2009 marked the 150th anniversary of the first publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. As part of the celebrations Hotel Pro Forma, a progressive theatre production company based in Denmark, commissioned Tomorrow, In A Year, an opera based on Darwin’s life, work and theories, under the direction of Ralf Richardt Strøbech.
Given the idiosyncratic nature of the project, there was no great surprise when The Knife got involved, and it emerged that siblings Dreijur, Karin and Olaf would follow up The Knife’s monolithic masterpiece Silent Shout by scoring an electro-opera based on 200 year old naturalist. But what drew Hotel Pro Forma to The Knife? “The attraction of The Knife is first and foremost that their music is incredible,” Strøbech explained when State met him in a Dublin hotel. “It is incomprehensibly fantastic, and when you know them, even better.”
“It’s not like I go into a garage and play my guitar and sing about what happened to me yesterday…”
The avant-garde pop music of The Knife often conceals a deceptive political bite. The band use their platform to tackle social issues, be that the political system in Sweden or discrimination against Romani people in Europe. In this, Strobech saw a kinship that could be artistically fruitful. “I knew I wanted to make an opera and I think that their music is actually kind of operatic, in the sense that it deals with big issues and they [big issues] perform a role in their music… It’s not like I go into a garage and play my guitar and sing about what happened to me yesterday, it always has a much bigger scope. So the music, even before meeting them, was something that I could easily see in this type of work. And when meeting them and seeing how fantastic people they are, (that) obviously reinforces the sensation.”
It may have seemed liked a natural progression for The Knife to take on a project so conceptual and innovative, but planning such productions isn’t a mapped out exercise. No single element was decided upon at the beginning but rather emerged through workshops. “I would say artists are cast for specific projects,” notes Strøbech. “The Knife were a little bit perplexed when they were asked to make an opera.” Then they became friends. “They came to Copenhagan and saw a previous performance of mine. We hit it off, and it was great. It has been a great collaboration.”
Though Strøbech may find the music of The Knife operatic, fans of The Knife are not necessarily fans of opera – their involvement in the project was surely an introduction for a lot of people, most likely their first or only proper interaction with opera. “I think the audience is very diverse, audiences that rarely go to the opera and even rarely go to the theatre at all. I would say we have a composite audience; they are both a music audience that come for The Knife, that’s a point of entry, and also the more performance related, and the ones who come for opera. So we have a really mixed audience.”
“I don’t think that anyone seeing this will run and buy subscription for the Rigoletto.”
As preparation for the job Olaf Dreijur admits it took him over 12 months to learn how to appreciate opera fully. While appreciation of Tomorrow, In A Year isn’t a crash-course introduction to opera, Ralf has ambition. “Hopefully it works as a gateway to future opera. Because I don’t think that anyone seeing this will run and buy subscription for the Rigoletto or also I think even, [pause], like it so much perhaps. The whole point of this opera is actually to see if you can re-actualise opera as a form, not to make a gateway to the traditional opera form.”
As you might imagine, reaction from traditionalists has been mixed, “Some love it and some hate it.” Some dismissed it: “I don’t talk so much to those obviously.” And of course there has been much discussion. “Especially in Australia, in Melbourne, we had a long debate afterwards regarding the future of opera but that’s not really my point. I’m not trying to make a completely new art form, I’m just trying to say that if I could make an opera it would sound just like this.”
“It is the art form that mostly unites imagery, movement, acting, music, everything.”
A basic opera by definition is a drama, tragic or comic, acted out by singers and musicians to libretto and score which Ralf describes as “the original audio visual conglomerate.” For this reason Strøbech felt that opera was the best way to amalgamate the many facets of Charles Darwin, the struggles and pleasures of his personal life, his work and opposition to his theories.
“It is the art form that mostly unites imagery, movement, acting, music, everything. It is the art form that cultures most the unification of all art forms. So I would say that this opera does the same thing, it doesn’t do something else. Opera has always been both visual and aural. So this is also the reason why I wanted it to be an opera, because you can incorporate all those elements into a single format.”