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It started in the summer of 2017. Artists gathered at La Monnaie (Brussels) for a workshop on contemporary opera for children. What could a contemporary opera for a young audience look like? How could it sound? What could it be about? Among the participants of the workshop: Alexandra Lacroix (director), Šimon Voseček (composer), Aïda Gabriëls (dramaturge), Astrid Stockman (singer), Franziska Guggenbichler-Beck (video maker). Alexandra Lacroix proposed an operatic research on the theme of violence in the world of teenagers. Šimon Voseček came up with a theatre text he was carrying with him in his suitcase. Aïda, Franziska and Astrid expressed their interest. It was the start for a close collaboration on a new project. The theme: bullying.
Alexandra: When I proposed to work on the violence young people are confronted with in everyday life, Šimon sent me the play by Yann Verburgh, H.S. tragédies ordinaires. I immediately felt that this material could be a very good basis for the libretto. With Šimon, Aïda, Astrid and Franziska I felt a click in the way we were considering how to talk about violence in the world of teenagers, involving them and their creativity. Without projecting our own vision on what we think they are, and trying not to be moralistic.
Šimon: We shared the interest to create a work for teenagers. As violence is part of their world, I consider the theme of bullying as very important. I knew the text by Yann Verburgh. It is a very touching, relevant text, which actually reads as a libretto. The language is very poetical and thus suitable for music, there is a big cast, there is a choir - so everything is there to make it into a grand opera. But… this is not what we are going to do…
> Indeed. Be My Superstar is an immersive opera. How so?
Alexandra: Imagine this: the audience enters the theatre space; there is no stage, there are no real seats, nothing, except for a glass box; it is an open space, in which the spectators are free to move around. You hear the sound of techno music, the code is one of a night club. Then step by step the audience is divided in four sections, spaced around the glass box, which is opaque but slowly gets lit from the inside, so that it becomes transparent and the spectators are facing each other.
Šimon: The performance starts with electronic music, coming from the speakers. Music that feels familiar to teenagers. From there on we develop a path which becomes more operatic. If you divide the opera in three parts, the first part consists only of electronic music. The musicians are already present from the beginning: two singers and four instrumentalists. But you don’t hear them yet; they start singing or playing music only some moments later.
> And there is a choir?
Alexandra: There is a choir, but not a conventional one. It’s a spoken word choir - actually a shouting choir; there is no singing involved. We will prepare a choir of youngsters beforehand. It is composed of volunteers from the area where we perform the opera. They merge with the audience, you can’t see who belongs to the choir and who doesn’t. This is part of the immersive experience: in the initial situation performers and audience seem to be one entity. Also the singers and musicians will mix among the spectators, and as we will cast quite young musicians, it will take some time to figure out who is who. But then the soprano shows up in the glass box. Somewhere in the first part of the opera, the audience will be triggered to react verbally to her in terms of the situation. They will be allowed to shout at her. This will be initiated by the choir, but can be taken over by other spectators. By doing so, we create a real life bullying situation in the theatre. The traditional code of opera and theatre is broken, as we take down the separation between stage and audience.
Šimon: This bullying scene will be introduced by music and voices coming from the speakers. You can say that the electronic score of this opera represents the outside, public world. A more aggressive, not-understanding, non-empathic world. Only when the bullying choir reaches its climax, the soprano - the actual victim of the bullying - will start to sing. So the first encounter of the audience and the opera - I mean: making theatre by singing - comes only after ten or fifteen minutes. All this is what we consider as the first part of the opera. The audience thinks to know the setting, but from there on - part 2 and part 3 - the score will take a different turn.
> Knowing that the electronics stand for a violent environment, what do the acoustic instruments represent?
Šimon: You could say that they are the voices in the heads of the people involved in a bullying situation: agressors, victims, witnesses. So they can take different roles. Their sound will be warm and maybe also a bit old fashioned, in opposition to the sound coming from the speakers.
Alexandra: The musicians will move freely between and beyond the spectators. You will not always be able to trace the source of the acoustic music, you will have to let go of this feeling of control, you have no choice. The acoustic music will be moving around, as well as the electronic music coming from the 4 speakers surrounding the audience. The spectator can be surprised by the music, as it can come very close and then disappear again. So, also in the spatial treatment of the music, the opera has an immersive effect. But above all, I really think that live instruments give the spectator a very powerful experience. They, as well as the singing voices coming close to the audience, add a lot to the emotions.
