Q & A: Composer Micha Hamel on His First Opera ‘Caruso a Cuba’

By Alan Neilson

(Photo: Janita Sassen)

Amsterdam’s “Opera Forward Festival” is an event which showcases new or relatively new operas, by well-known and lesser known composers. One of the operas on offer at this year’s festival was Micha Hamel’s “Caruso a Cuba.” Hamel is not an especially well-known composer outside his native Netherlands, but within his country he has had a number of notable successes, particularly with his tragic operetta “Snow White.”

His compositions specialize in works for the voice, although he has up to this point not composed an opera as such, focusing mainly on music theatre and song cycles. The early reviews for his debut opera, however, have been very positive indeed, and it seems he may have real success on his hands.

Hamel classes himself as more than simply a composer, having spent many years conducting European orchestras, before retiring in 2016, to concentrate on other projects and interests, which are not restricted to the practical side of music making. He is a researcher and writer, as well as a successful poet, and has set up his own music theatre company, in which he performs his own works.

If that were not enough to keep him busy, he also involves himself in other artistic projects, in which he combines his poetry with 3D visuals. He is also an actor and gives recitations of his poetry. Since 2010 he has held a position as a Professor of “Performance Practice” at the University of Arts in Rotterdam. And there is a lot more!

Nevertheless, Hamel was kind enough to find a gap in his crowded schedule, to give Operawire an interview about his career and his new opera, “Caruso a Cuba.”

Operawire: What were your early music experiences, and what made you want to become a composer?

Micha Hamel: I started playing the piano when I was five years old, and the oboe from when I was ten, but I knew I didn’t want to be a pianist or oboist, although I also knew I wanted to be involved in music. Then I saw the film “Amadeus” when I was 13, and realized that the pieces I was playing in my lessons were actually produced by a real person, someone had invented them, and I knew then that I wanted to be a composer. So I studied composing and conducting at the Conservatory in The Hague, and then later at Tanglewood.

I started writing contemporary music, meaning atonal music, following in the style from Ligeti and Stockhausen, and at the same time I wrote incidental music for children’s theatre to earn money, so I was developing the craft of composing music in different styles. At a certain point, the field of contemporary music started to decline due to subsidy cuts and the declining interest of the public.

So I had an artistic rebirth, and started to think more carefully about what music is, what composition should be, and I decided to merge my art music with the theatrical music, so I found myself as a poly-stylistic composer.

My first success was a tragic operetta, “Snow White,” which was a cross between an atonal chamber opera and a musical. With “Caruso a Cuba” I have continued with this poly-stylistic approach. I see the piece of music as a mosaic, and if you look carefully you can see many different fragments, but from a distance you can see it is supported by an underlying thought.

OW: Who or what has influenced your composition style?

MH: This is a difficult question to answer. I think my counterpoint teacher was very important because she made me realize it is all about getting the tension of a line correct, by writing a counterpoint that supports it, prolonging the arch in time without it falling apart. The music builds up, and you must succeed in drawing the whole line from beginning to end, while varying tempi and tonality – that is the trick! This is what composing is about, not just about finding beautiful chords or melodies.

But I think I have learnt most about composing from conducting, and I have been influenced by the composers I conducted; I am a great fan of Berlioz and Mendelssohn. I like early romantic music, it is really “Sturm und Drang,” the period is really wild and I am fond of that.

OW: Most of your compositions appear to have been written for the voice. Would it be fair to say you specialize in writing for the voice, and if so why?

MH: Yes, absolutely yes!

I believe the voice can bridge the abstraction of music and give it a human dimension. As a composer I am quite bad at composing abstract music in the sense that I need a reason as to why I should begin a piece in this or that way; should I start it with an A or C#, should I use a high or a low note, it seems a little pointless to me. I am more of a theatrical thinker. I set a lot of poems of Apollinaire; his voice is very strong, and so I can choose easily, I glide into it and the music starts to flow. Last year, I composed a 100-line poem, written by the US poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay, from the beginning of the 20th century, and made it into a broad song cycle. It is easier for me to respond to text. Maybe when I am old, I will start writing my string quartets; they do say it is the the summit of music making, so maybe I will do this later, but not now.

OW: Why have you defined “Caruso a Cuba” as an opera, rather than music theatre, which you have used to classify many of your other works?

