A Female Composer Makes History With ‘Orlando’ in Vienna

VIENNA — The prompter’s box at the foot of the stage of the Vienna State Opera houses the person to whom divas can turn at forgetful moments for a snippet of text to get back on track.

But it was put to a different use — and by a different kind of diva — during a rehearsal here last month, when the cabaret singer Justin Vivian Bond, wearing a gauzy black Comme des Garçons gown, strode onto the box, raised a glass, and screamed an expletive directed at “the patriarchy.” The chorus, as indicated in the script, erupted in an ovation.

It was a moment that summed up the barriers being broken by the work being rehearsed: Olga Neuwirth’s new opera, “Orlando,” based on the gender-crossing fictional biography by Virginia Woolf, is the first piece the Vienna State Opera has ever performed by a female composer. With a libretto by Ms. Neuwirth and Catherine Filloux, and costumes by Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons, it premieres on Sunday, and will be available to stream for three days, starting on Dec. 18, at staatsoperlive.com.

In the opera, as in the novel, a young nobleman at the court of Elizabeth I falls in love and goes on military adventures before experiencing a sudden change of sex. As a woman, she lives without aging, roams freely through time and space, interacts with great writers and leaders, and chronicles the hidden, personal narratives of women often left out of official histories.

But Ms. Neuwirth and Ms. Filloux have extended Woolf’s already vast plot. The book ends on the day of its own publication — Oct. 11, 1928 — but the opera’s timeline ends the evening of each performance. In addition to experiencing the Great Frost of 1608 and meeting 18th-century poets, this Orlando also lives through the Holocaust and the Summer of Love; attends video-art openings in chic lofts; and confronts the rising threats of far-right politics and climate change. The invention of Orlando’s child, the character played by Mx. Bond (who prefers that gender-neutral honorific), is a nod to the rising visibility of trans and gender nonconforming people, including in the opera world, as one consequence of the doors opened by Orlando.

Backstage after the first sitzprobe, in which singers and musicians were finally brought together, Ms. Neuwirth, 51, said she’d been ruminating on “Orlando” since living in rural Austria as a student in the mid-1980s. As what she called a “punk in the countryside” seeking to escape xenophobia and gender rigidity, she turned to the book and Susan Sontag’s classic essay “Notes on Camp” as “catalysts for freedom.” It was then, and later that decade while she joined in anti-AIDS and queer liberation protests in San Francisco, that she began thinking of androgyny as a desirable artistic goal.

So Ms. Neuwirth has filled the score for “Orlando” with what she calls “androgynous sounds, where you don’t even know any more who is playing.”

“It’s questioning your quality of listening,” she added. During the sitzprobe, a group of children onstage began to sing music reminiscent of classic English boys’ choirs. They were answered by shimmering electronics emerging from different sides of the theater — and finally by a ghostly sound, in slight dissonance, descending from the ceiling: Ms. Neuwirth had hidden a second children’s choir in the loft above the chandelier.

To richen the instrumental textures, the second violins have been tuned barely a semitone lower than the other performers, and the traditional orchestra shares space with musicians playing electronic instruments and a library of prerecorded samples — some recordings of instruments, some purely electronic sounds, and some field recordings, like the bird song that opens the opera.

Snatches of musical allusions, quotations and fake quotations — like straight-tone choral singing with an English Renaissance flavor; a synthesizer whose incessant noodling during scene transitions sounds like a harpsichord on Dexedrine; and an onstage rock band that plays a funk song with Orlando during a 1960s sequence — vanish almost as soon as they appear.

The conductor, Matthias Pintscher, remarked on the score’s “ardent search for the inside life of sound.”

“Even where there is not a lot of activity,” he added, “there is an inner desire for change.”

The opera bursts with what Sontag, in “Notes on Camp,” calls the “love for human nature” of the camp sensibility, its “little triumphs and awkward intensities.” This “good taste of bad taste,” an ethos of enjoyment, of high and low and sometimes grotesque, is fundamental to the opera, which plays out over 19 scenes, each containing a mix of choral music, solos and dialogue. Between scenes, the curtain bears a projection of a spinning dreidel, evoking Ms. Neuwirth’s Jewish heritage and the games of chance inherent in every life — especially one, like Orlando’s, stretching over more than 300 years.

