Title: Die Geisterinsel
Instrumentation: Chamber opera with mezzo-soprano, tenor, bass, two speakers and choir
Duration: approx. 50 min.
Premiere: Staatsoper Stuttgart 2011
Performers: Staatsoper Stuttgart
Tiefer ins Leben
Schrecken, die uns drohn (excerpt)
In der Hülle dieses Sklaven
Tracing the lyrical line from Shakespeare to J. H. Prynne
In 1609, William Strachy was aboard the Sea Venture when she wrecked on the coast of Bermuda. Ten months later, he and the other survivors reached Jamestown, Virginia the first colony in the new world. Strachy then wrote a long, narrative letter addressed to an “excellent lady” back in England, later published as A true reportory of the wracke describing the experience of the shipwreck in which he writes, “our knowledge taught us how much we owed to the rites of nature and not neglect the means of our own preservation” (which forms the text for Fernando’s letter in Scene 6 of my opera Die Geisterinsel).
Strachey’s letter, along with other documents such as Michel de Montaigne’s Of the Caniballes (translated by John Florio in 1603) are said to have influenced William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Indeed, Montaigne writes, “In this new world, they preserved a communication where things are never represented simply as they are, but rather as they appear, or as they would have them appear, in order to gain the reputation of men of judgment.” Such words could certainly have formed a basis for Prospero’s character.
Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1610–11) is an example of his late style, a style that Adorno, in referring to the late style of Beethoven, likens to “ruptured” fruit. Shakespeare, in his late work, utilizes techniques that are quite similar to those of Beethoven’s late work, such as extreme compression of the line through omissions and elisions, obsessive repetitions, choices that somehow defamiliarize expression in their respective styles of writing.
Or else new form’d ’em; having both the key
Of officer and office, set all hearts i’th’ state
To what tune pleas’d his ear,
(William Shakespeare, The Tempest: 1.2.82-85)
In the Shakespeare example above, extreme omission disturbs the order of the pentameter through the sheer quantity of accents, and stuffs as many ideas as possible into lines that can barely contain them. Techniques such as ellipses, irregular meters, and elisions, removing connections between clauses and convoluting the syntax are ways to exert a constant pressure on the sound and sense as the poet (or composer) concentrates expression. As Charles Olson writes, verse in late Shakespeare “already shows forth the weave of accent, quantity, breath which makes prosody the music it is: a very close music, sharp, long and stopped, all in a small space of time.” This “very close music” requires one not only to read the lines but to speak them as well, gauging the movement of the tongue against the teeth as well as the intake of breath; a physicality that is at the core of my own music.
I was commissioned by the Staatsoper Stuttgart to rework a relatively unknown opera of the same title by Johann Rudolph Zumsteeg, a contemporary and champion of Mozart. The librettist was Wilhelm Friedrich Gotter who based his libretto on Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Gotter’s libretto, written in a high Classical German style reminiscent of Goethe, imbues Shakespeare’s text with Enlightenment values of that time. Caliban, an ambiguous figure at the very least in Shakespeare’s text, is turned into a buffoonish villain in Gotter’s libretto in order for good and evil characters to be clearly delineated. Shakespeare’s story is open ended (Prospero leaves the island to Caliban) but Gotter’s libretto is closed (Caliban throws himself into the ocean and Miranda and Fernando are subsequently married). The witch Sycorax is only a memory in Shakespeare’s text whereas in Gotter’s libretto she remains an evil spirit who terrorizes people when they fall asleep. So many differences between the two texts only highlight the differences in cultural and class values between Shakespeare and Gotter’s audiences.
In my reworking of the Zumsteeg opera, and consequently of the Gotter libretto, I condensed the story to focus only on Prospero, Miranda, Fernando (or Ferdinand in Shakespeare’s play), Caliban and the Geisterchor (a choir of spirits that belong to the island). I chose two actors to portray Caliban, representing qualities that have either been taught by Prospero through learning his language or that are closer to the wilderness of the island where he was raised.
