info I contact
advertising
editorial schedule
acknowledgements
join the realtime email list
become a friend of realtime on facebook
follow realtime on twitter
donate

magazine  archive  features  rt profiler  realtimedance  mediaartarchive

contents

  
Deborah Kayser, Tomas Tsiavos, Exile Deborah Kayser, Tomas Tsiavos, Exile
photo Daisy Noyes
“THE CREATIVE PROCESS IS QUITE LIKE OP-SHOPPING,” ARTISTIC DIRECTOR OF CHAMBER MADE OPERA DAVID YOUNG REMARKED TO ME BEFORE THE PREMIERE PERFORMANCE OF HELEN GIFFORD’S OPERA EXILE, “BECAUSE YOU CAN AFFORD TO TAKE RISKS.” AS WITH ALL RISKS THERE ARE STAKES TO BE WON OR LOST IN WHAT IS POSSIBLY THE WORLD’S FIRST OPERA PRODUCED FOR THE IPAD.

Using the familiar op-shopping strategies of combination and alteration, Euripides’ play Iphigenia in Tauris is rewritten, the history of Victoria’s Point Nepean on the Mornington Peninsula is revisited through the lens of gaming technologies and chamber opera is presented on a new platform. The outcomes of the project will not be known until its release and screening at ACMI in November. In the meantime the project’s collaborators from Australian new music organisations Aphids, Chamber Made Opera, Speak Percussion and Amsterdam-based media artists Champagne Valentine will be negotiating multiple priorities and balancing innovation with technical limitation.

Exile has lain dormant since its composition by Gifford as Iphigenia in Exile with the librettist Richard Meredith in 1985. The opera’s recent rediscovery by David Young prompted some closet archaeology by Gifford, uncovering reel-to-reel recordings of a women’s chorus recorded in a Kew apartment in 1986, an autoharp part recorded in 1989 in an old post office and a mandolin through which Gifford attempted to reimagine the timbres of Ancient Greek music. Gifford has not tried to faithfully reconstruct the music of Ancient Greece, but to rediscover it creatively: “People like to think that they can get an idea of Ancient Greek music from decoding carvings and etchings. That’s nonsense. You get more of an idea from listening to modern Greek music of a Demotic order. The timbres, the rhythms; I don’t think those things change so much over 2000 years. Though,” Gifford adds, “my music sounds nothing like Greek music today.” The artefacts were incorporated into the opera’s recent recording at the ABC’s Iwaki Auditorium that will serve for both a radio broadcast and the iPad application’s soundtrack.

The application will also be available for download on iPhone, prompting the question of the iPad’s significance to the work. “They remind me of Speak and Spells,” Aphids Executive Producer Thea Baumann admits, though Anita Fontaine of Champagne Valentine considers the large, higher resolution screen “a nice addition which contributes to the experiences we will create.” With Baumann flagging the “data-heavy layers of moving image” common to Anita Fontaine’s work, there is justifiable concern about the “limited processing power and lack of Flash support” that the iPad inherits from the iPhone. But Fontaine is confident in the project’s ability to overcome these limitations as “these kinds of challenges and constraints are something Champagne Valentine is accustomed to when developing bespoke interactive experiences.”

Rather than processing speed, the iPad’s audio may be the main obstacle to successfully mounting the opera on the platform. The multi-purpose ABC recording will reach Champagne Valentine in the form of a highly compressed stereo mix, making user-controlled manipulation of the composition’s parts, as in the company’s GPS controlled interactive musical game for the Tate Modern, more difficult to implement. Working closely with Champagne Valentine, Baumann anticipates that “one of the main challenges will be to make the audio just as luscious as the video.”

The video component of the work, filmed in consultation with Parks Victoria, engages with the natural environment and rich history of Point Nepean to reflect and comment on the themes of longing, claustrophobia and isolation in Gifford’s opera. Both visually and historically Baumann sees the landscape as “woven with paranoia and isolation,” likening the tone of Exile to the psychologically loaded game spaces of Quake and Half-Life first-person shooters. Baumann hopes to explore this likeness in Fort Nepean’s labyrinthine tunnel system: “The tunnels have a Greek architectural symbolism, simultaneously connoting the Minotaur’s labyrinth and gaming architectures.” By way of visual and aural analogy the southern Australian coastline’s sombre palette, eroded forms and bitter winds provide a desolate backdrop to Gifford’s aural palette, coloured with sparse mandolin, clarinets, clay flute and percussion.

Point Nepean has been the site of Victoria’s main quarantine station 1852–1980, Prime Minister Harold Holt’s disappearance and presumed drowning in 1967 and accommodation for Kosovar refugees in 1999. The area’s legacy of isolation draws Gifford and Meredith’s psychological portrait of Iphigenia into Australia’s grim colonial and immigration history. The protagonist is powerfully realised by soprano Deborah Kayser as she contemplates her effective exile from Greece to the role of high priestess at the temple of Artemis in Tauris (Crimea). Vilified by the townsfolk and wracked by self-loathing, “she feels as though she has been tricked into performing the duties of the high priestess: anointing shipwrecked sailors before sacrifice, or in the case of the high-born, cutting their throats herself,” Gifford explains. Iphigenia is left in her unenviable position after being saved from sacrifice at her father’s hand by the goddess Artemis in Aulis. In Euripides’ play Iphigenia’s brother Orestes is brought to her for sacrifice in Tauris, where they escape with the help of the goddess Athena. Gifford describes the serendipity and divine intervention in Euripides’ play as “cheating,” placing Iphigenia beyond the reach of Ancient Greece’s fickle gods, at the mercy of the Taurians and her memories. “Euripides’ play is a bit like a soap opera,” Gifford laughs, “he had to have a happy ending. But there were thousands of temples in the area, and those that did have human sacrifices needed priests and priestesses.” Drawn by the mournful song of a migrating seabird from her homeland (rendered on clay flute), Iphigenia walks on, or into, the ocean at the opera’s conclusion. “Whereas the poor soul fantasises walking with Orestes over the water, she is really, I think we can agree, walking under it.”

Exile shows us a world of Ancient Greek myth without gods. The secularised portrait of Iphigenia is made profoundly sympathetic at the expense of its dramatic context, turning Euripides’ melodrama into a personal tragedy. The composition should be given a renewed and poignant context in Point Nepean, where history may come into a creative synthesis with the possibilities of computer game narratives and technologies. The opera’s successful implementation on iPad, as on its other intended platforms, hinges largely upon Aphids and Champagne Valentine turning the opera’s recording from ABC’s Iwaki Auditorium and video component into an engaging interactive music video.


Exile, composer Helen Gifford, soprano Deborah Kayser, co-producers Aphids, Chamber Made Opera; studio recording, Iwaki Auditorium, ABC Southbank Centre, Melbourne, June 22

RealTime issue #98 Aug-Sept 2010 pg. 43

© Matthew Lorenzon; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Back to top