Q & A: Milica Ilić on her second opera, ‘XX Mono-Opera For Schizophrenic Voice and Tight Strings’

By John Vandevert

Hailing from Belgrade, Serbia, triple-threat (composer/pianist/coach) Milica Ilić (1985 -) sat down with me to discuss her newly premiered opera, XX Mono-Opera For Schizophrenic Voice and Tight Strings, a harrowing tale about alien females from the planet Mnemosyne-369 who have their lives upturned when they receive a mysterious signal from space. Set in the far distance future, the Y chromosome has gone extinct and in an attempt to save their species, this unknown signal may be the ticket to their continued survival.

The opera’s non-language libretto was written in collaboration with playwright and dramatist Ljubinka Stojanovic. Accompanied by cello and piano (played by Milicia), along with projected visuals, singers Aleksandra Alivojvodić and Nataša Rašić brought Milicia’s musically complex score to technicolor life. The opera premiered in December of 2021 at the Center for Cultural Decontamination in Belgrade, Serbia.

Ilić and I virtually sat down to talk about her journey to music, her thoughts on opera, and, of course, her opera and its musical and narrative elements. I even asked her what her favorite operas are and her answers are surprising!

Opera Wire: Was has been and is your relationship with music?

Milica Ilić: It’s woven from three identities: Me as a performer, as a coach, and me as a composer. These three are equally present in my life and equal parts of my career. I’ve been advised to choose one but I can’t give anyone up. They work very well together and support and help each other. 

In Serbia, we have musical education that starts when you’re very young. So I started playing piano when I was six within a school system. Then at 16, when I entered university, I already had years of musical preparation. Actually, most of my life I wanted to be a composer and then suddenly, just before entering studies, I decided “Yeah, piano.” So, I went that way. My encounter with singers was a chance thing also, working with singers in a music school. That was actually very lucky because I could see how voices develop from the first stage on and that’s a very good insight for the work I’m doing now at the University of Belgrade, I coach singers. 

Then I realized, this is such a great musical niche [opera], and it comprises everything that I love. Music, of course, but also sung music. I used to sing a lot, I wanted to become a jazz singer. It all came together in the end. The composing was always there, I’ve composed most of my life. But I decided that it was time for the world to hear so I started pushing it a bit more out.

OW: Why do you think opera is still relevant today?

MI: What is the purpose of art? All art needs to exist because it is one of our ways towards the “truth.” It’s one of the very important ways of “experiencing” the world we are living in. I don’t think art should be explanatory, anything else other than what it is. Opera is part of this big picture of what art means to this world. It does make us better people. Opera is a very particular type and form of art. It comprises loads of things, text and music and the drama and the staging and everything else. It can have a big impact on lots of senses at the same time and prompt thinking after the fact. That’s why we still love opera, we still think about it.

People have been forcing the death of opera for centuries but somehow it ain’t dead yet and I don’t think it’s going to die. I’m more and more optimistic nowadays that the composers nowadays are finding better ways to communicate through opera for new audiences. For me, there is no sharp distance between classical, contemporary classical, popular, jazz, hip hop. These are subgenres that make it easier for us to search for things but music is one big point and we should see it that way. We should do whatever we need in order to communicate what we wish to communicate.

OW: How did you develop your love of music?

MI: It was a natural thing. I was so interested in so many things. But somehow music chose me I didn’t choose music. I have this feeling. Many young people have a struggle in finding themselves, I never had this. It was always there and I just took it. The thing with music, if you don’t really love it and enjoy it, it’s not worth it.

OW: Why write a chamber opera?

MI: I mostly write chamber pieces. My first opera, “(a)Mantis Religiosa,” a thriller opera in three episodes, was written for five singers and piano. I stick to chamber things because it’s my personal preference that I can work with everyone equally. I like my performers to be happy, that’s a really big issue for me. There’s a matter of practicality in that. When do you get a symphonic orchestra? When I’m rich and famous perhaps but these are things you can just pull out. It’s important for me to put things out into the world and then see if it can live and find its place and we take it from there.

Because I’m so in love with singing and the form, I think there is so much space to experiment, but not for the sake of it. Opera was always a form that attracted me. I’m also teased by my surroundings. I’m a very narrative-driven person, even if I make something that sounds abstract there is still a narrative behind it. Opera, traditionally, comes from the side of storytelling.

It is very different in how you treat orchestra and instruments in a chamber ensemble. I think there is a much wider opportunity to experiment with sounds and combinations. The collaboration aspect is also important for many people. For me, it’s very important because I always work with the people I know and I know how they sing and play. I try to use their potential to the maximum. Performers deserve this personal treatment because without them, composers don’t exist.

OW: Where did the opera’s story come from?

MI: I worked on this opera in collaboration with the librettist Ljubinka Stojanović, and actually we developed the concept together. We started off with wanting to make a feminist utopia and we ended up a complete feminist dystopia. Not even feminist too. That’s a lovely way, actually. We learned a lot along the way. We really started from scratch. She never wrote a libretto for opera before, so it was a learning process for her as well. My idea was that I didn’t want it to be in any language because we are in the far future. There are so many dead end streets trying to tell such a story backwards. We managed to get out of these traps and make a romantic story.

OW: How was the music developed and what are your influences?

MI: All the music I ever listened to and I listen to all music. The thing is that you can see that there is a style, a coherence to the piece. I do intend that. Music should be followable. It’s not important for the listeners to know what I had in mind when I was composing.  I use all sorts of things to help enable the listener to follow the music. This was particularly difficult because the opera has no language that they can cling onto. The music had to be motivic.

I also appreciate the performers. We study a long time in order to reach levels of artistic mastery. Sometimes I find it a pity that composers don’t use these abilities of instruments and voices that are obtained during these studies. I have nothing against experimenting but I really like players and singers the opportunity to show everything that they can do. To feel comfortable and in charge of the situation. By doing that, they make my music communicate the best way. They are my voice. If I make their liens that their voice is at their best, then my music comes across the best.

OW: What are your favorite operas?

MI: Depends on my mood of course. My personal one is “Don Giovanni” because I love operas which are transposable throughout time. That’s the problem I have. I always have a problem with the staging of “La Bohème” because I feel like it can only be staged during the beginning of the 19th century in France. That’s it. You can make games between the characters but the whole story that makes the character is based on the time period. I also love “Peter Grimes.” I love this ambiguity that no one is black and white, everyone is gray. Everyone has inner struggles and they can be bad and good, it just depends on the moment. We are not good or bad, we fight for it. Musically, “Grimes” is a masterpiece.


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