Facing the darkness, whether metaphorical or real, is not an activity most of us are drawn toward; human struggle and tragedy is, in fact, often what we seek most to avoid in our pursuit of a happy life. Opera is renowned for its dramatic portrayal of the bigger emotions at play in these difficult aspects of human experience, letting the characters and music take us deeper into a more visceral encounter with life’s complex moments. In her opera Pyramus and Thisbe, which runs at the COC from October 20 to November 7, Canadian composer Barbara Monk Feldman takes a unique approach to the existential reality of having to face the darkness, both within and without.
I recently sat down with her in a local park for a conversation about the nature of the opera and how it came into being. Often an opera is created through a collaboration between a writer and a composer with the promise of a production at the end of a long and complex road. Not so with Monk Feldman’s Pyramus and Thisbe. First of all, the opera was written through a process of following her own creative instincts. A few years after it was completed in 2010, a colleague who plays in the COC orchestra encouraged her to send it to COC general director, Alexander Neef. She got a quick reply – a request to see the score – and from that point on, the production was underway.
However, the ideas for the opera had their beginnings several years ago after she heard a lecture, given by the French feminist writer Hélène Cixous at the University of Toronto, in which Cixous stated that the history of theatre is one of “love too late.” Monk Feldman thought hard about this and wondered if it was possible to create an opera that as part of its modernist nature would not be caught up in this lost love or love too late theme which characterizes much of the traditional opera repertoire.
The original story of Pyramus and Thisbe appears in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Ovid was a Roman poet who lived at an epic time – the turning of the ages from what we now call the BC or BCE period into the AD or CE period. Metamorphoses is a continuous 15-book mythological narrative that has had an enduring influence on Western art and literature. The Pyramus and Thisbe story is one of ill-fated lovers and is, for example the basis for the plot of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and explicitly central to A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
So in choosing this star-crossed story as the basis for the opera, Monk Feldman meets the challenge of reframing the “love too late” motif head on. Using the original story as a jumping-off point, she created a libretto compiled from three very different writers: American novelist William Faulkner, 16th-century Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross and early 20th-century author Rainer Maria Rilke, whose German-language prose and poetry is full of existential themes. All the texts she chose are applicable to the original story, but her main intention was to capture the essence that is behind each writer’s body of work. “I’m looking for an assemblage, taking little micro pieces but always with the idea – what is the essence of that writer?”
She speaks about how she thought long and hard about each source. “The Faulkner text is one of the most beautiful poems I’ve come across in prose. The writing is full of pathos and is coming from someone who has reached the point of dying.” And that’s where the opera starts – with Pyramus facing his fear of death, the idea of his own suicide and his resistance to the abyss that is approaching.
The second text is the poem Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross, an examination of the fear of the unknown and the idea that sometimes you have to look at the darkness, that you can’t ignore it. Monk Feldman talks about how there is a modern sensibility to this text, and that it looks forward to the coming of existentialist thought. “The Rilke text is very much about facing our vulnerability and letting the moment fall away. You can’t hang onto things or make them into a dogma. You let them disappear, but they never completely disappear,” she says.
So how do all these abstract ideas translate into a work for the stage? This is where the element of time comes into play. One of the opera’s other major influences was the painting Stormy Landscape with Pyramus and Thisbe by Nicolas Poussin, the leading painter of the classical French baroque style. What attracted Monk Feldman in this painting was the slight shifting of movement between the foreground and the background that you can see in the way he uses light and colour. “When you really look at a painting, stare at it without moving your eye away for about 20 minutes, something changes physically in your eye. You begin to see the diffuseness of the light and the delicacy of the colour and shading. It’s a very subtle thing, and the opposite of the mechanical light in TV and film.”
This idea of shifting time becomes central to the opera – both in the way the libretto unfolds as a non–narrative form and the way the musical elements interact with each other. Musically, Monk Feldman is looking for the integration of the three musical forces – the singers, the chorus and the orchestra, with one or another of them moving a little in front of the others. The chorus is always there as a presence with the orchestra sometimes supporting the singers and sometimes withdrawing. It’s not the normal accompaniment and melody where each has their place. All the elements are working together to create the interior landscape of the story.
