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brisbane festival


fugue of the senses, geometry of desire

doug leonard talks to liza lim about her new opera for the brisbane festival


Liza Lim Liza Lim
photo courtesy Brisbane Festival
COMPOSER LIZA LIM’S OPERA YUE LING JIE (MOON SPIRIT FEASTING) WAS ONE OF THE HIGHLIGHTS OF LYNDON TERACCINI’S 2006 BRISBANE FESTIVAL. NOW HER LATEST OPERATIC WORK, THE NAVIGATOR, AGAIN WITH THE ELISION ENSEMBLE WITH WHOM SHE HAS BEEN ASSOCIATED FOR OVER 20 YEARS, WILL PREMIERE AT THIS YEAR’S BRISBANE FESTIVAL IN JULY-AUGUST. THIS PROMISES TO BE ANOTHER STANDOUT EVENT WITH THE ADDED EXCITEMENT OF DIRECTION BY BARRIE KOSKY. LIM HAS COLLABORATED WITH KOSKY BEFORE ON THEIR MUTUAL ADAPTATION OF AESCHYLUS’ THE ORESTEIA, PERFORMED IN MELBOURNE IN 1993. WHEN I SPOKE TO HER AT HER WEST END HOME SHE WAS EAGER TO BEGIN THE PRODUCTION PROCESS WITH KOSKY WHOM SHE APPRECIATES AS A DIRECTOR WHO WILL APPROACH THE WORK WITH NO PRECONCEPTIONS. SHE FULLY EXPECTS HER OWN TO BE “BLOWN OUT OF THE WATER”, AND ANTICIPATES THIS PROSPECT WITH RELISH.

The Navigator is Lim’s third opera work to date and she avers enthusiatically that opera is her favourite medium: “I would just keep writing and writing them.” The impetus to embark on this form came when Kosky called her out of the blue about collaborating on The Oresteia. Lim believes that this is “probably the best way to start writing operas, by just falling into them.” The Oresteia was “very much about ritual and possession” and Lim sees a preoccupation with these concerns in her later work. Moon Spirit Feasting was about “communicating with spirits, or memory, cultural memory, the kind of knowledge contained in these stories being evoked, brought to life, through ritual.” The Navigator is mainly based on the Tristan and Isolde story combined with some personal links Lim has with Wagner’s opera. She first heard Wagner’s version in her early 20s when “it probably went over my head”, but since listening to an orchestral rehearsal of Wagner’s overture in Sydney later on she now regards the work as one of the absolute gems in the classical repertoire: “It was a revolution in musical language. The Tristan chord which is the kind of thing that people talk about broke all the rules of musical grammar.” Lim heard the prelude again in 2004 and “just kind of fell in love with music again.” (She had at the time put music on the backburner while she prioritized being a mother.) When she heard Wagner’s complete opera played at a music festival in Brisbane a connection was forged on an entirely new level: “It was like a door opening.”

The process of creating her new work began in 2005 so it has been quite a journey from the beginning to now. In a nutshell, the Tristan and Isolde story is of unrequited, adulterous love achieving transcendence in death, but Lim is not interested in this aspect at all. In her mind, “the subject of the opera is desire, not just sexual desire, but the erotic in the widest sense of unbelievable aliveness, of being in contact with some kind of ecstatic information.” Pausing, she muses: “That’s probably the topic of all my operas—some kind of ecstatic transformation.” She has seen what she describes as a fantastic production in Germany of Tristan and Isolde directed by Kosky, and she quotes his depiction of the work as “a fugue of the senses.” This strongly connected with Lim who values hearing, sight, touch and smell as ways of personally operating in the world, of exchanging with the world.

Another source of Lim’s new work is the Mahabharata—not the stories, but the key moments which Lim regards as “the point of absolute risk when you stand to lose everything to gain something, and that again is a portal to some kind of transcendency. You’re teetering between extremes, and in that teetering you go beyond ordinary concerns. You have a wider horizon.” As a corollary, what Lim finds exciting about the process of making a big project is all the unpredictable ways it might go because it depends on “being really present in the moment, whether it’s the actual thing of writing it, or when in rehearsal you see the configuration of bodies and the personalities and what people bring to it. I’ve written a score, but the way that score communicates is absolutely dependent on the presence of the performers and their energies, the aliveness they can bring to it.” This is why Lim finds it useful to talk about the work as a fugue of the senses because, in her view, the performers are not representing, not playing roles. “In that moment they are a particular constellation of energies, and that is what the work is about.”

Lim had worked before with her librettist, Melbourne poet Patricia Sykes, on a large work called Mother Tongue [2005] and proposed that they should make an opera together. “I really felt at that time that her kind of writing was what I would want to work with in a theatrical setting as well. The writing is complete in itself as a form of poetic expression, but it also opens up spaces in which music can exist, in which theatre can exist. Look at the different ways in which art forms exist in time. Music time flows in a certain way, theatre time flows in quite a different way. And then of course you have some things on a page. I just thought that those time flows could be counterpointed in an operatic form. There’s so much marvelous poetry I read, but it doesn’t allow me an entry. The music transforms the poetic into something else, although sometimes I think that can be a bit unbearable for a writer. It’s a very tense relationship. But Patricia is willing to engage in a dialogue about it.”

I suggest to Lim that her music is kinetic and she responds that she likes that word, because she does think very much of the physical gestures of the music and because, particularly in the case of instrumentalists, it’s very much an expression of a physical relationship that’s even more dramatised when you’ve got a singer whose body is her instrument. Lim finds her singers totally awesome considering what they’re required to do and because there’s no holding back. “Audiences find that quite frightening too. The vulnerability as well, inviting the audience to look at that aspect of themselves.” When pressed she submits she has extended her language in this work, particularly in the area of lyricism. The ritual aspect and the explosions of colour are all there, but there’s a lyricism as well. “Longing, yearning is a huge element. The tension between desire and the experience of desire. There’s a paradox in there. There’s the triangular relationship between the person who desires, the object of desire, and the pathway between them which, if it disappears, kills desire. It is the geometry of desire which is looked at in different ways.”


2008 Brisbane Festival, The Navigator, composer Liza Lim, librettist Patricia Sykes, director Barrie Kosky; Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts, July 30-Aug 2

RealTime issue #85 June-July 2008 pg. 10

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