Premier: 15 November 2019, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Germany
Composition and text: Chaya Czernowin
Director: Claus Guth
Stage: Kristian Schmidt
Dramaturgy: Yvonne Gebauer / Dorothea Hartmann / Christoph Seuferle
Singers: Patrizia Ciofi, soprano / Dietrich Henschel, baritone / Noa Frenkel, contralto / Terry Wey, countertenor / Frauke Aulbert, vocal artist
Instrumental soloists: Ensemble Nikel (Patrick Stadler, saxophones / Yaron Deutsch, electric and amplified acoustic guitar / Antoine Françoise, keyboards and piano / Brian Archinal, percussion) plus Uli Fussenegger, double bass
Choir: 16 voices
Orchestra: Deutsche Oper Berlin
Conductor: Johannes Kalitzke
Electronics: SWR Experimentalstudio Freiburg with Joachim Haas, Carlo Laurenzi and Lukas Nowok
Heart Chamber is an opera which zooms in and follows the beginning of love. It is a grand opera of the smallest moments, the smallest physical and psychic changes which push two strangers towards or away from each other, as they embark on a transformative path, the conclusion of which one cannot envision. Two naked souls wrapped in their existential loneliness like a second skin, have a chance of breaking out of this loneliness, a chance for a true connection which might outweigh the internal isolation. This chance is equally euphoric and dangerous: so much is at stake. While society amplifies love and family as an essential part of the life of an individual, a love connection can have many unexpected consequences, from the most glorious to the darkest. Some live surrounded by their families until death. However, surely the Russian woman whose husband took her to the forest and cut her arms off (2018) did not envision this at the beginning of their connection when they fell in love.
Heart Chamber focuses on the elements of falling in love that expose us to our most intense beauty but also to our most intense vulnerabilities and insecurities. We experience only the two protagonists. There is only a hint of a story — a chain of connected situations, dreams, nodal moments when something opens up or closes down — as the internal mental landscape of the lovers is propelled towards the tectonic change when they become connected.
The text is mostly written as a score where the voices are braided and talk almost simultaneously. Dialogues between the man and the woman are interrupted by dreams that are monologues, projecting the deep-seated ambivalence and conflicts that emerge as the lovers realize the demands of societal conventions of love.
Here is the third dream, which is dreamt by the woman:
My bathroom is long and endless. It’s white but some moss is beginning to appear in the corners. The moss is seamless but now it’s growing fast. Now it’s noticeable. I try to peel away the moss. I scratch it hard with a brush with a knife with my fingernails with my teeth — it is so small, it escapes me. Now it’s coming out from under my fingernails crawling on my hands my stomach it’s enveloping my breast my throat my chin my mouth my nose my eyes I cannot see I can’t see I cannot move I can’t move I cannot breathe I cannot breathe I cannot breathe I cannot breathe.
The woman is motionless. Small children appear from everywhere laughing and rolling over her body and the floor. One of them is holding a small honey container which keeps dripping golden drops of honey everywhere.
This dream opens, musically, a large internal cavity where unspoken questions of both protagonists are half whispered, half sung:
Will you open up my life?
Will you never lie?
Will you always stay?
Will you open up my life?
Will you protect me?
Will you let me be free?
Will you take care of me?
Will you let me, will I be free?
Will you wrap me with your flesh?
Will you never leave?
Will you be like a father, but a good father?
Will you care for me like a mother? But do not die.
Heart Chamber is also an attempt to create a true multisensory experience, an experience of music in its sensual fabric, where music becomes smell, touch, cutting pain, extreme vulnerability, pure joy, or euphoria. The transitions and shifts between these states are uncontrolled and unpredictable.
Each of the protagonists is connected with an additional singer (an internal voice) who reveals the protagonists’ deep subconscious. The soprano’s internal voice is sung by a contralto and the baritone’s internal voice is sung by a countertenor. The internal and external voices do not always agree.
Musically, Heart Chamber is all about the voice, about using the voice, about communicating through the voice. The singers will be amplified and recorded ahead of time so that while a singer sings a phrase we might hear the same phrase with a subtle change coming from a loudspeaker, playing back the voice recorded intermittently with many different microphones, each illuminating the different colors of the same voice and of the same vocal line.
