TESS CREBBIN writes about 'Shadowtime',
Brian Ferneyhough's first opera

Music and Vision

June 3, 2004

Brian Ferneyhough (1943 - ) is one of the best-known composers of new music and he has friends in high places. When he composes his first opera, it is sure to attract attention. No sooner has the piece been completed than offers pour in from all over the world to perform it: Paris, London, New York. For his libretto, he gets an Ivy League professor of English, the award-winning poet Charles Bernstein. And he has a famous champion for his work: the incredible Peter Ruzicka, director of the Salzburg Music Festival, conductor, and also artistic director of the Biennale, the German-based International Festival of New Music. Ruzicka commissioned the work for this year's Biennale because "Ferneyhough is an incredible composer and the impact of his work is immense." ...

Coventry-born Ferneyhough has the right pedigree for someone to make it big even in today's difficult times. He studied at the Royal Academy of Music and then had some scholarships to go study in Amsterdam and Basel. He then taught in Germany until he was called to San Diego as professor. Since 2000, he teaches at the prestigious Stanford University. And now his first opera, Shadowtime, had its world premiere on May 25th, 2004. Munich's Prinzregententheater, of which Ruzencka is the former director, was lucky enough to host the event. People travelled from all over the world to see this: many flew especially from the United States, others came from England, from France, from all over Germany, from Italy.

Shadowtime is about the life, death and works of Walter Benjamin, the Jewish philosopher and poet, who killed himself in September 1940 on the Spanish-French border while trying to flee from the Nazis. "The older we get, the fewer possibilities are open to us," Ferneyhough said before the world premiere in Munich. "Until, eventually, there is only one option or, when we die, none left." Ferneyhough's many years spent Germany explains why he speaks the language so well and, in part, also his love for German literature and philosophy.

Shadowtime is an extremely visually engaging opera, which is carried in part by a truly extraordinary libretto, written by the poet Charles Bernstein who is Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania. " I believe that it is important that a libretto is real poetry, as it was in the days of Verdi, and not just a vehicle to carry someone's music and story. Libretto writing as an art form has all but disappeared these days and so I try to counteract this trend," Bernstein said after the premiere.

Here are some excerpts from Bernstein's libretto of Shadowtime, too good to be missed:

Emotion is the trace of a moment in time. It never signifies an end.

I hold tight but find in my arms only the past.

What transpires now has never before been and is already gone as you reflect on it.

I speak of the Messiah whom the poet senses without naming
the painter feels without seeing
the composer hears without noting
the philosopher supposes without knowing

Mourning is a kind of listening
where the dead sing to us
and even the living tell their stories

Death a veil
that opens onto a void
in which the heavenly
gathers itself

Beauty is never the lifting of a veil
it is the secret of its enfolding

When winds of change are gone
blasts of fear take hold

Is the future a memory projected into time
or is the past a shadow of a future that never happens?
The past never passes but we pass over it
again and again, not listening to what it tells
but to the empty stories we tell about it.

Are you waking from a dream or are you waking into a dream?
Are you remembering your dreams or dreaming that you have memories?

The opera was two hours without break, which some premiere guests considered to be rather long, but the presence of a gang of angels, 16 of them, all red-haired and singing a mixed chorus, solo and canons, was so engaging that everyone paid attention until the end. It remains a mystery why angels have red hair or why they watch and assist someone's suicide rather than stepping in to prevent it, but then, modern opera is all about mystery and about discovering what lies beneath the obvious.

"At first glance, my opera may seem disjointed," Ferneyhough said, "but this is because I want my audience to really pay attention and find out that beneath the surface, there is unity and a very together story that is being told in the music."

Shadowtime consists of seven scenes that act as self-contained units with their own sound images, instrumentation and structure. The most engaging of those is the fourth, which Ferneyhough calls "the central showdown, the frozen heart of the opera". Benjamin's journey into the underworld is symbolized by a bar pianist. Playing his heart out long after the bar has closed, he keeps discussing epistemological issues with his piano and with the angel who stands by to turn the pages of his score.

If you want straight-forward opera of the Verdi type, then Shadowtime is not for you. But if you are a very visual person who likes a challenge and a modern piece of work that forces you to think along with it every step of the way, and if you love good poetry, then Shadowtime is a great and unique artistic experience that you will never forget.

After Munich, Shadowtime will be performed in Paris, then London, and then it goes across the pond for a New York performance.

Bernstein's libretto, plain and simple, is the finest contemporary libretto that I know of. For the sake of new music and the somewhat ailing standards of libretto writing in general, one can only hope that Bernstein will continue to take time out from his busy teaching and book writing schedule to remain involved in music and write some more librettos in the years to come.