Each year The Haydn Foundation schedules a short opera program consisting of three or four works, performed in theaters in the northern Italian region of Trentino-Alto Adige. What makes it stand out from the usual opera season is its commitment to staging contemporary works. This year it is performing two new works, the first of which is “Lorit – A Doomsday Opera,” written by the Austrian composer Marius Binder to a libretto by Robert Prosser. It will receive performances in Trento, Bolzano and Innsbruck.
OperaWire will be reviewing the performance in Bolzano later this month, but first off decided to interview the composer about his approach to composition and his new opera.
OperaWire: What was it that made you want to be a composer?
Marius Binder: When I was six years old, I wanted to study piano, but where I grew up in Klagenfurt, we couldn’t find a teacher, so I started with the violin, but this was too high-pitched, so I switched to the viola. At the age of 10, I went to Brg Viktring, a gymnasium with a branch in music and fine arts. I took both entry exams, passed both, and was confronted for the first time with the question of which path to follow. Back then, I decided on music.
I played in a string orchestra, which introduced me to big names like Haydn and Pergolesi, but what really struck a chord with me was the Simple Symphony by Benjamin Britten and the Piano Quartet by Gustav Mahler. Two absolutely marvelous pieces. I wanted to write pieces like that, and so I analyzed, inspected and dissected both of them.
In January of the year in which I graduated from the Brg, I had to decide on what to do afterwards. I applied to the University of Applied Arts in Vienna, passed the entrance exam first time, and attained the maximum possible mark in painting. And so, at the age of 20, I chose to follow the fine arts. However, I was still looking to educate myself in music and enrolled in “Composition Techniques of the 20th and 21st centuries” at the Music and Arts Private University of the city of Vienna.
I remember being nervous when I gave some pieces that I started writing at the age of 14 to my teacher to get some criticism of them, as none have ever been performed. I still vividly remember Christian Minkowitsch, who was a strict but amazingly gifted educator, telling me “There is potential, but it is way too naïve.” That single statement really bothered me. So much so that I ended up switching to his composition class the next semester.
OW: Why did you decide to study composition rather than performance?
MB: If you had asked me a few years ago, I would have said that I don’t like appearing on stage, but now I have realized that I am more of a conceptual person. I like to develop and grow things like a gardener and to produce something. Basically, I feel at home conceptualizing things rather than interpreting them, but I do feel at home on stage in an improvisational context. To build something ex nihilo with people you see for the first time in the form of a musical conversation is an amazing experience, something I would recommend for any musically gifted person.
OW: When you write a work – not necessarily opera – what are you trying to achieve? Are you trying to entertain the audience, for example, or is the concept all-important?
MB: That is a complex question. The entertainment factor is not the main issue. It is a side product of what I am trying to create.
Every piece I write is different in concept and principle. I see myself as being like a child in the playground. I look around and take hold of different things that I find interesting and put them together to see what develops. I think people seem to like these sorts of experiments. I do arts to express a thought in the most direct way possible. Sometimes it takes the form of a chamber music piece, sometimes the form of an oil painting.
OW: So, do you expect people to come and listen to your music?
MB: They can. I don’t mind.
OW: Does the audience play any part in your creation?
MB: I am very aware of the parameters one works with in music: what the audience does, what the interpreter does, what information you give to whom, and how well that information is perceived. I like to work with musicians on stage. So, for example, if you have two musicians on stage, I may tell musician B to play the opposite of musician A and tell musician A to play the same as musician B. I like these sorts of experiments, and if there are people there to witness them and they like them then that is good for me. However, I don’t necessarily need an audience.
OW: Do you compromise at all with the tastes of the audience?
MB: I think the time of following predetermined aesthetics or structures has long gone. I don’t see myself in a modern or postmodern sense at all because I don’t counter-create anything. I don’t work through music; I work with music.
Of course, I like it when people like my music, but that is not the reason why I have written it.
Let me give you an example. I wrote a piece about my own military experience to poems that I had written myself, using marching rhythms and things like that. The piece ends with a written instruction to “hold an uncomfortably high note for an uncomfortably long time,” which basically destroys the musical aspect of the whole piece as nobody wants to listen to that sound. A colleague of mine asked me how I could slaughter my own music like this. But I did it to get a point across. I wanted to stretch time because people don’t realize how long a minute is until they have experienced something like, for example, standing in formation at midnight in a temperature of -14°C. I don’t expect people to enjoy this music, but I get satisfaction from making a point that is being expressed in the best way I can find.
OW: Is “Lorit” your first opera?
MB: Yes, at least my first full opera.
OW: How important is the libretto to you?
MB: When I write a lieder, it is very different from writing an opera. Poems tend to speak for themselves. There is not much more that I can add, other than counter-creating it in opposition to the text to create tension. With a libretto, it is a balancing act between the text and the music. You can repeat passages to allow the music to speak a little more, but when the words need to be understood very clearly, the music needs to step back a little; otherwise, the libretto is wasted.
