by Oge Nwosu, 12:40 Librettist


A few months before the turn of the millennium I attended a concert at Hoxton Hall. Each of the various performances contained such piercing, pellucid mystery that, in my memory, the evening has taken on the undertones of some singular and transformative mid-summer rite – baptism or burning… Something irrevocable. One thing – and there was plenty to remember: the airless heat; the effortful shifting of the harpsichord; the main performer’s silver bomber jacket - one thing above all else, happened: there was a moment when a page turner hesitated before turning a page, and the pianist, swiftly, lightly and with no ill will whatsoever, turned the page himself. I wrote a novella, The Page Turner’s Fear of the Parable, because I wanted to know ‘why?’ and ‘what happened next?’. (And the imagined Page Turner in my head badly wanted answers to those questions too.) That initial obsession with the workings of an orchestra and the mind of a composer/performer evolved, gradually, into a deep curiosity about the practice of creating 21st century opera.

At the point earlier this year when I was invited to take part in the 12:40 project I had been intermittently interrogating the National Opera Studio website for perhaps a decade – hopeful of some space being made for the non-singing, non-piano-playing libretto writer… Working, from the start of the project, in a ‘rectangular collaboration’ with not just the composer Christian Mason but also Satriya Krisna and Satoshi Kubo – the intended singer and répétiteur – has been a very new experience for me. The joy of this approach is that one is led down entirely unexpected paths. Having stated (quite categorically,) in a preliminary meeting, that I do not generally incorporate overtly of-the-moment political material into my operatic texts, I have found myself willingly condensing two and a half decades of mid-20th century Indonesian cultural history into a five minute aria. I don’t think the result is primarily ‘political’ - rather, the aria (and the opera as a whole) utilises particular political events to create ‘sonic objects’ wherein those events (some massively compressed), speak for themselves. In our first collaborative discussion (with David Sulkin sitting in), Satriya spoke of his training in architecture, his immediate emotional response to the piano, and of discovering his voice as a singer. Christian suggested that it might be good to find a way of rendering this experience in a more abstract or archetypal fashion. David revealed that both Satriya and Satoshi practised meditation (and I wondered how to incorporate this into the aria). We considered the different sonic qualities of a voice close at hand or in the distance, and the possibilities with off-stage singing  all
of which, we realised, referred back to ‘architecture’. We agreed that however experimental we might want to be within the aria structure we would need a clear shape. Our conversation, in fact, was, in its structure, a precursor to the finished piece; an accumulation of fragmentary things coalescing into something lyrical and complex.

Having decided to concentrate on the theme of ‘discovering one’s voice’, my first instinct was to spend several fascinating days researching experiments in language deprivation and acquisition… In the end this particular route seemed to be something that would work better as a devised or improvised piece, whereas what we needed was something fixed, definite, written down and transportable.

I decided on a more focused approach and immersed myself, via the usual sources, in Indonesian history. It became apparent that our theme cohered rather strikingly with the pre-revolutionary period from 1918 to 1942, during which both the first Volksraad (People’s Council) and the predominantly Indonesian-language literary journal Pudjangga Baru (New Writer) were established. I was fascinated to discover that one strand of Indonesian literature cleaved to the sonnet form. Given a year or so to absorb this information I would have been very tempted to use
this as a template. But I am not a poet and attempting to work in such a precise form in a language I was unfamiliar with seemed foolhardy.

The structure I finally decided upon involved four separate voices. There were two primary reasons for this. The first was a tentative but insistent impulse to provide Satriya with an audition piece that was absolutely not in the accepted tradition of the romantic lyric tenor role. The second was a stubborn creative refusal to limit the aria to one voice purely because there would be only one singer on stage.

Perhaps because I had been preoccupied with the crafting of a research proposal immediately before starting this project, I found a great and unexpected synchronicity between theory and practice when I came to write the aria. I very much wanted to take advantage of Satriya’s uncommon multilingual abilities and, because we had touched on the fact that the Indonesian operatic repertoire is not large, I specifically wanted to give him some new Indonesian text to sing. My work almost invariably does contain a multi-lingual element, not in pursuit of any political agenda but in response to opera’s dissociative vocal scaffolding; language, in my texts, splits to give voice to the diverse personas within any given character. But in this instance there were no individual characters and I realised I was trying to do more than simply portray one person’s psychological state. In the aria the English, Dutch, Malay and Indonesian voices represent four antagonistic factions of thought, caught in a particular, brief moment of history but reaching backwards through centuries and forwards towards revolution. It was only after I had written the text, emailed it to my collaborators and attempted to explain it to myself, that I discovered that the use of multiple languages was a theatrical tradition going back to at least the 14th century in South East Asia. The various languages were and continue to be used in exactly the way I had intended my text to be interpreted - ‘to speak the past’ or ‘to speak the present’. (Marvin Carlson, Speaking in Tongues, Languages at Play in the Theatre. University of Michigan Press, 2006). I am always happiest when form and content are indivisible - so this fortuitous integration of ad hoc creativity and centuries old practice has been particularly satisfying for me.

The libretto is the result of group effort. Pretty much everything we discussed has found its way into either the aria or the imagined whole opera. Satriya, within ten minutes of our first being introduced, used the phrase ‘lots of people lost their souls’ in speaking of the revolutionary period between 1945-1950. Everything in the aria now proceeds towards this point. (Satriya also invariably managed to send me exactly the piece of information I wanted; a link to a book, a poem etc., almost before I realised the need for it.) I worked first with Google Translate to produce the text, but relied completely on his knowledge to make the non-English phrases grammatically correct and idiomatic. Satoshi’s suggestion of using accompagnato recitativo and breaking the aria into parts was immensely helpful and enabled me to build drama within and between the competing voices. I am overwhelmingly grateful to Christian for the joyful alacrity with which he accepted the polyglot text I sent him. He asked searching questions and his wonderfully worded appreciation of the text’s ‘formality, clarity, richness of implication, sonic diversity and sense of musical structure’ has strengthened me through periods of doubt.

There have been some minor difficulties … Translation proved relatively easy, linguistic interpretation less so. The word ‘crave’ proved interesting. The Malay voice uses a phrase which I intended to mean, in English: ‘We crave the beautiful endeavour’. But, even over the telephone, I could hear Satriya raising an eyebrow at this - for him ‘crave’ had purely negative connotations in Malay and Indonesian, rather than suggesting the affirmatory, spiritual longing that I had in mind. So the Malay line now uses ‘demand’ - while we have kept ‘crave’ in the English translation. And,
at the time of writing, I have yet to arrive at an acceptable alternative to my original title for the whole, imagined opera. Because the original title - explicable in English, is devastatingly meaningless in Indonesian.

Throughout the project I have been conscious of the purpose of the aria and the needs of the NOS artists for whom it has been written. It was never inevitable that this opera, in whole or in part, would deal so specifically with the history of Indonesia and I have been perhaps annoyingly scrupulous in ensuring that Satriya would feel happy to perform the piece in both the Netherlands and Indonesia. He has assured me that he will be! I know that Satoshi will find the music equally satisfying to perform.

Writing this fraction of the whole has been an extraordinary experience; I imagine that making the complete opera - as envisaged - would be an awesome undertaking involving not just extended research in Indonesia but also fierce ontological interrogation of the place of the singing body in an opera without individual characters. (This may yet form the basis of a practice-led research project). During my GSMD Opera Making year the director Martin Lloyd-Evans, in a talk given to the combined Opera (Singing) and Opera Making Departments, stated that our responsibility was not to the text, or the music or to our creative or performing collaborators, but to "the hope the audience brings for a transformative experience". I am longing to hear all twelve arias performed in Hoxton Hall and hope that our new, shared operatic creation can live up to that responsibility.


12:40 takes place at London's Hoxton Hall on Thursday 14 and Friday 15 June 2018.


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