Netia Jones has been described by The Observer as "the most imaginative director of opera working in Britain today". She works as a director/designer and video artist in opera and staged concerts, using projection and mixed media in all of her work. We met her in Bergen for a chat and a glimpse into the creative process behind the performance:
Schönberg was both a composer and a painter. How did you first get to know his work and have you taken any inspiration from his paintings to your video performance?
There is a very nice blurring of the boundaries between art forms in this question, which of course appeals to me very much. Although I have not directly referred to Schoenberg's paintings in the visual worlds for these two pieces, there is a wonderful and relevant link through these paintings to the great Nordic modernists, especially Edvard Munch - a figure who, alongside August Strindberg, certainly influenced Arnold Schoenberg. All three have been described as opening up the expanses and abysses of the human soul, exploring extreme mental conditions; loneliness, anxiety and visions of death. There is a very direct relationship between Vienna in the 1900s and these Nordic avant garde artists, an intellectual kinship and cultural influence, turning their gaze inwards to grapple with the subjective world, the relationship between the genders, and profound psychological complexities.
But the visual world for both pieces refers more to the emerging experimental photography and film of the time - grainy, black and white, multilayered, dark, and often very abstract. The central motif for both works is the Freudian forest - both literal and metaphorical, a place of both terror and escape. The intention is that the projections are treated like a painting, rather than like a film, as much reflecting the internal as the external. They also provide the translations - of the original poem in Verklärte Nacht and of the libretto in Erwartung.
Erwartung has been described as a half hour monologue of madness. What were your challenges when planning the visual narrative?
Schoenberg famously elucidated; "in Erwartung the aim is to represent in slow motion everything that occurs during a single second of maximum spiritual excitement, stretching it out to half an hour". Erwartung is widely regarded as the essential work of musical modernism and expressionism. The interior monologue created in the libretto by Marie Pappenheim, a young medical student, (which recalls both Knut Hamsun's Hunger and Edgar Allan Poe's The Tell Tale Heart) is understood to be based on Freudian case studies. We are presented with a woman in an extremely heightened state of emotion - whether nightmare, hallucination, confession or hysterics. The visual world for this piece is a similarly abstract and expanded reflection of the emotional states of Die Frau or 'The Woman', the female protagonist, centred on the performer herself.
In contrast Verklärte Nacht is a deeply romantic story, based on a poem. What do you find to be the link between these stories?
Verklarte Nacht is romantic, but also for its time rather subversive - in a cold, moonlit wood a woman confesses to her lover that she is carrying another man's child, a man she never loved. Schoenberg's response to this poem by Richard Dehmel, inspired by his falling in love with his future wife Mathilde Zemlinsky, is intensely visual and evocative. The forest is transformed through the piece from a place of threat and terror, into one of beauty and benevolence.
Ideas of the forest draw these two works closely together - it is also one of Freud's central motifs - and create a wonderful arc between the early, romantic Schoenberg, and the startling, expressionist later work.
Which locations did you use for the film?
We filmed both in a studio, looking to create an isolated blank space for Die Frau, not entirely unlike a medical or psychiatric facility or the empty white rooms recommended for hysterical patients, and of course also in the forest. Dog walkers were slightly alarmed at the sight of the extraordinary soprano Allison Cook running through the woods in the dead of winter in a very thin white dress, but the forest shoot was fantastic.
What was the inspiration behind the costume that Allison Cook will wear on stage?
Preparing for both Verklärte Nacht and Erwartung I found myself reading a great deal of Freud. There is a wonderful collection of works by and about him at the Wellcome Collection in London. There I also discovered a book about the physical and psychological effects of corsetry on women - the close links between ideas of "hysteria" and the physical restraint inflicted by the fashion for tight corsets. Another study explored the extraordinary and unsettling garments used to restrain the "mad" or hysterical. The costume that I designed for Erwartung references both of these sources - the medical and the fashionable - and is also a nod to the dress styling of the time of the composition of Erwartung.
Your instrument is the computer, if you had to step onto stage, what would you choose? Singing or an instrument?
When younger I played the violin quite seriously, and I come from a family of musicians, so I was regularly playing in orchestras and ensembles. This makes it familiar and easy now for me to follow the conductor and the musicians when performing the live video. But I would never voluntarily step onto a stage. I would rather create stage pictures than be in them.
Erwartung/Verklärte Nacht fis performed in Grieghallen Saturday 28 May at 18:00, and is presented by the Bergen International Festival, Bergen National Opera and Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra.
Text: Monika Kolstad, Bergen National Opera