Ahead of our upcoming contemporary opera scenes production, Cautionary Tales, we spoke to composer Søren Nils Eichberg about his opera, Glare

Søren Nils Eichberg, winner of the prestigious Queen Elisabeth Competition and Danish National Symphony Orchestra's first composer in residence, has won widespread acclaim for his orchestral and chamber music. These include his award-winning Qilaatersorneq (2001) and the symphonies 'Stürzten wir uns ins Feuer' (2005) and 'Before Heaven, Before Earth' (2010). All his music is characterized by a powerful rhythmic drive and rich orchestral colour. Eichberg's opera Glare was commissioned by the Royal Opera House, London, UK. German poet Hannah Dübgen provided an original libretto that explores a tense web of human relationships and leaves the audience startled and questioning its own observation of the world.

Could you tell us a little more about Glare and what musical ideas came to mind when you first read through Hannah Dübgen's libretto?

Hannah and I developed the outline for the story together right from the beginning. There is much talk of 'the crisis of opera' and the danger of the genre becoming a museum. And the way out of that crisis – the way we see it – can only be to keep the tradition truly alive. So we wanted to create something that might be a true proposal for how opera today might look and feel. Something that both connects to the century-old tradition but also reflects modern life and relates to what a young audience has on its mind. So we wanted some themes that have always been at the centre of stage works, love, jealousy, friendship, envy, betrayal, but also something that relates to audiences today. Questions about identity, gender roles, how do we see ourselves in society, what is real in the light of social media and artificial intelligence. 

And the biggest challenge of course: to create a story that doesn’t get overloaded by all this but stays sing-able and relatable and a good story! So we came up with the idea to build the music around two men and two women, who were suddenly uncertain if one of them is an artificial human – or if these even exist. This mystery continues throughout the whole piece and gives me lots of opportunities to play with 'machine music', synthesisers, false flags and 'artificial beauty', if you will.

What do you hope audiences will discover about Glare and what do you hope that they will take away with them after experiencing the opera?

I think an opera evening should first of all be an exiting event with good music and an interesting story. But then on their way out of the theatre, the hope is, that the audience will think and wonder and ask questions about the show but also about the bigger picture: the difference between one’s true self and one’s image to others, who am I and how do I know that, what do I expect of others and what do they expect of me. And I have to say that we were thrilled to hear people in the audience have discussions in the foyer about what was real and what wasn’t after the premiere. That made us really happy.

How closely did you work with Hannah in bringing Glare to life, and how would you describe the composer-writer relationship in general?

The composer-librettist relationship really is an interesting process. When as an artist you work with another artist, you have to realise that what you think you need may very well not be what you actually need. As a composer you probably have ideas and preferences about how words should be, if you want to sing them. Which consonants and vowels work here, and what metres work for which rhythms there, etc. And hopefully your librettist will listen. 

But if the collaboration really works well, of course the librettist will have better words than you, because that’s her game. She may feel another place much more important than where you had thought the emphasis to be. She may come up with a more tricky rhythm in a point where you thought it should flow easily, and now there is struggle in the music and the place gets much more significance. Or the opposite: by making the words flow more freely she gives you the possibility to accelerate the music and reach a build-up point much better than you originally thought. So it really takes a lot of trust to let the other artist into your space and embark on this give-and-take. But it’s a process that I really love. And probably a reason why I don’t think I’d ever want to write my own libretti. 

Scene 10 of Glare features in the National Opera Studio contemporary scenes production Cautionary Tales

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Photography by Sim Canetti-Clarke for ROH and Neda Navaee