There are also some very technical challenges for the singers. What Monk Feldman is looking for is a particular vocal sound that is the opposite of the bel canto style opera singers are trained in. It’s a sound that has a sustaining quality to it, that has no attack, with the addition of a little bit of warmth, a touch of vibrato and then a decay that dissolves into the stillness. It’s a sound that “engages overtone light,” she explains, although admitting it’s hard to describe in words. “I know it when I hear it; it’s an intuitive thing. It sounds like a hard cold thing to do – to sustain a note and go into nothingness, but it’s the overtones that add a certain warmth. This quality is important because it brings the human dimension into play in what otherwise might be a micro idea of subtle interaction. This style of singing also means that at times the singers are quite exposed, particularly when the orchestra withdraws. The further challenge is that the sound always has to be even – it’s a question of how much warmth and how subtle can you be.”
“It’s not a full blown drama or narrative, but what we are looking at is the emotional residue of a larger picture,” she states. “My aim is to challenge the performers to have the courage to sound somewhat vulnerable. When that happens something in the quality of the colour changes in a good way.”
It’s this ability to be vulnerable which is the key aspect of the music. “The opera is very still with the sounds going into nothingness. When you look into the void, the abyss that’s present, what do you do with that? It’s the courage to have something that is falling away, that doesn’t quite disappear. It’s always falling away, and yet never disappearing.”
And then there is the influence of landscape, which also is an inspiration behind many of Monk Feldman’s other works. She speaks about the qualities of light in nature that are always changing and how she translates that into music by capturing the feeling that something is about to change. “It goes beyond an abstract idea but is about the concrete sound that moves a little bit like the shadows of the leaves on the ground. They are just there, always changing, never repeating. My goal is to create patterns and subtle undulations in the sound.”
Cycling back to the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, our conversation shifts into speaking about the story and the character of the lioness. In the original version, the two lovers find themselves so frustrated by their situation of not being able to be together due to the hostilities between their families that they make a plan to meet outside the city gates by a stream. Thisbe hides her face with a veil and arrives first. All of a sudden, a lioness fresh from a kill appears, drawn to the water to quench her thirst. Thisbe is frightened and runs away, dropping her veil in her flight, which the lioness then tears to shreds with her already bloody mouth. When Pyramus arrives, he sees the blood-stained veil and concludes that Thisbe has been killed. He pulls his sword and kills himself. And we all know what happens next – Thisbe arrives, sees Pyramus’ dead body and then kills herself. There’s that love-too-late theme in all its splendour.
Monk Feldman seeks to make Thisbe into a modern woman. To do this, she creates a different ending, with the moment of Thisbe encountering the lioness playing a pivotal role. The lioness herself is a symbol of exterior fear – what scares you in the outside world – and also a symbol of interior fear – the struggle that the modern woman encounters in realizing her fulfillment. In a passing moment (as opposed to a grand dramatic one), Thisbe holds her ground in front of the lioness, an act that changes the course of events. The drama becomes internalized from that point on.
For Monk Feldman, bringing the lioness into a modernist scenario was a key challenge. Not only does this creature symbolize fear but it also represents the spirit of nature and the idea that things are always transforming. Symbols change and can easily shift into their opposite qualities. The lioness also represents the unconscious, an idea that features largely in the work of Carl Jung. It’s the idea of alternating back and forth between unconscious and conscious states that intrigues Monk Feldman, even while admitting she doesn’t really know what consciousness is. “I’m inspired by things I don’t know about. I’m drawn to it; it’s that unknown quality. What is that?” she says.
This play between opposites is also evident in the Poussin painting Monk Feldman drew on. In the foreground, the love-too-late scenario is playing itself out, with Thisbe discovering Pyramus’ dead body. But if one looks carefully at the background, you’ll see a man running away from the action. Monk Feldman interprets that man as a modern day Pyramus running from the lioness, running into the darkness. In fact she says, “There’s a feeling that he is carrying the darkness with him. It’s a very modern struggle. It’s the dark night of the soul.” That’s the Pyramus she’s bringing to life.
In its essence, the Pyramus and Thisbe opera is the creation of a moment that “comes to you like a wordless prayer and then vanishes. And in that moment we experience our vulnerability, and although the darkness is there, the light is also present. Both dark and light forces become integrated into a whole.”
Wendalyn Bartley is a Toronto-based composer and electro-vocal sound artist. firstname.lastname@example.org.