Olga Neuwirth: Music as political protest

Interviews 28.09.2022

Since her first opera, Bählamms Fest (An Animation-Opera) (1992/93-1997/98), Olga Neuwirth has been developing a musical-theatrical genre that challenges the traditional formats of the opera stage; with the ever-present desire to represent spaces and identities that are constantly changing, she seeks to erase the boundaries between the real and the virtual, between the past and the present, using the power of electronics and video. The Outcast carries a heterogeneous and rich material that the composer models to her desire, rereading the work under the angle of the political, societal and environmental crisis that our current world is going through: "To shake the senses, to move the soul, such is my objective in composing The Outcast", she wrote in 2010, while she was working on the first sketches of the work: "to awaken the ears, the eyes and the thoughts beyond the borders that are everywhere set up and beyond our economic constraints. Through the madness of Moby Dick and Melville himself."

Whatmotivated your interest in Herman Melville's novel Moby Dick?
Olga Neuwirth: I was intrigued by the character of Melville who, unlike his exact contemporary Whitman, no longer felt at home in his own country. The fate of this insightful political writer and seismographer of his time, who held a mirror up to his country and provoked such defensive reactions, began to fascinate me. I was drawn to this man who did not conform to the rules and conventions of his time, either as a person or as an author, and never tired of wielding his pen against the powers that be. With Moby Dick, Melville inexorably showed the world around him what it refused to see. Is this not art as political protest?
While in Manhattan, I attended a production of Orson Wells' play Moby-Dick-Rehearsed. The stage was almost empty, the actors were dressed in street clothes and the set design was very sparing, engaging the audience in imagining the ocean, the pequod and the whale; this made me want to stage this big book and I re-read Moby-Dick in its original English version. Melville's rich, complex, versatile, and often ironic language, as well as his non-uniform narrative structure and descriptive method of tracing memories, left me stunned.

Didn't you have the idea of writing an opera at the time?
I did, in fact, start writing a film script because I wanted to translate my own visions of loneliness, hatred, desire, grief and the search for identity into images. I also undertook extensive research. I went to Arrowhead where Melville wrote Moby Dick, and to Mount Greylock, the "white whale" he could see from his office. I made Ishmael the central character of the story and turned this identity seeker into a woman who wanders alone and despondent through the urban canyons of New York City - for all the characters in Moby Dick are wanderers.

You also invented the character of Old Melville. What place do you give him?
By inventing a character called Old Melville in my screenplay, I brought Herman Melville out of the grave. He had been reburied with great fanfare in the 1920s, when he was immortalized as a star of American literature, yet he ended his life in total disregard and oblivion. Old Melville depicts his failure, his search and despair, his desire to understand and his determination to find the truth, in which he persists even though he knows the possibilities are endless. Not to mention his reflections on the thirst for power and the desire to rule. He constantly looks behind what torments him, because he believes in the validity of the functioning of the human mind when confronted with real phenomena. He expresses his perpetual doubt, especially when it comes to the question of God and the reasons for human conduct.

In the end, the film could not be made, but the commission of an opera for the Mannheim Theatre finally allowed you to bring the project to the musical stage. You then called on collaborators...
It became clear to me that I wanted to keep at least the Old Melville characters that I had originally created for the film. At the same time, I wanted to take another look at the complexity of "Melville's world. That's why I followed the example of John Huston (who turned to Ray Bradbury and Charles Olson for the screenplay of Moby-Dick) by sending a request to the American writer Barry Gifford. I asked him to look at Moby Dick in his own way, while following my idea of the old Melville. I also asked the Austrian writer Anna Mitgutsch, who had spent years studying Melville, to write the monologues of old Melville. For me, it was not a matter of interpreting the text through music, but rather of positioning references and quotations from Melville's life and work in an evocative and emotional way in a musical space, not as an evaluation, but rather as a basis for discussion, perhaps under the rubric of "Take it or leave it".

This long narrative had to be condensed, tightened; how did the choices within the novel come about?
Moby Dick is a conglomeration of style, wordplay, natural history, philosophy, lush and effervescent language, conscious and subconscious processes in the human mind, and a critique of the destruction of nature, greed, and human illusions of grandeur. Each chapter, each sentence is a universe in itself. How wonderful! The non-uniform narrative perspective, its motley material, and the prose that oscillates between the themes of the flat calm and the storm, the inevitable ebb and flow and the many actions arising from such a calm, all stimulated my musical fantasy. But like Orson Welles, I didn't want to dramatically stage the whale or the whaling because the book is so complex and diverse that it defies representation on stage. I thought that a confrontation between love and the loss of love, traumatic experiences, pain, desire, death, the dissolution of boundaries, and distress expressed in a wide variety of passages and musical perspectives might send listeners back to their own associations, and that during the performance these "musical waters of the soul" might generate images in everyone's mind...

