Group 1: soprano, tenor, baritone, bass; Group 2: soprano, baritone, bass
This opera has been described as a kind of ‘Winterreise’, describing the long, complex journey of a lonely individual and then his demise. It takes as its textual base the writings of the absurdist Russian writer Daniil Kharms. The stories of which the opera is made up consist of everyday events: black humour, absurd happenings, mindless violence, eroticism, simplicity bordering on a fairy tale, acts of evil and, towards the end of the opera, a moving story of absurd philosophy on the beauty and mystery of the ‘Whirld’, as Kharms spells it in the title. As the opera progresses, the main character develops vague but complex relationships with the others. Finally proceedings go beyond his control – he has abused the ‘system’. He is arrested and thrown into a large dustbin, where he dies.
I first encountered the works of the Russian writer Daniil Kharms (1905-1942) in the late 1970’s. It was a dramatic discovery that instantly produced a feeling of total identification. More than 20 years later, I used his writings in my music theatre piece, Mini-Stories, commissioned by the Northlands Festival in Scotland.
In 2002 I was commissioned by the Theatre Lubeck and NetZZeit in Vienna to write the opera Die Wält Der Zwischenfälle (The Whirld of Incidences). I completed the opera a year later, and in January 2004 it was premiered in Lubeck to huge critical acclaim. The opera shares the same material as Mini-Stories, but with several stories added, to form a libretto consisting of 16 stories creating a continuous sequence of words and music lasting 90 minutes.
Daniil Kharms founded the absurdist movement OBERIU (The Association of Real Art) in Leningrad, early last century. This group of so-called Dadaists irritated the authorities no end, and Kharms was arrested twice. He died of starvation in a prison hospital in Leningrad in 1942.
The stories I have chosen range from mundane everyday events, black humour, absurd happenings, mindless violence, eroticism, simplicity bordering on a fairy tale, acts of evil, and, towards the end of the opera, a moving story of absurd philosophy on the beauty and mystery of the ‘Whirld’, as Kharms spells it in the title. The last story refers to a read-haired man, that does not exist.
The use of words is striking in its directness and simplicity. Many of the stories are imbued with an almost unworldly atmosphere, as if noted down by a superior being, observing helpless mankind from afar.
There are eight singers and a chamber orchestra consisting of single wind, brass and strings. There is also a keyboard player (piano, harmonium and celesta), as well as two percussionists. The main role is taken by the first tenor, known as the ‘narrator’. I see him as a modern ‘Yurodive’, the famous Russian equivalent of the ‘holy fool’. He not only sings, but uses ‘sprechstimme’ as well as normal speech, which ranges from whispering to shouting. The rest of the cast also use this wide range of expression. The narrator becomes involved – seemingly against his will – in one bizarre event after another as the stories unfold. Sometimes he stands aside taking notes, observing the rest of the characters entangle themselves in truly absurd happenings.
As the opera progresses, the narrator has developed vague but complex relationships with the other characters. Finally proceedings go beyond his control – he has abused the ‘system’. He is arrested and thrown into a large dustbin, where he dies.
It was obvious that the clarity and directness of Kharms’ writings should be supported by clear harmonic structures and simple musical gestures that allow the audience to follow the proceedings with relative ease. To enhance this sense of clarity, I set the text syllabically.
A German critic wrote after the premiere that the opera was a kind of ‘Winterreise’, describing the long, complex journey of a lonely individual, and then his demise. That is not far from the truth.
© Haflidi Hallgrimsson, October 2004.
Vocal score preview: