Who were the Vikings?
The word itself certainly produces an impact on everyone, and yet, how well do we really know them? How much of our understanding of their existence is the result of legends that have been perpetuated through a wide range of media and literature?
These questions were at the core of composer and librettist Jeffrey Leiser when he first conceived of “Far Travelers,” an opera that is set to have a world premiere performance on May 1, 2018, at the Guild Hall in East Hampton, New York.
This is the first opera for Leiser, whose previous work includes The Summit Symphony, as well as a number of film scores for a multitude of short films. And it didn’t come about all that easily.
Discovering the Vikings
Per Leiser, the work’s seeds were planted in 2004 when he traveled to Iceland. It inspired him to read up on the Icelandic sagas, the nutrients to eventually bear the fruit that was “Far Travelers” 10 years later.
And once he realized that he wanted to explore the Vikings for his opera, he found a major challenge to overcome.
“The difficulty was choosing the right story upon which to lay the groundwork,” he told OperaWire in a recent interview, noting that he scrapped his first libretto based on Leif Erikson in 2014. “Eventually, I settled on perhaps the most narratively inconsequential of them all: the Vinland sagas; the Eiríks saga rauða, Grœnlendinga saga.
“They aren’t as attractive as the epics, such as “Egil’s Saga,” “Brennu-Njáls saga,” or “Laxdæla saga,” but the characters and potential conflict are present.”
He did extensive research on many modern novels set in the time period between 980-1004 A.D., including “Westviking” by Mowat, “Freydis and Gudrid” by Boyer, ”The Sea Road” by Elphinstone, and “The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman” by Brown.
And while he certainly attempted as much historical accuracy as possible in the writing of the libretto, ultimately, “my libretto is mostly fictional as I had to invent a second act for the opera involving love triangles, dark secrets revealed, and finally reconciliation which is not present in the saga text. It was an intentional decision based on the fact that I could reframe the story as needed.”
There was one aspect that he wanted to get right with his story, and it involved setting the record straight on who truly had the power in Viking societies.
“Vikings are popular in American culture, but I still feel that they have been misrepresented to some extent. If you read the Sagas, it is true that blood feuds and other needless violence takes place on occasion, but read further and you will encounter intelligent and delicately emotional human beings,” Leiser emphasized. “The young men of the Viking age get all the ‘glory,’ but underrepresented are the strong women who were leaders and shapers of their culture.”
This shifted Leiser’s focus in writing the libretto, giving female characters greater prominence in the saga. Among the characters that gets the spotlight is GudridThorbjarnardóttir, who is renowned in the sagas for giving birth to the first European born in North America.
“What captivated me about Gudrid is that she feels like a real person, even modern, so that it was never necessary to refashion her for today. I saw a complex woman who was deeply in touch with her inner nature even as outward events were forcing her to make difficult decisions. So once I found Gudrid, it was a natural conclusion that her antithesis, Freydís Eiríksdóttir, should share in the great drama of the stage. Here was an audacious and proud woman who could really stir the pot and advance the narrative. But like all painted villains, she is insecure, and so we finally unearth what motivates her ill will.”
He also wanted to emphasize modern themes of transition and change, ideas rife in the times of the Vikings.
“Leif had brought the message of Christianity to Greenland by King Olaf I Tryggvason’s [Norway] edict, and around half of the Greenlanders accepted it. This meant that there could have been a civil war of sorts, but surprisingly, there was little to no bloodshed. They somehow achieved common ground in the midst of a change in worldview, which might prove an example to the clash of ideologies in this country. People also tend towards a narrow view of how ancient cultures dealt with complex matters, so I’d like to invite them to take a closer look.”
Making Music With a Friend
Once he had his story, he moved onto writing the music. Leiser revealed that his process is generally slow and improvised.
“I like to keep my environment very silent and do not actively listen to music while I compose so that I can hear what is happening within. It’s unpredictable and sometimes counterintuitive, but I have found that this long-form, slow approach yields the richest results,” he revealed. “After the initial draft, I then put on the editor’s hat, vandalizing the first draft until it makes more sense.”
But then after writing it out, Leiser admitted that he likes to have someone come in and collaborate on bringing out the best in the music.
Enter Andrés Soto, a Costa Rican-born composer whose compositional track record includes a plethora of symphonic music, chamber music, and film scores.
Soto had worked with Leiser on the editing of The Summit Symphony and came into “Far Travelers” to help flesh out the orchestration and harmonic substance of the opera. The two communicated mainly via digital means with Soto located in New York City and Leiser in Los Angeles.
“He does an incredible job of editing what is worthy and discarding what is inessential. With some creative leeway, we shoot each other ideas and I almost always sign off on his version, because he understands the work and, frankly, is a better orchestrator than me,” Leiser admitted. “A metaphor for this opera would be that I’m sort of the architect, but we are the interior designers, and many times Andrés has a better idea of where the furniture should go. But I hope that my design choices are also helpful, resulting in something that’s stronger than it could have been.”
For Soto, the experience was quite insightful, especially because he received a recorded version of Leiser’s score featuring the composer singing all the parts.
“I didn’t know how wide his range is!” Soto revealed before explaining the process of orchestrating the opera. “Jeff wanted a full symphony orchestra for the final version of the opera, and for this upcoming May 1st concert, we decided to use a chamber reduction of a piano and a string quintet. Since we both are active film composers we are somehow influenced by neo-romantic orchestration, lots of strings and brass. But there’s also a lot of inventive percussions, to try to deviate a bit from traditional opera. For instance, there’s a marimba ostinato when the Vikings are planning a voyage, an instrument which you wouldn’t always associate with Nordic regions.”
“It was important for me not to imitate what ancient Icelandic music would, or should sound like,” Leiser added. “I am not Icelandic, and although I trace my mother’s heritage to Norwegian ancestors, I make an effort with every project not to let external assumptions dictate what the actual story is expressing.”
Finding the Missing PIeces
Leiser also leaned heavily on Soto for another important factor – the casting of the opera.
“Casting was a process where we wanted to find tribes, not individuals, which is why we bypassed the casting call,” Leiser revealed. “Andrés is already involved in a pretty tight network of performers and singers, so it was a matter of finding pairs or trios of talent that would yield results.”
In the premiere concert, the two leading ladies, Gudrid and Freydis, will be played by sopranos Joanie Brittingham and Kirsten Chambers.
“Kirsten Chambers brings a passion and understanding to the role that is going to be mind-blowing on stage, and Joanie Brittingham is a perfect Gudrid, with the right amounts of tenderness and intensity in her articulations,” noted Leiser. “Samuel Druhora is on double duty because he’s so dynamic and bold, and the rest of the cast, Bray Wilkins, ‘Karlsefni’, Michelle Jennings, Thjodhild, Eric Lindsey, Thorvard, Raymon Geis, Haki, similarly exceeded my expectations, truly embodying their unique and important roles.”
The other major key to the “Far Travelers” puzzle has been maestro Harrison Hollingsworth
“His help is invaluable,” noted Soto. “Without him, the rehearsal process would have been a mess. He’s a very attentive, multitalented musician and conductor and we are honored to be working with him!”