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Gruber interview: his new opera der herr nordwind

HK Gruber discusses his magical new opera, setting his favourite poet HC Artmann, premiered in Zürich on 12 June.

Where did the idea for the opera come from?

Having collaborated with HC Artmann on Frankenstein!! and Zeitstimmung, we’d talked about a possible opera for over a decade. We both wanted to invent an opera where words could provide the music and the scenery. However nothing came of our discussions until the Karajan Centre in Vienna asked us to work together on a children’s opera. Neither of us wanted to create a work that was just for children, but rather a piece that is just as magical for adults as for kids, like Rimsky’s The Golden Cockerel. Artmann completed the libretto one year before his death, and asked me to ‘perform’ the text at his house with a group of special friends. As he was very ill, that was the premiere for him.

How does Artmann’s love of language colour the libretto?

Artmann was a total linguaphile, who spoke many languages and surrounded himself with dictionaries. He was particularly interested in Nordic languages and lived in Sweden for a number of years, so it was natural that he should invent a language of the North sung in the opera by Herr Nordwind and his wife. I asked him to employ all his amazing ways of writing in the opera: onomatopoeic words, poems built from free-associated sounds, and textual montages rather like Mallarmé. The text is idiosyncratic throughout, particularly that for the boss of the monastery which is a mixture of artificial Latin and a distinctly baroque form of German.

How does the fairy-tale setting relate to real life?

Although the world of the opera exists in a fairy-tale realm, there are immediate links to contemporary issues. The story is essentially simple. A poor farmer’s crops are ruined by the weather. He travels to Mr North Wind’s castle and though he refuses to stop blowing, he gives the farmer a magic box to feed his family. The box is extorted by the Prior of the local monastery. The farmer makes a return journey and is given a second box by Mr North Wind. Again the gift is lost to the Prior but when a party is thrown at the monastery it is Pandora’s box that is opened and Mr North Wind blows society way. The ending is deliberately open-ended but you might extract this moral: that you can’t put your hope in external answers to life’s problems, whether natural forces or the authorities, you’ve got to solve them yourself.

How have you transformed the libretto into music?

For me music begins with speech, and the first thing was to taste Artmann’s wonderful words in my mouth. Then I had to be careful not to disturb the music and rhythm that was already in the words. The libretto offered wonderful pictorial opportunities like the storm music for Herr Nordwind. And there were a number of set pieces like the eating scene, and the battle in the refectory, which clearly had to be set as ensembles. The monastery scene demanded a church style which I have depicted with organum writing reminiscent of the Notre Dame school. The vocal casting also uses certain comic alienation techniques - such as the cross-dressing which has been employed in opera since baroque times - with the male Prior sung by a mezzo, and the female housekeeper sung by a tenor.

How is the music constructed?

I’ve used a seven-note theme relating to the Ite missa est plainsong, and a complementary five-note motif. All the usual transpositions and inversions appear but this opera is more spontaneously composed than many of my works, even though as often happens I’m sure I’ll discover motivic workings embedded subconsciously. I composed the opera with a picture of Artmann on the wall and I could hear him telling me to go my own way. He’ll be looking down with a critical eye on the premiere, which happens to be on his birthday. Pure coincidence? Perhaps not.

Interviewed by David Allenby

Please visit the Zürich Opera website

der herr nordwind (2003-05)

Libretto by HC Artmann

Commissioned by Karajan Zentrum

Zürich Opera
12 June 2005 (world premiere)
15/16/25/30 June
2 July

HK Gruber  Conductor
Michael Sturminger  Director
Andreas Donhauser  Designer
Hans-Rudolf Kunz  Lighting

Cast includes:
Cornelia Kallisch
Judith Schmid
Sandra Trattnigg
Reinhard Mayr
Christoph Strehl
Volker Vogel
Oliver Widmer

>  Further information on Work: Der Herr Nordwind

Photo: the libretto for Der Herr Nordwind published by Residenz Verlag

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