Audiences have a right to be skeptical about new operas. People know what they like from the typical repertoire of Mozart, Verdi and Wagner, so when a contemporary composer rejects conventions such as a basic plot and writes a score without any memorable melodies, it is understandable how people quickly lose interest. I recently watched Chaya Czernowin’s opera Heart Chamber, which premiered at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, Germany in 2019, and I am pleased to say that I was thoroughly engaged for the full ninety minutes. I watched the opera on a Blu-ray Disc distributed by Naxos, and not only is the opera excellently shot and mixed, it also contains a fascinating feature film called I did not rehearse to say I love you, which documents the composition and rehearsal process.
I was immediately struck by how contemporary the score is; every second is atonal and dissonant and the orchestra, with every instrument imaginable, plays with extended techniques more often than not. Through this eerie, discomforting sound, Czernowin presents the true process of falling in love, not a romantic fairytale, but the gradual build of ecstasy to the point where it becomes unbearable. The casting is also highly unconventional because there are only four characters, a couple just named ‘he’ and ‘she’, played by Dietrich Henschel (baritone) and Patrizia Ciofi (soprano), and their ‘internal voices’, played by Terry Wey (countertenor) and Noa Frenkel (alto). Their vocal lines are mainly polyphonic and feel quite unmetrical, although the piece is actually conducted meticulously by Johannes Kalitzke who stands next to a monitor which tells the orchestra which bar they are on. There is also a fifth soloist who sits with the orchestra titled ‘The Voice’, performed by Frauke Aulbert, and I was stunned by her huge tessitura with noticeable sections of extreme coloratura soprano (almost like a mouse’s squeak!). These soloists are joined by a choir who don’t sing, but instead speak, shout, whisper and spit lots of words and sounds. This vocal soundscape, at points cacophonous, bluntly shows the hardship of growing issues in a relationship conflicting with one’s love for their partner. Unusually for opera, the four soloists are miked, partly because quite a few vocal sections are quiet and internal, but also the output of the mikes through the speakers all around the auditorium, alongside electric instruments and many pre-recorded sounds, immerses the audience deeply into this representation of the tribulation of love. In the documentary, the conductor mentioned that in one of the technical rehearsals he had to stand in the auditorium so he could understand the full sound he was meant to be leading!
There were a few moments in the score which really stood out to me. One was when ‘she’ was unable to get moss out from behind a tile, perhaps a metaphor for attempting to confront and remove issues in a relationship but instead causing everything to become worse. While ‘her internal voice’ sang about it, ‘she’ sang with unusual melisma, repeating sounds and phonetic letters agitatedly, e.g. ‘t-t-t-t-t-m-m-m-m-m-oooooo-s-s-s-s-s-s-f-f-f-f-f-f’. This horrific suffering in the name of love contrasted with two moments towards the end of the opera which offered a small amount of optimism. Czernowin mentions in the documentary that she went on a walk whilst experiencing composers’ block and was inspired by the image of a single strand of spider web moving about in the breeze. It was so faint that it looked like nothing was there at first glance, but occasionally there was a glimpse of light moving about. She mimicked this musically through a mixture of live and pre-recorded electric guitar motifs of strings being bent very high in their register, all appearing unpredictably. For me, this moment presented glimmers of clarity beginning to seep into a blindly toxic relationship, suggested further by the singers at this point who all sang homorhythmically for the first time in the opera. A similar inspiration for Czernowin was a photograph she took on holiday in Oregon, consisting of multiple layers of light producing a silhouette of a couple in the distance. This was mimicked through separate melodic ideas all played in tremolo while the singers alternated gradually between four notes over ten minutes, perhaps alluding the possible solutions to a failed relationship behind what seems to be barren reality.
As someone who is a huge theatre nerd, I was fascinated by the interviews and rehearsal footage of the director Claus Guth. This is the third opera of Czernowin he has directed, and he mentions a method which seems to have developed between them. She provides him with the score and describes her vision behind it in quite complicated and abstract terms, and then it is his job to find the realism and relatability for an audience. He says he directs her operas in the same way he would direct a play by Ibsen, slowly adding layers of truth and emotion over the rehearsal process. He then looks beyond the performers to find other ways to add layers to the characters, a key example in Heart Chamber being video projections. Since the action on stage is a representation of the mental trauma of relationships (often the characters are in separate spotlights, perhaps to show the emotional distance), Guth then juxtaposes this non-naturalism with video projections of the characters interacting to present what this struggle looks like in real life. As layer upon layer was added, the piece became, according to Guth, ‘a crazy balancing act’ and at times he had to tell the performers to rail it in and perform less enthusiastically because the total collage being created would become disjointed and the audience would be overwhelmed! There are no leading characters here, no specific plots to follow; every element of this opera is equally important in order to ponder the existential themes of Czernowin’s vision.
Whether you find this opera exhilarating, intriguing, unnerving or just flat-out confusing, one thing this opera is, is didactic. I really enjoyed it, others may grow tired of it, but whatever your opinion will end up being, you cannot deny that it forces you to think for yourself about the wider themes and about your own relationships. That is the main reason why I think Heart Chamber is a success, for I am sure that was Czernowin’s main intention behind the work. I highly recommend purchasing the Blu-ray Disc from Naxos, which contains the opera, the documentary and also a wonderful handbook which includes another interview with Czernowin, and an article about the documentary, written by its director Uli Aumuller.