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.


worldbeater said...

I found this very interesting, and moving, especially the last sentence. But. If the writer found the film of the rape of Nanking 'depressing' because it was too sanitized,while recognising that we could not bear a more realistic portrayal, does the question not arise why films of this sort - depicting war and disasters - are made and marketed as entertainment? What in short is wrong with us that we evidently want to see such spectacles?

Doundou Tchil said...

You maker very thoughtful points, Worldbeater. Why is it that people are interested in death and disaster in art ? It's a profound question. None of us know how we are going to react in extreme circumstances, so maybe through art we can imagine through the "eyes" of other people. Part of being human is thinking of feelings, and extreme situations concentrate the mind on essentials. Maybe that's why people read about Hitler so much, what would we have done if we'd been there?

Yesterday I was at an opera "After Life".If we had only one memory to take with us into eternity, as a symbol of our lives, what would it be ? It is a way of assessing what our lives have meant to us, in the face of that most extreme situation, the end of life. Review coming up soon here.

With the Rape of Nanking, there's another level, specific to China, where it's part of national identity. Thank goodness this film isn't standard nationalistic, but treats the Japanese as human, too. For that reason perhaps it needs to be purified, if the aim is to get past the horror and reach greater understanding of "why", beyond the facts of what happened. Maybe emotional distance is something that can only come with time and the passing of those who were involved. And yet, it is also wrong that the real extent of horrors is covered up, because if people don't know how horrible war is, they keep doing it. In many ways, I think it is important to know the full horror of war in order to respect those who suffered, so maybe it will stop such things happening again. Though maybe that's better in a documentary or a book than in a movie ? I don't know.

Have you seen the movie or read the book "Empire of the Sun"? My Dad lived through exactly that kind of thing. But when he saw the movie, it was traumatic, he was crying. "Are you moved" I asked. "NO!" he shouted, crying with pain. "That kid had it much too easy". The sanitization in the book/movie made my Dad physically sick with frustration. To him it felt that all the people who really experienced such things were forgotten, dismissed as if they didn't count. He could deal with the original pain, but the new pain of seeing the events prettified was too much to bear.