Tuesday, 11 May 2010
Wake - opera about the Enschede disaster
On 13th May, the tenth anniversary of the Vuurwerkramp (fireworks disaster) that flattened part of the Dutch town of Enschede, the Nationale Reiseopera is presenting a new opera, Wake. The composer is Klaas de Vries (b 1944), and the libretto is by David Mitchell. Read more about it here on the Reiseopera site. Great photos and synopsis. There is a longer clip on youtube, in Dutch, where the composer speaks.
"On a completely ordinary evening, somewhere high in a block of flats, nine disparate but interrelated stories of passion, reconciliation, humour, TV football, the pain of adolescence and infirmity of old age, are suddenly interrupted by an unspecified catastrophe that changes the lives of eighteen people forever. Are there words to bridge the gap between us, the survivors, and those we have lost? When we give a voice to memory and emotion, what comfort will they bring?"
It's fascinating because the opera deals with events so recent that lots of people are still traumatized. In his article, the librettist David Mitchell mentions a man who protested about the very idea of fact being turned into art. It's a genuine concern, which Mitchell and de Vries took seriously. "Every single line was weighed and weighted with care", says Mitchell.
Can any art reproduce trauma with dignity? Probably there's no way except though fact-based documentary, and even that can't get to grips with individual human grief. No opera, or any work of art, can ever be "history". Even historians don't do "history". They're only accumulating data and assessing it, they're not producing facsimile. So any opera dealing with real events is its creators' response, and perfectly valid. Even an opera dealing with specifics isn't trapped in history because art is universal, and human.
Indeed, I sometimes think art is a therapeutic way of dealing with tragedy. When Primo Levi wrote about his experiences in the Holocaust, there was controversy. More recently I watched Lu Chuan's Nanking : City of Love and Death (2009) currently in cinemas but available on DVD. It's about the Rape of Nanking in which 300,000 were killed in a smallish town in the space of a few weeks (millions more died in the rest of the war). For many, it's catharsis, which is a good thing because it's important to face such things. But real knowledge is also traumatic.
Iris Chang, who wrote a popular book about Nanking, committed suicide. I understand. I spent years in the archives, talking to people, finding out things I wish i didn 't know.The film for me was depressing because it's so clean. No smells, no noise, no chaos, "not" reality. Most people are dispatched with a single bullet, dropping dead neatly. In any case, bullets cost money. Most people were killed cheaply, ie being crudely disembowelled. The scene where soldiers are seen being forced into the sea to drown happens in an orderly fashion. Yet it wasn't soldiers who were killed this way but 3,000 terrified old folk and children. It wasn't quiet or orderly. Sometimes reality has to be sanitized so it can be made bearable.