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The Little Match Girl Passion (or when is opera not opera?)

Features - Classical Music | Stage

The Little Match Girl Passion (or when is opera not opera?)

by Roland Peelman on April 11, 2014 (April 11, 2014) filed under Classical Music | Stage | Comment Now
David Lang's Pulitzer Prize winning Little Match Girl Passion is Australia bound, but is it opera?

Whilst the world is still reeling from Wagner’s bicentenary – or basking in its extended glory as may be the case – the world still awaits the first full seven day production of Stockhausen’s Licht cycle. Seven years after Stockhausen’s death, all parts of this super cycle have been performed seperately. But given the enormous technical and human resources needed, we shall have to be patient for a little longer before we see anyone take on such a gargantuan project.

The Ring cycle and the Licht cycle arguably represent the two most universal artistic statements of the last two hundred years. Both composers were German and set out to fuse all artforms into a massive epic of gods and mortals. For Wagner this was opera on a grand scale, the central artform of the 19th century. For Stockhausen it is a cosmic ritual for the 21st century, something akin to circus or ceremony, in between performance and meta-performance, between farce and fearless musical adventure.  Opera would be too narrow and historical a term for it, no matter how open and generic the word actually is (‘opus’ simply means ‘work’).

In the meantime, most of us mortals find joy and satisfaction in productions that use simple means, modest resources and a good mix of thought provocation and physicality.  By stripping away all that is superfluous we can create a concentrated spectacle of ideas and a physical relationship with the audience that is disarming. Ever since cinema started to entertain us with total immersive realism, live performance stimulates our imagination and creates a world that is entirely in the eye of the beholder. What we hear we need not see, and what we see we need not necessarily hear. And so it follows that a number of ‘concert’ works have become ready vehicles for staged performances, once we allow ourselves to forget the conventions of traditional opera.

Late last year, Sydney Chamber Opera presented Kancheli’s Exil, a one-woman show without an obvious narrative. Yet a strong performer (Jane Sheldon) in a stark space  (CarriageWorks) directed by a keen eye (Adina Jacobs) can bring intensity and dramatic tension without action.  Kancheli’s work uses post-Holocaust poetry of Paul Celan and Hans Sah amidst a setting of Biblical psalms. Typically, several new works using a combination of biblical texts have recently emerged. Gerard Brophy’s Gethsemane from 2011 combined Biblical texts with five narrations set in Calcutta. Here text, music and ritualised movement under the direction of Martin del Amo combined to make an utterly new and deliciously understated music theatre work for our time.  

Naturally, the dramatic narrative of the passion provides a rich starting point for theatrical exploitation.  Andrew Lloyd-Webber showed the way in his early days with his hugely popular musical Jesus Christ Superstar. Around the same time Louis Andriessen created a hard-hitting secularised Matthew Passion for the Dutch avant-garde stage. It wasn’t long before both Bach Passions were turned into opera of sorts. Both English National Opera and more recently Queensland Opera ventured into this territory. 

This month’s production of David Lang’s Little Match Girl Passion again features Biblical quotations. The narration however is based on Andersen’s tale of the little girl whose last match provides a glimpse of heaven before dying of hunger and cold.  The production, devised by Josh Armstromg for Theatre Cryptic in Glasgow and now in Sydney with the singers of The Song Company, does not feature a little girl as protagonist, but revolves around the dispassionate chanting of this story by those who did not have the compassion to open their doors or share their food.

The New York based composer David Lang has won numerous plaudits with a stripped back vocal score that calmly avoids any sense of melodrama and in doing so, creates almost unbearable tension. The result is kathartic and utterly transporting. It won him the much-coveted Pulitzer Prize in 2007.


Roland Peelman is Artistic Director of The Song Company. The Little Match GIrl Passion plays Wollongong, Newcastle, Sydney and Melbourne, April 16-22