Šimon: We have four instrumentalists, who will be coached by Spectra Ensemble (Ghent). A string quartet. But not the regular one: I will compose a score for violin, viola, cello and double bass. By replacing the second violin by the double bass, we can give more volume and depth to the emotions that are expressed by the acoustic ensemble.
> And what about the singers?
Šimon: We chose for a soprano and a contra tenor. The latter because of its strange, uncommon, call it ‘unmanly’ sound. A perfect target for bullies, so to say.
Alexandra: A man and a woman, in order to have gender equality in the cast. Everybody can be a bully, everybody can be a victim, I want to let everyone the opportunity to
identify. After the soprano has been insulted by the audience, she will step out of the glass box, facing her agressors. This will have a great impact, as it is a quite non theatri-cal situation: she is not playing
a role there, in a way she reacts to the audience as an actress who has been humiliated, and she leaves. That is the moment when the contra tenor will step in - he is representing a male character with an equal vulnerability. In part two of the opera both victims will meet. Opposed to the realness of part one, part two goes for the fiction, which will relieve the audience for some time.
Šimon: This is when the opera score really takes off. There are some arialike parts, some duetto moments. I already experimented with the effect of postponing the operatic aspect of a composition: by delaying the singing, this can create a very dramatic and very operatic effect, once the voices really start to sound. So this will be part of the musical dramaturgy of Be My Superstar. But anyway, part two will end with an aria.
> Which leads to the third part of the opera?
Alexandra: Yes. In the third part we will move away from the fiction that was created in part two. In part three we will return to the ‘realness’ of part one. The singers address the audience, not as characters, but as real persons. They will refer back to the insults that took place in the first part. And they will approach the audience, expecting a reaction from the spectators. Depending on what that reaction will be - positive, negative, or even
no reaction - we will need different versions of the script for that third part. And because the situation needs to feel real there, the actors have the freedom to slightly improvise within the structure at that moment in choosing the proper reactions that fit to the concrete situation, as it will be some kind of dialogue with the audience.
Šimon: Which means that from time to time the music score will need some freedom, so that the musicians and electronics can react to the real situation.
> It sounds very exciting. But also risky. How will you manage this power you give to the audience to react verbally to what happens on stage?
Alexandra: At certain moments we allow some freedom in this opera: the audience can take over. For that we need singers who feel the audience and who are really able to react to what happens in these moments of freedom. And we have to give the audience the feeling that it is okay to take that freedom. I don’t want the audience to feel guilty for being too brutal. I don’t want to judge. I want to make them feel through experience. When in the third part the singers will turn the violence they received against the audience, in a subtle way and without shouting, the part of the audience that did not participate in the bullying might find this unfair. Which will make the spectator think about the theme in a more general way: it is not only about what you yourself directly did or not.
Šimon: And there is the music which somehow also leads the audience, explicitly or subconsciously.
> All this started with a theatre text, that you will adapt to an opera. You make a production about the world of teenagers. But you chose for opera, a genre that is quite far from what they know. Why?
Alexandra: With music, we can go further and deeper, it adds layers. With the power of the music, we sublimate the words and situations which people are confronted with in everyday life. But more important than that: with the vibrations of the music you can open a sensitivity. You can create something in the audience that makes a connection to the theme of bullying in a non-intellectual way. A connection with the body, not with the head, although we want to make the audience reflect afterwards about what they experienced. So when the performance starts, we first want to make the spectators feel comfortable, by music that belongs to their world. Then we try to touch them with a very physical experience - the bullying of the soprano for example. And then - before returning to reality - we open them by letting them feel the beauty of the music, the poetry and the aesthetics of the show.
Šimon: And in order to achieve that music is a very strong medium. The music can add an emotional layer to the text that words never achieve. Every good libretto keeps a window
opened for adding this deeper dimension…
Alexandra: With this opera we want to approach teenagers, and people in general, in a non-intellectual, non pedagogical way. Therefore I chose an immersive device for the
treatment of this material. We want to give the spectators an artistic experience. So that afterwards, the can start to reflect. And discuss.
Interview with Alexandra Lacroix and Šimon Voseček, by Koen Haagdorens at LOD muziektheater.