The opera consists of one act divided into 13 scenes as follows:
Die Geisterinsel (The Spirit Island)
1. Steine (Stones)
2. Blumen, meine ganze Habe (Flowers, My Only Possession)
3. Tiefer ins Leben (Deeper into Life)
4. Schrecken, die uns drohn (Terrors that Threaten Us)
5. In der Hülle dieses Sklaven (In the Mantle of this Slave)
6. Fremdling, höre meinen Willen (Stranger Hear my Will)
7. Vor des nahen Sturmes Grimme (Before the Wrath of the Approaching Storm)
8. Traurige Korallen (Mournful Corals)
9. “Where the Bee sucks”
10. Der Sturm (The Storm)
11. Geisterchoral (Ghost Chorale)
12. Ich heiße Caliban (My Name is Caliban)
13. Sandfall (Sand Fall)
Throughout the opera, Prospero instructs Miranda and Fernando to count corals in order not to fall asleep and succumb to the unconscious world of dreams where Prospero’s language holds no power. By Scene 9, they do eventually fall asleep, including Prospero who cannot resist the “dulcet tones and fragrances of enchanted sleep.” The music during this scene draws from Robert Johnson’s “Where the Bee sucks” (1660) which was used in Shakespeare’s original production of The Tempest, in order to show the leakage of Shakespeare’s world into Gotter’s, symbolizing the waning of Prospero’s power.
In the text They that haue powre to hurt: A Specimen of a Commentary on Shakespeares Sonnets, 94, Cambridge poet J.H. Prynne in near exhaustive depth draws out the historical and linguistic nuance from each word of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 94. Beginning with the word “They,” Prynne comments “we do not know who they are.” “They,” most likely, refer to a class of beings who have learned to self-regulate their power: the power of beauty in Miranda’s case and the power of language in Prospero’s if we think of the sonnet as spoken by Caliban, which I have done in Scene 5. “It is not that the human figures here are presumably dark within the inner world of the poem, since to each other they must at least have been extremely close; rather just that to the outside view they present as anonymous, beyond any reckonable perspective. The reader infers an uneasy distance, perhaps widening, between the implied speaker and the persons of whom he speaks.” Because of this widening distance, one senses a hidden violence in the sonnet waiting to be released. My strategy was to find isolated words that Caliban speaks in Gotter’s libretto that could forcibly intrude into the smooth sonnet form, to break it open and release that violence, often through the sound or meaning of the intruding words. The goal, in Scene 5, was to bring the language of Gotter’s libretto slowly and progressively “to the desert” (which is then mirrored in my treatment of Zumsteeg’s music) by eventually detaching sound from sense, where the word ceases to mean and becomes only a vibration or sonic disturbance. Unwanted residues such as noise infiltrate the original music, pulling it out of its limited cultural space in order to reveal relationships connecting my musical language to Zumsteeg’s original opera by abruptly shifting scales between the two.
Prospero, Miranda and Fernando in my opera are the characters from the Gotter libretto: refined and conveying a late 18thcentury moral character, who do not have the psychological conflicts that they have in Shakespeare’s play. Caliban, on the other hand, is the character from Shakespeare that extends through Robert Browning’s Caliban upon Setebos and W.H. Auden’s The Sea and its Mirror, who is self-reflective and often ruminates about his condition. The opera is structured through a juxtaposition of Gotter scenes (Prospero, Miranda, Fernando) and Shakespeare scenes (Caliban) that exist in temporally and culturally different spaces. By Caliban’s second appearance (Scene 12), I have used up all of the interesting words from Caliban’s text in the Gotter libretto. We are left with “Ich heiße Caliban,” the first words anyone learns to speak when learning a new language, reducing the Caliban lines from the Gotter libretto to its essence, so to speak. In that vacuum the lyricism of Shakespeare’s Caliban emerges. In this scene, Caliban is someone who reflects on the inherent power inequalities in learning a dominant, foreign language and how in that process one becomes alienated from their native tongue. I set the lyricism of Shakespeare’s words against the repetitive refrain of “Ich heiße Caliban,” where Caliban’s words are occasionally picked up by the choir and stripped apart into simple animal utterances. The words “Ich heiße Caliban” also refer to Montaigne’s essay Of the Caniballes, where the Indians of South America were colonized, in part, through identifying and naming them as cannibals. Caliban needed to be named by Prospero in order to educate and control him.
The manner in which my music is composed inhabits the stylistic grammar of Zumsteeg’s opera, the Classical style in the manner of Mozart and Haydn, in such a way that the musical rhetoric is made foreign from within by a complication of syntax influenced by Shakespeare’s late style of writing. Much of the rhythmic meter was derived from the jagged, jarring meters found in The Tempest. The exaggerated assonance and consonance of Prospero’s lines create a sense of poetic excess that I tried to capture in the music by concentrating expression with the use of elisions and compressions of the original material. My aim was to create a compact musical space in which ideas unfold through excess by way of irregular rhythmic forces (shifting meter, polyrhythms, sudden drifts in pacing) that twist and deform the Classical phrasing of progression in order for a new kind of lyricism to surface.