gave alongside our team’s librettist and stage director, to a panel of opera houses across Europe.
Representations of gender nonconforming practices are urgently needed. Gender-critical arguments on sexual dimorphism and movements to challenge trans medical and legal protections have elevated in the past 5 years. New stories and representations of nonbinary bodies offer vital social evidence for self-identification, social integration, and legal change.
We aim to investigate what nonbinary opera entails. Our narrative portrays a nonbinary protagonist finding their place in a society built on categorisation. A multi-stylistic musical approach composed specifically for trans opera singers aims to blur the boundaries between established musical styles and persuade audiences to rethink any assumptions about what an opera (and likewise a nonbinary human being) “should” be. Visually, ‘flow’ materials such as smoke, mist, fog, colour blending, and projected light are combined with angular structures such as tables, cat walks, and toilet-cubicle doors. […] Our team’s gender, cultural, and geographical identities are diverse, but we want to expand this diversity by working with performers who identify with the full spectrum of gender and cultural identities. This includes trans-opera singers whose perceived gender does not necessarily match their voice’s gender (but this mismatch is only present in a current societal mindset that needs to be changed). […] Exploring the relationship between gender and voice in a practical way such as opera is vital in our aim to represent gender-nonconforming practices. With the team representing both northern and southern Europe, we have a diverse set of contacts and strive to explore all the opportunities offered by intersectionality (age, race, religion). […] The stories we intend to tell are seldom told in opera. Yes, we are insiders in the queer community, but we only represent a fraction of the queer experience and, therefore, intend to engage in an ethnographic collection of stories leading towards a piece of creative non-fiction. With a multi-stylistic musical approach, we can write music that sensitively represents different cultures and invokes various social settings inspired by real-life stories. […] We aim to use the support and mentorship offered by Enoa to work on a new relationship with the audience by challenging traditional passive spectatorship and breaking staging conventions: the staging and music are not restricted to the stage alone with misty visuals capable of enveloping the audience and the integration of one-sided headphones containing an added layer of music that the audience can choose to listen to.abridged excerpt from the paper we presented to enoa
Our team is as follows:
What I am personally bringing to this project as a composer:
As a composer I like to challenge the phenomenon of ‘style’ because to me it represents a way of being in a world governed by ideology (something very restrictive on the individual). By ‘style’, I mean something that has become a reified norm, fixed, rigid, structured, something with limits and boundaries. I like to traverse stylistic boundaries, mixing allusions and styles freely, but not in a postmodernist way because postmodernism is another reified concept with its own boundaries. When I compose, I like to traverse an open space of frequency without worrying about what certain sounds might allude to, whether they do allude to anything or not. I want the listener to hear this side of my music too but I also know that it won’t be easy because we live in a world of ideology and preconceived ideas about styles. As such, my music will always be likened to other styles or pieces of music as a means for the listener to gain some familiarity and understanding about my music. We know from Freud that the unfamiliar is not desirable. Difference is generally rejected and people are categorised and concepts are formed so as to combat any unfamiliarity. Identity Politics is testament to this: everyone has a box and a place. But what if a person doesn’t want to fit into the framework? What if they want to traverse the space freely? What happens to a person who is constantly pigeon-holed into categories based on audience reaction and not their individual mindset? This dichotomy between a society imbued with ideology and an individual’s desire to find themselves resonates with my own approach to composing music: I am constantly battling between what I want to write and what I think I should write in order to be heard by society. This mindset resonates heavily with the narrative of our opera, where the protagonist is trying to find themselves in a world that wants them to fit into a predefined box. Encounters with the unfamiliar are inevitable.
At this stage in the project’s development I’m planning on writing two operas and layering them on top of one another. They’ll both fit perfectly but also, they can stand alone as separate pieces of music. There’s the side that is rigidly structured, follows pre-established styles such as classical harmony and counterpoint, serialism, and so on. Then there’s the freer musical style that will traverse the open space freely but, inevitably, collide with allusions to pre-established styles because we cannot escape hearing these, just as the protagonist cannot escape being pigeonholed. For example, if a soundworld explores atonality but accidentally forms a consonant chord, the listeners will recognise this as something familiar and feel it being juxtaposed against a more unfamiliar soundscape. Instead, they should treat it as more free exploration of sound, but due to the nature of an ideological mindset, these familiar moments will stand out and the listener will think they understand the music according to their own preconceived knowledge about music that they’ve heard before.