MH: The main difference between music theatre and opera is that the function of music in music theatre changes from time to time; it can be supportive or against it, or psychological or structural, there can be singing, although it is not necessary, and there will be a lot of speech. So music in music theatre is more modular in its structure. In my music theatre I often have the musicians on the stage, walking and talking and I try to integrate the disciplines into the staging. Opera, on the other hand, is sung, and if there is talking it is a special effect. The function of the music is stable because the orchestra is meant to enhance or intensify or to accompany the vocal parts and the characters’ psychology. In a good opera you don’t ask yourself why are they singing, because you experience the singing and music as one expressive flow which melts into you. Whereas in music theatre music has a dramaturgical function which has its force as music, as an object, and not as expression that enters you in a magical manner.

In opera, therefore, we need people whose emotions are very intense, whether they are in love or raging or furious, or the character himself must be intensified, such as a god, a dictator or a hero. It is these human intensities which give rise to the reason for singing. If the reasons are not there, then you think why are they singing, why don’t they just talk if they are just exchanging information. It is this dramaturgical truth which should be at the core of the characters, and at the core of the work, otherwise the audience will question why they are singing, and it will drop dead on the floor in front of you.

OW: Was it a daunting experience writing an opera for such an important event?

MH: Of course! At the age of 16 I wanted to be an opera composer, now at 48 I have achieved my ultimate ambition (laughing). Pierre Audi, the Intendant of the Opera here in Amsterdam, is very supportive of composers in the Netherlands, and has given many people a chance. I have known him for many years, and we have had many conversations about many artistic ideas. Then, after my success with my operetta “Snow White” he suggested a commission, and over the next few years we had an artistic conversation and the opera grew out of a relationship between two committed people. It was not a case of the phone ringing, and thinking ahhhh!! the opera is calling.

He was very pleased with the opera, and thinks it is one of the best commissions he has made. It is a very stressful to put a new work on the stage. I have been composing for about 30 years and I know exactly how a score will sound, but you never know how it will work. You can never foresee this at your desk at home, never, it has to be embodied, it must be directed, physical, it must be conducted, and filled with love, it must be flesh and blood, before you know.

OW: Does this work mark a point of maturity?

MH: This is something for others to decide, but in two respects I would say yes. Firstly, this is the longest piece I have composed, and it was very important for me. In the past, I was worried about creating long pieces. Now I feel confident in doing this. Secondly, when I was younger I used to get very stressed and angry if people did not do things exactly as I wanted them done, but in working with this director we had a good relationship, and it was easy to exchange ideas. My job is writing the score, it his job to put it on the stage and I trusted him completely.

OW: Are your ideas about the music fixed?

MH: In the sense that I know exactly what I want, and my score is very detailed, then yes! After 25 years of conducting I know exactly what the musicians need to do, so I am very precise. However the piece had flaws which I recognised when I saw and heard it in rehearsals, and I needed to correct them.

But also music gives room for things; the audience sitting in the hall will bring their own ideas, memories and opinions and dreams, which allows the music to explode in their brains, providing different experiences for different people.

OW: What drew you to Montero’s book?

MH: I found the book in a Berlin market. The German title was “When Caruso found Aida,” which I thought a little strange because Caruso is a real character and Aida who is fictional character, so I thought, ok I will read it; I had read another book by Montero, which I had enjoyed. I was drawn into the book because it deals with a larger than life situation, containing characters with real complex problems, such as experiencing trauma, and experiencing life lived as a star, which is a narcissistic experience, and it contains a brief love affair which transforms the lives of the characters so that it is never the same again. It is romantic, it is fate and love, its is an opera in itself.

The book plays with idea of a performance within a performance, or the book as an opera, or the deities that live above the characters, steering, influencing and enhancing them. I love this because I like to have many perspectives and layers, so in my music I play with musical styles, including Verdi and Puccini, and you may start to question what you are listening to: is it 19th century or 21st century music? The book also has the same approach by playing with the readers perspective of fact and fiction.

OW: Montero paints a vivid picture of the multi-cultural mix found in early 20th century Cuba, what use, if any, do you make of this multi-cultural context in your opera?