The title role is sung by Kate Lindsey, who, like other mezzo-sopranos known for trouser roles, has extensive experience playing multiple genders onstage. Her notable parts at the Metropolitan Opera have included Hänsel in Humperdinck’s “Hänsel und Gretel,” and in February she takes on Nerone — the Roman emperor Nero — in Handel’s “Agrippina.”

In “Orlando,” her vocal part includes distorted Baroque vocalizations, with extensive ornamentation. Ms. Neuwirth’s score, intent on departing from opera’s rules about proper technique, support and vibrato, gives precise instructions about quality of sound, often calling for breathy straight tone, belting and other unconventional operatic approaches. For Ms. Lindsey, learning it felt like “climbing Mount Everest”: “There’s no magic way to do it except work.”

Mx. Bond has in the past described opera singers like Teresa Stratas and Renée Fleming as influences, but has never before performed composed music, with its very specific demands.

“In the first rehearsal,” Mx. Bond said, “I was singing, and the assistant conductor kept stopping and starting and correcting me. And I said, ‘Well, it says here on the score “freely.’’ And he looked at me and said, ‘Well, it’s too free,’ which I thought was hilarious. We’ve met in the middle.”

The veteran soprano Constance Hauman, who plays three roles, emphasized that the precision of Ms. Neuwirth’s indications was, perhaps paradoxically, an attempt to create freedom for the performers. Ms. Hauman said that her role in Ms. Neuwirth’s first opera, a 2003 collaboration with the playwright Elfriede Jelinek based on the David Lynch film “Lost Highway,” had opened her up musically and contributed to her decision to perform across opera’s typically rigid boundaries of style and repertoire. Her roles in “Orlando” involve drastically different types of vocal production, from the dramatic soprano lines of Queen Elizabeth, near the opera’s beginning, to the pop-music belting she does as a friend of Orlando’s child near the end.

From the beginning of the process of composing the opera, Ms. Neuwirth said, she knew she wanted costumes that deconstructed and reconstructed tradition in clothing, as she was doing in the music. Comme des Garçons and Ms. Kawakubo, who has led the label since its founding in 1969, have long offered visions of dress unencumbered by gender norms and playing with historical periods. Ms. Kawakubo’s costumes for “Orlando,” many of which were unveiled at her Fall 2019 men’s and Spring 2020 women’s fashion shows, offer riffs on Elizabethan brocade, 18th-century dandyism, Victorian prudery and the explosion of artificial color and light in the 20th century.

Convinced that the extravagant silhouettes of Kawakubo’s costumes and her own dense music needed visual room to breathe, Ms. Neuwirth arrived at the idea that the stage should be relatively bare. The set consists of a series of LED-screen panels which can be moved, as in a Baroque theater, to create illusions of depth and rapidly shifting space. If, in most opera productions, sets and costumes provide a narrative guide for the audience, here those duties are handled by video, including shots of singers wearing costumes accurate to a given scene’s historical period, from the Vienna State Opera’s extensive archive. Prerecorded footage of singers and extras, and sometimes abstract evocations of the opera’s many locations, mix with live filming.

It is an open question how Vienna’s opera-going public, known for its conservatism, will receive a work intent on gleefully pushing political buttons and expanding the expectations of the art form. “Dehumanization doesn’t happen overnight,” the narrator (Anna Clementi) warns at the end, as the opera stages the recent rise of the international far right, long a political force in Austria and, as recently as last year, incorporated into the coalition government here. “It happens bit by bit, word by word.”

Ms. Neuwirth told a dark story about the conductor Bruno Walter’s last concert in Vienna before his forced emigration in 1938, a performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony at the Musikverein, near the opera house, captured on a radio recording.

“You hear the mob making noises,” she said, “happy to kick him out, to kick out the Jews. For me, when you come into this house, you are playing with all these recollections.”

Mx. Bond was ready for any reaction.

“I grew up around rednecks, so nothing surprises me,” Mx. Bond said. “If the well-heeled Viennese have the souls of rednecks, I will not be surprised or intimidated. You can’t walk around as me all these years and be easily intimidated. But I hope and expect the best from them.”

Orlando

Sunday through Dec. 18 at the Vienna State Opera; wiener-staatsoper.at.

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