As I sit here alone in the audience, waiting for the rest of my colleagues to come, I wonder about the things that brought us to creating Beowulf.
Over the years, I have had the pleasure of designing and producing twelve operas with Guerilla Opera and I feel very privileged to get to work in a field for which I am immensely passionate and to also be able to share this love with you. Opera, to be sure, is a thrill on all levels and it is important to note that we must never take the audience’s experience for granted. I relentlessly try to find new ways to draw you into the show I am designing.
So what got us here? Hannah Lash wrote and composed a piece that resonated with all of us through an incredibly relatable story, and with a visceral score to boot. There was no contest, I was immediately hooked! To my utter delight, a frequent collaborator of mine, Andrew Eggert, was up for the challenge of putting this project together. He was also willing to take certain staging risks with Guerilla Opera, making for an all the more challenging and stimulating project.
It felt like a very logical step to create a “psychological space” from which to watch the show for the audience. The surgical theatre format lent itself beautifully with the audience members being close to the action (never further than seven feet). The size of stage was a challenge in itself being the smallest we have ever worked with (nine by ten feet). This is an unusual space to work with in opera, a space that is bound to bring about a feeling of “closeness” to the story with our audience due to their proximity to the action at hand. This production and the use of this space has infused the work with a feeling of intimacy, making it voyeuristic and immediate in its exposure.
I am grateful as well to have a cast and group of instrumentalists that are so generous in their performance and that draw us in from the start. I cannot imagine how challenging for them it must be to provide such emotion, such depth, to this intricate story, with audience members practically breathing down their necks.
Too often, in immersive shows tend to trivialize all the work that went into creating a specific experience for the spectators. Rest assured that this set up was carefully crafted and methodically thought out.
We could have had multiple realistic-looking sets depicting the hospital, the home, the driveway, etc. but there would be nothing different or intriguing in that. After all, we do not go to the theatre to experience a Lifetime movie, but for the live performance and the communal aspect. The set is therefore just as much a part of the seating area as the surgical curtain dividing the space, as the lights that create a star canopy above the audience.
I am thrilled by how the process has been going so far, our director keeps calling us the “Dream Team” and I think it has been just that – the realization of a dream!
Q & A with Susan Larson
SL: When you made this piece, did you imagine a sonic world first, or the dramatic situation first, or the philosophical problem first? Or do these elements arrive simultaneously or in a random sequence? Not that it matters much. But you may discuss your creative process here.
HL: The idea came first….I wanted to make a story about a hero who was suffering, a monster who was a situation, and a situation which was tragic, beautiful, full of love and loss. Then I wrote a synopsis, and from there the libretto, in many, many drafts. But as the libretto was emerging, so was the sound world of the piece in my imagination. I knew the kind of music I wanted to write; just the sense of it… its aroma.
SL: Why the name Beowulf? The name is freighted with a particular sort of bare-handed violence, so when I heard the title I was ready for rending arms and underwater wrestling. Do you like the surprise factor? Or the idea of an aged king using the last of his strength to fight a dragon and save his people?
HL: I think archetypes are very powerful in opera. When we invoke them, we immediately engage something in our social consciousness to which many people can immediately relate. The more I worked with my ideas, the more it occurred to me that my story bore some type of relationship to the Beowulf legend. I wanted to refer to the archetype of a hero, to signal immediately to the audience that the story they are about to hear in my opera is about a struggle for life and death. So I used the title, and a few structural points of my story relate roughly to its namesake.
SL: Are there other literary sources for this story besides the Beowulf saga?
HL: No. Not direct ones. And I would stress that the Beowulf epic poem lurks only in the very back of my story, as a kind of anchor for the human emotional thread that runs throughout.
SL: Why did you choose not to collaborate with a librettist?
HL: This story and the way I wanted to tell it felt so particular, so personal, that it seemed only right that I should write it myself. It was one of those wholly internal creative processes that need a great deal of nourishment in a dark environment to survive. I needed to be absolutely alone with my own ideas to make this piece. I shared my libretto with trusted friends along the way, and was open to feedback, but this is a road I needed to walk alone.
SL: Can you name a few of your mentors?
HL: Martin Bresnick, Steven Stucky, Julian Anderson, Robert Morris, Bernard Rands.
SL: Are there other harpist-composers? Are there characteristics, either sonic or mechanical, (i.e. open strings, pedaling, a harmony instrument, etc )of the harp, that have shaped your musical imagination?
HL: There are extremely few harpist-composers. It’s especially odd for a composer to play the harp (as opposed to a harpist compose). But I think of myself as being a composer first, not being defined by my instrument. Harp is a big part of my life, and being a very proficient harpist is quite important to me, and helps keep me limber and agile as a musician in general. But my instrument has not shaped my imagination particularly. It is a sound I love and one that often is foregrounded in my orchestral pieces as well as chamber works with harp, but I hope as a composer that my impact upon the harp will be greater than its impact upon my compositional voice.