Text, Close ups
The opera features eight “close-ups” (Momentaufnahmen):
He: lake / She: underwater trench
Tightrope (she calls)
The fifth talk
The wait (reservations)
Falling in love / underwater
The Hurt: A Misunderstanding
Falling in love / above water, a scar
The last three close-ups are connected and mixed.
While each of these is distinct, they are not like traditional scenes or acts. They are a part of a larger organism, forming the vertebrae of the spine of the opera which emerges to become one organism.
Visual / Electronics
Besides stage design, the opera will feature an extensive use of video so that the stage becomes a visualization of an internal landscape. It can change its physicality, shape, and size from one moment to another in quite a radical way. It can appear as the desert face of the moon, or as a crowded and claustrophobic room, or as a jungle of lights. The singers will also walk inside jungles of veins or nerves and within other landscapes inside the human body. This dynamic staging will be complemented by moving loudspeakers, creating a beam of sound like an audible moving spotlight of sound above the other layers of regular loudspeakers.
The opera has five different modalities, each connected to different groups of instruments This connection is flexible and can change.
Close-ups: sung text by the 4 soloists, which enact the “plot.” They include the internal and external text of the protagonists and their dialogues. The text ranges from understated to wild and uninhibited.
Sound floods/surges: When the whole hall is flooded and saturated with a strong physical sound which might be moving or still. Usually connected to Ensemble Nikel and the orchestra.
ASMR episodes: Quiet and extremely intimate breathing and small microscopic noises which are very evocative of minute movements of the mouth or body. usually connected to the double bass, high voice, singers, and electronics.
Dreams: The lovers realize the strong social pressures enacted upon them connected to sexuality, to becoming a family. These are connected to the choir and to the protagonists.
Forests: different forests played by different parts of the orchestra, plus Ensemble Nikel — Invisible Forest, Forest of Muscles and Veins, A Forest of Hair.
Each of these modalities has a few manifestations in the piece (8 close-ups, about 5–6 ASMR Episodes, etc). The modalities seem to be moving independently at first but then at one moment they might lock together in a kind of illumination, similar to the manner in which a photographer might find a sliver of a second where a whole street seems to coalesce in a new and unpredictable way. After such a moment of “eclat,” the modalities change to reveal unexpected sub-modalities, which change the overall cosmology of the piece in extreme ways.
Fluid Form (Fluid Identity)
The temporal thinking of Heart Chamber is very different from my previous opera Infinite now. This new opera is fast, and it is constantly considering and reconsidering its own future. I would like to dare to state that Heart Chamber marks a new structural or formal paradigm: a Fluid Form (Fluid Identity). The traditional thinking has been that identity (theme, textural characteristics or what we called the DNA of musical material) is a given and its development or growth are built upon its intrinsic characteristics as they unfold (or not) in time. I would like to suggest a different way of thinking. Let us imagine that there are a number of identifiable strands of material, each with its own claim to identity, but as these strands of material interact, these interactions change the materials’ structures and identities forever, gradually emerging into a relationship. As the features of this relationship come into focus, it becomes a new whole which is larger than the sum of its parts, and so it contains elements which were not possible to envision when only the original strands of material were present. We are able to witness the emergence and shaping of this whole, through which malleable heterogeneous entities are interactively changed and self-adjust as they merge into an unpredictable, net-like entity. In turn, this entity becomes a strand in a new field where it will interact with other strands of material and will change, as a part of a new unpredictable, net-like whole.
This way of thinking puts the onus on an idea of constant transformation that dissolves any idea of fixed identity as one is continuously tracking the “real” identity into the future. We are always in a certain configuration where identities are created and dissolved towards a future clarification which never comes. One can see very clearly the parallel of the Fluid Form (Fluid Identity) with the creation of a love connection. The real shape a relationship will take can never really be envisioned even when one knows the two lovers. This structure echoes the unpredictability and sheer excitement of the synergetic transformation or growth, which we call love.