The work is by Poul Ruders, Denmark’s most renowned living opera composer, whose three previous operas written for Royal Danish Opera include The Handmaid’s Tale (based on Margaret Atwood’s 1984 novel) and Kafka’s Trial, a blending of the life of Franz Kafka and Kafka’s absurdist novel The Trial. Two orchestra concerts will spotlight Carl Nielsen, the country’s most frequently performed orchestral composer, and Johan Svendsen, who was the Royal Danish Opera’s principal conductor from 1883 to 1908.
Scandinavia is known for its grim, slowly paced films with striking, stark imagery—a recent notable example being the movies based on Stieg Larsson’s crime trilogy that begins with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. A decade ago there was Lars von Trier’s 2000 bleak (though intermittently off-kilter and blackly entertaining) film Dancer in the Dark, starring Icelandic singer-songwriter Björk, which tells the story of Selma Jezková, a poor factory worker who is going blind and sacrifices everything to get her young son an eye operation that will help him avoid suffering the same fate.
Poul Ruders says he knew right away when he saw von Trier’s film that he wanted to write an opera based on it: “The whole thing screamed ‘opera’ at me. I mean, a mother chooses to give her life in order to save the future of her son. It doesn’t get more emotional than that, and to me the emotional aspect must prevail in opera. The score is predominantly on the bleak side, but interspersed with tunes of hope and longing—it is shamelessly eclectic. The scene in which Selma shoots Bill is a duet between the two, acted out in slow-motion, sung with an artificial echo. That’s my own favorite bit. What Selma sings to her son right before she’s hanged is a soft, bittersweet lullaby.” Unlike Handmaid’s Tale, Ruders says Selma Jezková is “not aimed at the present political or social state of the world” but is an “intimate drama with great emotional and human potential—timeless.”
Ruders clearly is still fascinated by issues of justice and truth; Selma Jezková features a farcical courtroom scene in which Selma’s own defense lawyer provides no defense. In a major departure from the movie, the music-theater elements—the breakout songand- dance numbers and the subplot of an amateur production of The Sound of Music— have been eliminated completely. (At its premiere in Copenhagen in September 2010 the movie title Dancer in the Dark was used. For the Lincoln Center premiere it is Selma Jezková, the title Ruders says he wanted to use all along.)
At 70 minutes, the one-acter is much shorter than the movie or than Ruders’s previous operas, with a smaller cast and an orchestra of just 33 players. “Selma Jezková’s life is short and tragic, so it naturally follows to me that the opera be short—and tragic,” says Ruders. The opera is “very much a chamber-scale work, incredibly concentrated,” says conductor Michael Schønwandt, who led the opera at its 2010 world premiere and will do the same in New York. The opera is structured as a flashback whose starting point is a conversation between Selma and her son, Gene, who confronts her after her death to demand an explanation for the sacrifice she made for him.
“What Ruders has done is really to boil it down to the essential story,” says director Kasper Holten. “It becomes a very strong, very black piece, almost a Greek tragedy, that goes to the core of this woman who wants to sacrifice herself for her son, and poses the question, is that the right thing to do, to sacrifice yourself for another human being? Dancer in the Dark, the movie, is a big spectacle. And the opera focuses much more on Selma’s life. We’ve set the production in a big, burned-out church, a kind of godless place, where Selma tries to almost instate herself as a Christ-like figure. Whereas Christ primarily made his sacrifice for other people, Selma maybe also does it out of a selfish need to feel important in life. From the very first bars you can tell from Poul’s music that this is going to be a walk toward a tragic ending and an unstoppable process that has been set in motion.”
Schønwandt agrees that the music in Selma Jezková is “incredibly dark—Ruders immediately finds a sound that haunts you all the way through the piece. I remember the very first orchestra rehearsal, the moment I put down the first beat, a sort of shiver went through the room, because everyone felt this grimness. I feel Selma is in many ways an autistic person. She lives her very little world with almost no tools to connect or communicate with the outer world. She performs, she seems to connect, but she doesn’t really. The thing is, can we really believe her? Is this really the truth? Poul is a more objective composer than the filmmaker, von Trier. So you’re not being seduced. von Trier leads you on, he traps you sometimes. Poul’s music is very strong, and it’s also very objective.”
For Schønwandt, conducting new music by composers like his compatriot Ruders is of central importance, but for a first visit to Lincoln Center, it was also important to offer orchestral programs that “reflect to the New York audience the history of the Royal Danish Orchestra.” The orchestra was founded to play in the court of King Christian I in 1448; among the names in the ensemble’s roster are Heinrich Schütz (1585- 1672), its first principal conductor, and Christoph Willibald Gluck, who conducted and composed music for the orchestra in the 1700s. Because the Ruders opera uses only a small orchestra, Schønwandt elected not to bring the full orchestra to New York, so they will not be performing any of the Nielsen symphonies, some of Denmark’s bestknown orchestral works. In their place will be several smaller-scale works like Nielsen’s Pan and Syrinx, a nine-minute symphonic poem based on the ancient legend of the god Pan and the nymph Syrinx, written for members of the Royal Danish Orchestra, “with their own personalities,” says Schønwandt. “For instance, the clarinetist was a very aggressive man. That piece illustrates as much the man behind the instrument, as the instrument itself. The Nielsen clarinet concerto was written during one of the most interesting periods of Nielsen’s life, the last ten years. It shows all the possibilities of that instrument. Nielsen intended to write a concerto for all five members of the wind quintet of the Royal Danish Orchestra; he only got around to writing the flute and the clarinet concerto before dying.”
Johan Svendsen, whose Op. 3 String Octet will be performed at Lincoln Center, is not so well known outside Denmark, but is an “incredibly important person in the history of the Royal Danish Opera,” says Schønwandt. In addition to founding the orchestra’s regular concert series in Copenhagen, he enlarged the orchestra’s size and brought all the Wagner operas to Copenhagen. Stravinsky’s Pulcinella—the only non-Scandinavian work coming to Lincoln Center—was combined on a program with the Nielsen works for a specific reason, says Schønwandt. “There is a very strong liaison between Copenhagen and New York on the ballet side. The New York City Ballet and the Royal Danish Ballet have had a very fruitful exchange over the years. And George Balanchine”—who choreographed Pulcinella for New York City Ballet—“was a great inspiration for both Companies.”
Perhaps the Danish Royal Opera’s visit to Lincoln Center this summer will recharge the opera connection between New York and Copenhagen. As Schønwandt points out, Ruders developed “quite a following in the States” following The Handmaid’s Tale, which had its U.S. premiere at Minnesota Opera in 2003. The Atwood story from which it was adapted, written in 1984, seems at least as relevant now as it did then. Is it too much to hope that Ruders’ Handmaid’s Tale or Kafka’s Trial might make it to New York soon? Maybe paired with Nielsen’s comic opera Maskarade. One can dream.