"L’Absence" – Opera by Sarah Nemtsov – Premiere at the Munich Biennale May 3, 2012
Peermusic Classical (PC) talked with Sarah Nemtsov about her evening-length composition.
PC: Ms. Nemtsov, what is your opera about?
That’s really not so easy to say. The backdrop is Edmond Jabès’ “Book of Questions” which, among other things, is about the couple Yukel and Sarah. But the reader only comes to realize the background of their story in a very fragmentary manner. One understands, perhaps, that they are separated, that Yukel is searching for Sarah, that Sarah, as such, doesn’t exist any more. Little by little, one realizes that everything is connected with the Shoah: Sarah was deported with her parents, they were murdered, she survived but has become insane. This is why Yukel can no longer find the Sarah he loved. Having gone mad, she can do nothing else but scream. It wouldn’t have done justice to the book, though, if this story were told so straightforwardly. And that’s also what it’s about: that truth does not lie in linearity. It reveals itself not in facts, but rather between words, in the empty spaces, in silence, in abysses and absurd connections. Rabbis constantly turn up in Jabès’ book to comment upon and put the story into question.
PC: L’Absence, absence, silence, loss… How do you treat the themes of the opera?
On the one hand, it’s about the loss of a person; I believe, though, that for Jabès, absence means much more. Not just that a person is gone, is missing, but also what one loses of one’s own self through this. Even more: absence runs through everything. It’s about speechlessness, about something that one can’t say. It’s also about God – as a blank space and question.
A striking aspect is that the singer Sarah is actually absent for a long time – she doesn’t even appear until the 3rd Act. I’ve split the role of Sarah into a singer and a dancer, whereby the dancer represents the Sarah who still exists: the “crazy” Sarah is a mute figure in my opera even though she is described as the “screamer” in the book. The singer is more the memory, or Sarah’s self. It’s what’s been lost, which the others no longer find access to, but what I’m of course thinking still exists somewhere in an inner chamber.
PC: How would you describe the compositional language of L’Absence; what will the audience at the Munich Biennale hear?
It is definitely a completely jagged music. Nevertheless, it is held together by many structures that I’ve worked with and that function in the background, such as cantillation or other forms of Jewish music. There are illusions of melody perhaps in the singing – whereby abysses repeatedly turn up there too.
The opera is written for a small orchestra, there are twelve singers who never really sing together; a kind of choir, comprised of individuals (five rabbis), the main characters Yukel and Sarah are baritone and soprano. An important role is that of the narrator, a threshold figure, countertenor. Then there are two roses (soprano and alto), two boys’ voices, a speaker and the dancer.
For me, it was important to get close to Judaism in this thematic area and in the book. And so I focused a lot on Jewish music in the opera. Whereby I never quoted anything, even if it might sound like it at times; instead, I tried to integrate it deep into my intellectual compositional language. I set up different principles according to which I modified things: e.g., rhythmic motives or melodic phrases.
PC: How do you compose today, after the opera?
My current musical language has changed. It has other, perhaps larger arcs, a larger proportion of noise and in some instances, more aggression. When I can’t realize my sonic vision with normal instruments, I include other things. It can also be everyday objects that I compose for, but never for pure effect - it’s always about the sound. Currently, I’ve also integrated the sound of glass, broken shards, or shattering glass into a chamber music cycle. I’ve composed for key chain, for leaves or for a cardboard box intertwined with classical instruments, and always thought of the objects in a sonic-musical way first. Literature continues to play an important role for me as a source of inspiration.
More information about Sarah Nemtsov is available on her website.