From Reality to Opera


An interview with Hans Thomalla


The New Yorker has described Hans Thomalla's music as "dark-hued but expressively precise". Thomalla first came to the Därmstadter Ferienkurse in 2004 as a student; now he is a tutor in the contemporary opera workshop, coaching 5 newly-written operas in a 10-day course.

Is theatre your main interest in music?


Yes, I think so. Opera has become the focus of my work. I have others: I have chamber music; but for a long time, I have been interested in theatre. As a dramaturge and composer, I wrote stage music.


In your biography, you describe your works as an exploration of "the double-bind character of music as acoustic reality as well as culturally and historically formed expression, constantly following materials transform from one form of musical experience to the other." What are "acoustic reality" and "culturally and historically formed expression for you" in your aesthetic?


I found one of the interesting developments of music, probably the most important element of music in the past 100 years, is the liberation of sound. I started with a "double-bind character" from an acoustic aspect. We have the ability to hear certain sounds as a sonic event. It's like when we see a screen all coloured blue: it is not only a representation of the color, it could also be a representation of sky or water. It's the same in sounds: we hear an interval as the acoustic relation between two sounds, but simultaneously it becomes a sign that has been historically formed. So, a major 3rd is not just two frequencies; but it has a meaning [inscribed historically]. I am interested in going back and forth between these. And it might come from my interest in theatre, where everything (even if you tried to make it as abstract and physical as you can) starts to form stories and narratives, and it finally becomes a certain sequence.


You mentioned Nono, Lachenmann and Stockhausen's operas when you traced back the development of contemporary opera in the orientation [at the Darmstädter Ferienkurse]. Did any of these operas influence on your operatic/ theatrical works?


Sure, particularly Nono's first two operas. He wrote the first piece and I worked on it as an intern in the opera house. I was fascinated by his treatment of the choir and his idea of contemporary theatre. Becoming part of a traditional opera company, I learnt how to make cuts and edits, and using political text combined with historical materials. In Lachenmann's opera, [he has] the singers and choirs just producing sounds to tell a story where the architecture of sounds is always around you. For the Stockhausen's, I don't feel really close to it, but I am fascinated by his instrumental music and his opera is interesting as well.


You started writing theatrical works since you were young. What appeals to you in opera as an art-form?


Opera as a genre is a very neat way to speak about our lives, our reality. It doesn't just tell a story, like you could read in a book. But in operas, there is always the presence of sounds: when somebody sings a high C; she doesn't only sing about something, but the object (the singer) is there with the sound as well. I found this form of presence fascinating in theatre. Another example, an actor portrays an old man: at the same time, there is a physical presence on stage that is represented by a young man. This sort of connection between the actual presence of physical reality is fascinating. It's a unique way to deal with our reality, with reflections of the world, with images and with stories.


What are the differences between European and American opera production?


In Europe, traditional operas can be staged more flexibly in its representational specificity, where in the US it's more historic and representational in, for example, the costume design. In the US, the opera singers would dress according to the historical background of the story. There is more ambiguity in representation in European operas. For example, when Lachenmann's opera was staged in Stuttgart, it was just set in black walls and you suddenly see the girl behind them. They could have put a girl in a dress with the snow at the front of the stage; then it would have been less ambiguous. So in a traditional opera house [in Europe], there is a greater acceptance of unclarity and ambiguity.


So you are the composition tutor for the opera workshop here in the Därmstadter Ferienkurse. What have you been working with students here in the opera workshop?


We have gone back and forth between workshops, discussions and tryouts in a rehearsal process. We selected five pieces from a call for projects last winter. Then they finished their operas in June and sent the parts to singers. And we came here, started to read through the texts, started to discuss how to stage it . We have a stage director who also tutors and directs the staging, developing ideas and discussing them with the composers, musicians and the singers. Then we developed these five scenes in an intensive 10 days.


The workshop concert starts at 5:30pm, at the West Side Theatre, on both August 14 and 15 (Thursday and Friday). Reserving your seat is required through the festival office (at the Lichtenbergschule) as seats are limited.

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By Viola Yip
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