MH: It is important. It was essential to have singers from different ethnic backgrounds. After all, it is a rich white man catching a young black girl, or maybe it is the other way round. He is then seduced by the Lukumi world, it something he cannot escape from, it transforms him, as he sees his own death in Naples. It is Aida’s godfather, the Lukumi priest, who throws the Ekuele and foretells the future. The Lukumi world is, therefore, very important. The mother comes on to the stage as a saint, as Santa Maria, in which she explains the story of the opera in an aria, and it is not about love, it is not a love story! It is about the gods fighting, about fate, about them having to live the fate that has been chosen. So we are moving between cultures, so the multi-cultural context is fundamental to the story.

OW: The lagoon scene plays a pivotal scene in the opera. What exactly is its importance?

MH: Firstly, there are two gods, Changó, the god of fire, war and music, the deity of Caruso, and there is the god of water, Yemayá, the deity of Aida. At some point Calazán, the priest, talks about the fire coming out of Caruso’s throat, and he says the water of death will soon put it out. So by immersing him in the lake he is putting the fire out. Secondly, this ritual is meant to restore the harmony of the universe.

It is Caruso’s presence on the island that has effectuated the bomb and the chaos, so the reality of the Cuban community has been harmed, and needs to be restored through the ritual. So the ritual is meant to cleanse Caruso and restore harmony, but it affects him in another way; he has visions of his mother and father, of his own childhood in Naples and of his forthcoming death, so he is reborn into death. He dies outside the opera after it has finished, but in the book Montero speculates that he was already dead in Cuba, that he has been captured by death in Cuba. It is a pivotal scene because in the first act we are looking at Caruso’ life in a naturalistic setting, whereas after the ritual we are looking into Caruso’s head, and we don’t know if the figures are real or not real, or whether it is a consequence of his paranoia causing him to imagine the figures. So it is in this scene that the piece changes its perspective.

The music also changes, it becomes weird and discontinuous. The opera dissolves with Caruso, and that is why the opera is in Italian, for everything is from the perspective of Caruso, whereas the book is from Aida’s perspective.

OW: Could you say something about the musical style and instrumentation you used for the opera

MH: I hope it is very innovative, even if 2/3 of it is tonal music which you could sing along to. Its structure, however, is a montage and the way it is assembled and pieced together is where you find the modernity. The design of the opera is modern, it moves quickly, it is slick and does not conform to the connotations associated with opera as being broad, and grand, and slow and pathetic. Some people say that opera is so old-fashioned, and I want to prove this not the case.

Although it is has multi-cultural context I didn’t want to simply imitate, for example, African music as this would be a form of cultural appropriation, so I deliberately didn’t use drums during the ritual scene. I didn’t want an African ritual on stage, with lots of drums trying to imitate the batá drums, which are used in the Lukumi religion. I preferred to rethink it in terms of my own musical world. So I took water as the starting point, as the force, as my inspiration, with vague references to Smetana’s “Ma Vlast,” with watery sound effects. Later, during the second act especially, the music becomes more electronic, and I use soundscape inserts from birds, insects and radio, then at the end it is empty, the chords freeze.

OW: What do you hope the audience will take from the opera?

MH: Primarily, I want people to realize bel canto is not dead. If you cut it in another way, it can feel novel and urgent and modern.

And from the story, I would like the audience to have compassion for the loneliness of a world star. Caruso is a star, he is narcissistic. He looks in the mirror and sees himself, and every time he looks at someone, he sees himself. He cannot get outside of his fame. So therefore every time he says something he thinks he is in an opera, so I use big gestures to define him. The lives of world famous people look better than ours, but it is not true!

OW: You have written a book about the future of classical music. Did it inform your writing of “Caruso a Cuba?”

MH: Yes it did. The central idea of the book is, at this point in time we are moving from a world of representation to world of presence. Anything that is represented and stands for higher values is coming under pressure in society, as it moves towards valuing immediacy and direct transferable forms and meanings.

This leads me to my personal conclusion, that I am actually more interested in making theatre where I can transfer my thoughts as a narrative, and therefore in a more direct way. My movement in this direction, that is a shift away from concert music to theatre music, as well as my movement away from atonal towards tonal music, is not about language, but about how you can transfer things, and how you can be successful without being locked into your own vocabulary and the grammar of atonality.


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