‘Upon This Handful of Earth’ – How A Norwegian Composer-Writer Duo Transformed Complex Christian Philosophy Into An Opera With An Environmental ConscienceBy David Salazar
“You can write an opera about anything. Someone told me to write an opera about a telephone catalogue and I said sure. There are so many stories you could probably find. Of course that wouldn’t be easy at all but if you have a crazy idea, there is always a way out of it. It just makes you work harder. It has made us do things that we would never have done if we hadn’t been given the challenge.”
Norwegian composer Gisle Kverndokk didn’t have to create an opera based on a phonebook, but he and writer Aksel-Otto Bull certainly found their work cut out for them in unscrambling the complex text of Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. In recently speaking with OperaWire, the two explained the arduous process of taking de Chardin’s work and turning their new opera “Upon This Handful of Earth,” which premieres at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola this Friday Feb. 24 at 7 p.m.
While speaking with the duo, it was immediately apparent that the greatest challenge in creating this opera, a five-part meditation on environmental issues wrapped into a mass-liked structure, was actually getting started.
They were approached by the Sacred Music in Sacred Space (SMSS), which co-produced the work with the New York Opera Society. For years, the SSMS had been looking for a way to honor Teilhard’s work. While Kverndokk and Bull agreed to take on the assignment, their third together, they were initially overwhelmed by the density of Teilard’s oeuvre.
Teilard’s work is full of philosophical meditations on Christian themes, the philosopher more notable for the idea of the Omega Point, or the spiritual notion that everything in the universe is fated toward a “divine” unification. He was also crucial in continuing the conversation revolving around Vladimir Vernadsky’s concept of noosphere or the sphere of human thought. Those are just a few of his extensive ideas and concepts.
“We read his writing and found it a bit diffiuclt to make an opera out of it,” Kverndokk admitted. “It’s very heavy Christian philosophy.”
“We nearly gave up so many times,” Kverndokk emphasized.
“But we really wanted to do this production and knew we had to do anything necessary to make it work,” Bull quickly added.
The key to finally figuring it all out?
“The moment we started to cut down his text, that is when we found the poetry and drama in his words,” Bull noted before explaining that reading Teilhard’s “Mass on the World” yielded the five-part structure for the opera.
But that was not enough.
That structure revolved around a priest character that would provide the theological anchor for Teilhard’s ideas. But the duo knew that this would not be enough to emotionally engage the viewer.
“We knew we needed more than a priest,” Bull explained. “We needed real struggling people. So we looked at creating multiple generations of characters.”
And these additional characters, which include a feuding couple, a younger child and several eyewitnesses among others opened up a new world for both Bull and Kverndokk.
“The moment we started playing with other stories we realized that it was coming together,” the composer related. “We weren’t leaning on Teilhard so much in the opera. We wanted to be human and have a real story that people could connect to.”
This in turn made it easier to explore the other themes that were asked of them by the commission.
“They also wanted us to write about the environment because Tielhard was concerned with it as early as 60-70 years ago,” added Kverndokk. “He was about caring for our world. So we looked to see how we could make the story about the environmental crisis today.”
A constant motif in the opera is an all-consuming fire that everyone in the story is afraid of. In fact some characters are responsible for it, a fact that the duo felt was essential in the telling of the story.
“We wanted to remind people that this destruction was not some external experience, but that the people were both the victims and perpetrators,” Bull explained.
From the moment they started working in late 2014, reading was a major source of inspiration. And they found it in numerous literary sources in exploring this theme. Kverndokk related his experience reading Svetlana Alexievich’s Nobel Prize winner “Voices From Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster.”
“I was curious about that book and I read it. And some of the things in the young couple’s story comes right from what I read,” he explained before elaborating on other sources of inspiration. “We also read articles on other international crises such as the Nigerian oil scandal or the fracking industry in the United States. We have used the eyewitness excerpts there to point out those stories.”
Once they felt comfortable in the worlds they set out to explore, the two would periodically get together to figure out the creation of the libretto.
“We are always in the same room brainstorming, throwing ideas back and forth. And then suddenly one of us says. ‘Please shut up and wait 10 minutes. I have an idea,’” noted the composer. “When you start to think about things, it absorbs you all the time. You think about it when you go out for a walk or when you’re cooking or eating. So I have to write it all down. When we meet I always have new ideas for Aksel-Otto.”
But it was not always easy, especially for Kverndokk who had never actually written his own text before. Prior to “Upon This Handful of Earth,” the two created “Easter,” based on a play by August Strindberg and “Letters from Ruth,” a musical based on Ruth Maier, a Jewish girl who came from Vienna to Oslo during WWII before being deported and killed in Auschwitz in her early 20’s. For both works, the text was essentially ready-made for the two, with adaptation into dramatic form the only major obstacle. But with “Upon This Handful of Earth,” the two actually had to create a lot of the words on their own.
“Writing this was quite scary because I hadn’t done that before,” Kverndokk revealed before noting that he owed his collaborator great credit for helping him along the way. “[Bull] is very encouraging and pushed me. That helped me to find ideas.”
After spending the better part of 2015 writing the librettos, Kverndokk finally got a chance to start working on composing the score. In the end he wound up with an orchestra comprised of four clarinets, 2 horns, strings, piano, percussion, organ.
But it was the clarinet sound that stayed with the composer from the get-go.
“Since the organ is a bit removed from the stage, I wanted to have an extension of the organ in the auditorium and that’s the four clarinet and horns. I will be interested to see how people react to it.”
The main musical motif came from the very text that provided the work with its title:
“Upon this handful of soil our survival depends. Husband it and it will grow our food, our fuel, and our shelter and surround us with beauty. Abuse it and the soil will collapse and die, taking humanity with it”
That text, which was from Vedas Sanskrit that dated back to 1500 BC, gave Kverndokk an emotional center that he turned into a chromatic thing that he noted is “the basis of the whole thing.”
From there he built a complex musical language made up of light motifs and themes. “I could talk about this for days, but just as an example, the fire motif is very big and heavy and aggressive in a way.”
While he is a huge fan of major opera composers such as Wagner, Puccini and Richard Strauss, he felt that none of the influence was overly apparent in “Upon this Handful of Earth.” Bull of course was quick to note that Kverndokk’s other major influence, musical theater, was readily apparent in some areas.
“If you look at the business man’s aria, I think you can see some of his love for Sondheim or Kurt Weill or Bernstein,” noted the librettist.
Kverndokk was quick in noting that Bull was actually quite critical of his music during the composition process.
“He is the most critical person I know. There are so many collaborators that are happy with everything. They just don’t know music and get excited about a melody for a text,” explained Kverndokk. “He is very critical in that respect. He will tell me if he thinks a melody should go up or down. He gets me to work harder.”
Now that the hard work has come to an end and with the premiere looming, the duo is excited to see what the audience takes away.
“I hope that they have an emotional and spiritual adventure,” Bull noted about his hopes for his audience. “And that the work allows them to not only reflect on our world and our duty to it.”
Update: An earlier version of this article stated that Bull was directing the production, when in fact Joachim Schamberge is the director and set designer.