In the case of the libretto for “Lorit,” it was quite chaotic at the beginning. Christina Poltzer, the director, contacted me last January and suggested we put in a piece for a competition that needed Tyrolean people to apply. So, we met for a few beers and came up with the idea for “Lorit,” but needed a librettist, who also had to be Tyrolean. We both immediately thought of Robert Prosser, whom I had met a couple of years ago, and he agreed to it. Robert has a very sharp eye and the ability to put the most complicated thoughts into simple words in a way I could never do.
OW: Could you outline the narrative and themes of the opera?
MB: It is the last skiing season for humankind. A group of characters, who are actually allegorical figures, are trapped in a cable car during a storm and founded their perfect state, which they call Lorit, which is Tirol spelled backwards. I would call the form a modern mystery play, but not a moral play or one connected to religion. In my opinion, tourism in Tyrol and the culture it brings with it have taken on an almost religious magnitude. It has its own set of rituals and its own set of high priests. This is why we chose to put in allegorical characters. This is the beauty of mystery plays, as everything is pointed towards symbolism. So, the cable car is something you can see out of but is safe from the outside world, which is hanging by a thread. From a practical viewpoint, it means that on stage, it is easy to put the characters together in the same room.
The allegorical figures include the ‘Gottvater der Seilbahnen,’ the Godfather of the cablecars; the ‘Schöne Landschaft,’ the beautiful landscape; ‘Fremdenverkehr,’ tourism; the ‘Letzte Generation,’ the last generation; and the single, non-speaking role of ‘Menge’ and ‘Death,’ that is, death and the crowd. At its core, the opera is not about tourism but about identity loss. The question that comes to mind is, what happens to your identity when everything you do and everything you are is all about selling your mountain, your home, and your merchandise, and ultimately ends in selling yourself to other people?
I won’t relate the ending as it will spoil it for the audience.
OW: What can the audience expect from the music of “Lorit”?
MB: I am using a chamber orchestra with a string quintet, two percussionists, two trumpets, a clarinet, two horns in F, a flute and an English horn. There will be plenty of melodies from Tyrolean folk music, but it is almost as if I have counter-created them. It is about how the music is used to express a point while re-contextualizing it.
OW: Are the melodies immediately obvious?
MB: It depends. The first few bars of the opera start with a fanfare with two trumpets and drums, based upon a tritone that is typically used for the endings in alpine folk music but is always used as a stepping stone that leads upwards to the next until it is out of range for the instrument, where the phrase is interrupted. I am taking a stylistic element and chasing it to its logical extreme. For another example, the aforementioned tritones are normally resolved differently if they are written as a diminished fifth or as an augmented fourth. I used both resolutions simultaneously to create a haunting bitonal mother chord where the key for analyzing the opera is hidden.
Although most of the opera is written with original material in the style of alpine folk music, schlager and even pop songs mixed together with overtone chords, neoclassical elements, polka, big band, waltz and so on, there are a few common melodies that I draw upon, such as the Tyrolean anthem “Innsbruck ich muss dich lassen” or “Andachtsjodler” to get specific points across, as this material has its own connotations that can be beautifully re-contextualized. I do believe that the local people who attend the opera will probably recognize them as, at times, they are quite obvious. While writing the opera, I almost felt like I was holding a club in my hand and hitting the listener over and over again. It possesses a structure that has a potentially whiplash-inducing effect, as the stylistic changes are quite rapid, and dare I say, tik-tok-esque.
OW: How kind have you been to the singers in the parts you have written for them?
MB: Well, they may disagree, but I always think that they need to memorize the music, so I always try to write a little more sympathetically than for other instruments. For example, I don’t, except in two counter intuitive situations, notate the dynamics for the singers because it is fairly obvious if you understand the lyrics. There are some difficult passages that I have identified, but the singers may have identified others because I didn’t know their voices before I wrote it, which makes it a little tricky. I haven’t heard them yet, so I must wait and see.
The opera will be sung in German, in the Tyrolean dialect, although the tourist sings in a variety of languages, with an English phrase here or there followed by an Italian or a Dutch phrase.
OW: Do you feel more pressure when writing an opera than with other music?
MB: There are more people involved, and you need to be a little more exact with everything because rehearsals are very expensive. I certainly felt pressure while writing it. I had only just over two months to write the music.
One of the things that is bothering me is that I know that there are small mistakes in the score. With the small amount of time and writing on this scale, you miss the occasional thing. The score has 112 pages and I also had 480 pages for the parts to layout and structure. I would have liked more time to ensure it was all correct and also to develop a few more ideas. On the other hand, a piece is never finished. At least not my pieces!
OW: Does your future include more opera compositions?
MB: It won’t be my last opera, that is for sure; however, I have learned my lesson and would like to have at least a year with a finished libretto to complete it so I can develop my ideas fully and in more detail.
As for now, I am thinking about making “Lorit” part of a diptych. I was born in Tyrol, which is my father’s land, but I grew up in Carinthia, which is where my mother is from. So to stay coherent, I think that my next opera project will be based in Carinthia. But first, I need to see “Lorit” through to completion. One opera at a time!