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i c o n

Frederik Neyrinck, Sabryna Pierre, Atelier Bildraum

Composer Frederik Neyrinck and writer Sabryna Pierre met in June 2015 during the Opera Creation Workshop in Aix-en-Provence. Few months later, they attended another enoa workshop led by Martin Crimp and Nicholas McNair in Gent, at LOD muziektheater: Looking forward/Looking back, about the myth of Orpheus. The different topics covered during the workshop about Orpheus (the muse figure, the sublimation of death into artistic inspiration, the head of the poet wavering in the water…) led them to think of a project about another myth, not as ancient but from the modern era: The Unknown girl of the Seine.

Associated artists

Frederik Neyrinck


Sabryna Pierre

author, librettist

Steve Salembier & Charlotte Bouckaert (Atelier Bildraum)

stage directors, set designers

The “drowned muse”: a modern European myth
The Unknown girl of the Seine is an unidentified young woman whose putative death mask became a popular fixture on the walls of bourgeois’ and artists’ home around 1900. According to the story, she has been conveyed to the Paris’ morgue after drowning in the Seine. There a mortician, taken by her mysterious smile, made a plaster cast of her face, which has been reproduced and sold in Paris and across Europe. Nobody ever knew who she was. However, the story seems to be a complete fantasy, as experts declare impossible to cast such a plaster on a dead body.

Like Orpheus, The Unknown girl became a myth because she is perpetually reinvented by the people and by the artists. The first mention of the Unknown girl in literature occurs first in 1900, in an English novel, The Worshipper of the image by Richard Le Gallienne. We can find her in German in several works by Rilke, Herta Pauli, Odon Von Horvath, Claire Goll, Max Frisch, in Russian in Nabokov’s work, in French in Blanchot, Supervielle or Aragon’s novels. Man Ray also did a famous succession of photographs mixing different women faces and the Unknown girl’s mask. More than a modern European myth, the Unknown girl’s face is a mirror reflecting each societies’- past and contemporary – deep relationship toward omnipresent images of death and beauty.

The Unknown girl 2018

“She is not a woman, she is the absence” (Aragon): that is why the writer and the artistic team didn’t see the point in making up a story revealing the identity of the Girl. What interested them is the very paradox she embodies: she dies as no one, then lives forever through her very death.

With a contemporary situation as a backdrop (nowadays a girl drowns in the river: paranoid suicide or unpunished aggression?), the libretto spread patterns belonging simultaneously to various aesthetics: the mask, the doubles, the water or the dream are as well baroque, romantic, symbolists or even expressionists.

“The things I imagine, like the things I dream, they seem so real”, sings the Girl. Wavering between dream and consciousness, between fantasy and thriller, the libretto questions the audience about the power of imagination, and its hold over reality. Not only personal imagination, but also collective imagination, and its ability to turn a simple decoration object (the mask) into a mythical character (l’Inconnue).

An opera for a soprano, an actor, and a 5 instruments ensemble

Spoken language has been part of the opera tradition through ages, in many ways as recitatives, ballad operas, Singspiel, or Sprechgesang… The coexistence of spoken language and singing, and how we can use it today, is a very important part of the author and composer’s reflexion. The part of the Man, this particular, almost meta-theatrical, character is played by an actor, as the Unknown girl is a soprano. 

The spoken language and singing will be treated differently throughout the opera. They will be sometimes mixed, juxtaposed or independent. This different functions will also be present in the instrumental writing, where the trombone player will have different connections and relations to the instrumental quartet. 

The musical ensemble for this opera exists of clarinet, violin, cello, contrabass and (a special function for the) trombone. The quartet of clarinet, violin, cello and contrabass has been chosen for various reasons. First of all, the clarinet gives the opportunity to mix extremely well with the string instruments. Also the use of different types of clarinets can give the possibility to make small duos of for example violin-clarinet or cello-bass clarinet. 

This quartet can sound as a little chamber orchestra, because the clarinet is an extremely flexible instrument and with the presence of high, “middle” and low strings, you receive a kind of reduced orchestral feeling with a very limited number of musicians. 

Sabryna Pierre, February 2017