Alongside the singers, you introduce a reciter in charge of the monologues...
These monologues - which have annoyed some - are spoken by the actor who plays the role of Old Melville. Herman Melville had also been criticized for his long "scientific" documentary segments on whaling in his novel. Even today, they are considered long and arduous passages that impede the flow of the story. For my part, I find the whaling inserts perfectly positioned - it happens, so to speak, as the book progresses. These passages gradually become less frequent and are dropped entirely before the catastrophe, the apocalyptic ending. I wanted to retain these interruptions to the story occasioned by digressions on ketology - although in my case the interruptions would result from old Melville's reflections on his life in the bleakness of an empty room, amidst the rubble of his dreams.

How do you musically conceive of this proliferation of actions and characters that run through the story?
"There are undertakings," Ishmael declares, "in which careful disorder is the true method." There is, indeed, a disconcertingly dense web of references like an archipelago. This can also be true of the music: a flow composed of solo vocal lines and blocks of choral voices, bursts of sound, subtle weavings, overlays and densifications, spoken and sung, orchestral and electronic soundscapes, as well as clacking that musically reproduces sperm whales. Over time, different musical spaces open up, because for Melville space is not an abstraction but a central experience. For him, the Pacific was an experience of space.

Another outcast, the character of Ahab, commander of the Pequod who lost a leg in a fight with the white whale, is central to the novel...
Does Ahab represent the American dream gone mad? Or the belief that he is the world and that the world is therefore under his command? Is he someone who no longer has a heart but whose mind is still intact, and who seeks to submit his will to every resource? I don't have the answer, but what we do know is that Ahab's ruthless campaign of revenge crushes everything. He is a person filled with apoplectic rage and a sense of narcissistic mortification and damaged self-esteem. While his hatred and delusions of grandeur keep him from falling apart, his pathological states draw a whole crew to his destruction. Ahab is a demagogue who manipulates his loyal followers with episodes of flattery and bluster. With his tirades and growing, more focused hatred, he fuels the sailors' belief in the importance of his crusade for revenge. From a sound perspective, what interested me about Ahab is that at first he speaks in a loud, assertive voice, while his crew members speak hesitantly and cautiously. It is only when Ahab lures them with money that they join in his delusions. Ahab has made clear the purpose of his journey: to rule nature. The crew does not understand the price of this man's fantasies of omnipotence and revenge, a lonely man who refuses any form of consolation. When Ahab addresses the human need to find meaning in suffering on earth, the entire crew begins to sing a song full of hate. Ishmael's sung prose, Pip's stammering, Queequeg's lively and unconcealed energy and melisma - in addition to the Crew's Choir and the Boys' Choir - contrast with Ahab's laconic and disconnected speech. Thus, in many ways, the singing roles were already cast in the book: in the juxtaposition of contrasting intonations and forms of expression.

Why does Ishmael, who is a character in the book but also the narrator, become, in Outcast, Ishmaëla?
Women were not allowed to work on the ships and when they dared to do so, they had to disguise themselves and hide their identity. This element of metamorphosis, of transition, made them enigmatic figures between myth and reality. Hence the painting by G.F. Watts entitled: "She will be called woman". It shows the figure of Eve at the moment of her creation from a cornucopia of flowers, birds, water and clouds... For me, the idea that every woman has the right to live a good and fulfilling life in freedom has always been crucial. And this is something that I have tried to express through my music many times. I think it is important to believe that everyone deserves a life worth living. We need to bear witness to that. Melville did that. He was against the idea of confining and freezing anyone into one identity.

The Outcast, like Moby Dick, begins and ends in loneliness. Yet you speak of a message of hope!
if all that remains (as in my opera Lost Highway) is a chronicle of violence, love, loss and pain, the outcasts - those who are disoriented and alienated, like Bartleby, Ishmaela, Queequeg, Pip, the Boys' Choir and Herman Melville himself - are for me symbols of hope because they speak of love, each in their own way. In an age of uniformity and conformity, and the constant need to function under financial pressure, they are the ones who are able to open up a potentially different Edenic realm, to reveal the expanses of the soul and dispense human warmth.

Michèle Tosi

Photo Olga Neuwirth © Priska Ketterer.
Photo Orson Wells © Daily Mail/Shutterstock - Moby Dick Rehearsed


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