LIFE AND DEATH
TESS CREBBIN writes about 'Shadowtime',
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." ...
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:
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."
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.