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Avant-garde Opera from a Young 62-Year-Old

Regine Koerner

VEGAS VISION: In Shadowtime’s underworld—aka a Nevada nightclub—Benjamin’s avatar is interrogated by a German border guard.

One of the characters in Brian Ferneyhough’s opera, Shadowtime, is a delicious amalgam: Groucho, Harpo and Karl Marx as Kerberus, the three-headed dog of Greek legend. “But Karl only speaks,” the composer says. “He doesn’t sing.”

Seems fitting for the first opera of “Britain’s most audacious avant-gardist,” as the Sunday Times of London dubs Ferneyhough (The Guardian calls him “one of the most important composers of our time”). Shadowtime makes its American debut July 21 and 22 at New York City’s Lincoln Center.

The city of Munich commissioned the seven-part, two-hour work in 1999 for its Munich Biennale. “The festival is really for the first operatic production of younger composers,” the 62-year-old professor of music says. “But I have never in my life produced anything remotely suitable to the stage, so from that standpoint I perhaps was seen to be a ‘young, inexperienced’ composer.”

The opera begins in 1940 on the last day in the life of Walter Benjamin, a Jewish philosopher who fled the Nazis in occupied France but was denied entry to Spain at that country’s border. Benjamin commits suicide and so ends the first scene. “And the rest deals with the more important part—the socio-, historic, intellectual residue” of his work, says Ferneyhough.

A curious cast of characters—from Adolf Hitler and Albert Einstein to Joan of Arc and Pope Pius XII —carry various themes. Add to that a throng of heavenly, red-wigged angels and Benjamin’s avatar, who, says Ferneyhough, “undergoes various adventures, descending through the main portal to hell on earth, which is situated in a sleazy Las Vegas nightclub.”

The opera premiered in May 2004 at Munich’s Prinzregententheater by the Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart and Nieuw Ensemble Amsterdam, and it will be performed in New York by the same two groups. The libretto is by Charles Bernstein, professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania. “I knew he would produce a libretto that would stand on its own as poetry,” says Ferneyhough, who came to the Farm from UC-San Diego in 1999, and says he and colleagues in the music department have worked since then to establish a “much more practice-oriented new music area.”

The time may be ripe, he adds, for an opera renaissance. “The movement in the arts in general has been towards a more multimedia approach,” he says, such as seeing images while listening to music. “And opera provides that particular experience.” Marx Brothers and all.

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