Friday, 10 March 2017

Nowak - Space Opera (Poznań, 2015)

Aleksander Nowak - Space Opera

Poznań Opera House, 2015

Marek Moś, Ewelina Pietrowiak, Magdalena Wachowska, Bartłomiej Misiuda, Martyna Cymerman, Tomasz Raczkiewicz, Andrzej Ogórkiewicz

The Opera Platform

Science-fiction doesn't get taken seriously at the best of times and it's rare enough in opera, but like opera the heightened nature of the genre can be used to address fairly major issues relating to humanity beyond naturalistic realism. Aleksander Nowak's Space Opera, created for the Poznań Opera House in 2015, aims to go back and tackle those fundamental issues about the nature of humanity and its place in the world at a very basic - some might say obvious - level. After all, how seriously are you supposed to take an opera that sends a couple called Adam and Eve up into space?

Or indeed an opera which begins with a meditation on and a tribute to the role that the common fly has had to play in mankind's exploration of the great frontier of outer space? And yet, we are told, it was a humble fruit fly that was the first indigenous living creature on this planet to leave the Earth's atmosphere on a V2 rocket back in 1946. A significant achievement you would think, and yet it's one that is probably not given sufficient recognition. Here however, as an introduction to Space Opera, Aleksander Nowak composes a soaring choral requiem of epic grandeur in tribute to the fruit fly, that bold first pioneer of space travel.

So, no, clearly we are not meant to take Space Opera all that seriously. Having acknowledged that not only flies, but monkeys and even dogs all merit recognition for their contribution, Nowak's Space Opera then deals with a new bold experiment to see how a married couple can cope living together on a 500 day trip to Mars. Let's not get too ambitious about generational travel beyond our own solar system until we can be sure that a man and a woman can get on together for a much shorter period in an enclosed environment isolated from the rest of the world.

The astronaut's wife Eve, is already starting to have doubts on the day before take-off, and she's not wrong to be concerned. Unknown to her, plans have been made to turn the experiment into a 24/7 reality TV show broadcast to the world. Not only that, but there's an uninvited guest also on board the space ship; a fly. And much like those first space-faring adventurers, we are to discover that the nature of the humble housefly has long been underestimated.

As you can probably already guess by the names of our astronauts, the Bulgarian writer of the libretto for Space Opera, Georgi Gospodinov, doesn't delve too deeply into male and female characteristics and relationships. Men are from Mars and women are from Venus, we are told, Eve having simpler earth-bound ambitions and emotional needs while Adam dreams of being up there with the gods in the cosmos. "Never take your wife into space", the chorus intone as the differences and disagreements rise to the surface, much to the delight of the TV audiences on Earth.

Aleksander Nowak doesn't break any new ground musically either. The English language libretto is played out mostly in recitative, while the score alternates between an intimate chamber arrangement and epic choruses and space ambiance with percussive interludes. Without sounding at all like Strauss it does nonetheless recognisably relate to a similar space sound environment that has been indelibly shaped and defined by 2001: A Space Odyssey's use of Also sprach Zarathustra.

Gospodinov and Nowak do however manage to probe a little more deeply when Eve shuts down the live feed to the reality TV show in the second half of the opera, and the man and the woman have to sort out their differences and come to terms with what it means to really be alone in space. That's not surprising, but it does seem to bring out the true intent of the work (and the true nature of science-fiction) that the challenge of being placed in a new environment will reveal more about what it means to be human and to want to strive to extend the reach and knowledge of where we fit in the cosmos as individuals and as a society.

"Loneliness is a volatile substance that strives to fill all the space around it", the astronauts discover, and the audience back on Earth suddenly no longer having someone else's life to watch on their TV screens, are also confronted with the emptiness in their own lives. The question that we should be concerned about is not whether there is life out there beyond the stars, but whether there is indeed life on Earth. And indeed, if we are able to see beyond our own limited perspectives, whether there isn't indeed already alien life on Earth as well. Maybe we need to look a little more closely at those flies.

Space Opera doesn't have any major revelations then and does tend to state the obvious, but it does so with a bit of humour. There's nothing wrong with looking at the obvious now and again however from a new perspective. Science-fiction is a good means of doing that, so too is humour, and so too is music. Aleksander Nowak's Space Opera is given a terrific presentation in that respect at the Poznań Opera House with Ewelina Pietrowiak's impressive direction and set designs. The projections, graphics, costumes, colour and lightning are all of a very high standard, telling the story well, integrating marvellously with the musical direction under Marek Moś.

Links: Opera Poznań, Opera Platform