In the hit and miss world of contemporary opera, securing a commission and first performance is one thing, the elusive second performance is frequently quite another. That’s not proved a problem for Australian composer Liza Lim, however, whose fourth opera, Tree of Codes, will receive its second international staging next month in Charleston as part of the ever-enterprising Spoleto Festival.

Liza Lim, Tree of CodesLiza Lim. Photo ©

“Each [of my four operas] had quite different inspirations,” says Lim, currently based in Sydney where she is Professor of Composition at the Conservatorium, “though there are some commonalities in terms of regarding opera as a space for ritual, for a kind of intensity of desire, for storytelling as a channeling of forces of history, of memory and forgetting.”

She describes her first opera, The Oresteia, as being inspired by “the muscular ritual quality of Harrison Birtwistle’s operas Punch and Judy and The Mask of Orpheus”. With a libretto by Barrie Kosky and Lim herself, this ambitious work was based on the writings of Aeschylus and Sappho as well as  the contemporary poet Tony Harrison. Commissioned by longtime champions ELISION ensemble, it premiered at Melbourne’s Theatreworks way back in 1993.

Moon Spirit Feasting followed in 2000, a Chinese street opera performed in South East Asia during the Hungry Ghost Festival. The work has enjoyed an impressive six outings to date, including stints at the Adelaide, Melbourne and Brisbane Festivals. The Navigator (2008) was a Brisbane Festival commission where the premiere was directed by Kosky. “Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde cast a very strong shadow of influence on this work,” explains Lim.

Tree of CodesTree of Codes as it premiered in Cologne. Photo © Paul Leclaire

Tree of Codes (commissioned by Oper Köln and the intrepid musicians of Ensemble musikFabrik) premiered in 2016. It casts its net even wider, with Jonathan Safran Foer’s book of the same name clearly an important source, but Bruno Schulz, Goethe’s Erlkönig and the writings of Michel Foucault are also cited as important ingredients. “Rather than operatic references, the magical realist world of Bruno Schultz and the production by Theatre de Complicité based on his Street of Crocodiles, which I saw in 1993 at the Sydney Festival, provided some strong impulses,” Lim says.

If that sounds complicated, perhaps it is, and neither Lim, nor Foer (the American novelist best known for 2002’s duel-narrative Everything is Illuminated) would expect otherwise. In fact, Foer’s Tree of Codes is really an artwork, masquerading in the form of a book. Inspired by Street of Crocodiles – his favourite book, we are told – Foer took Schulz’s original and cut out the vast majority of the words in order to carve out a new story. This process of ‘filtering’, left a filigree patchwork of text floating on top of empty spaces through which the reader gets a tantalising glimpse of other stories buried deep beneath the new narrative. Even the title has had the scissors taken to it – sTREEt OF croCODilES – you see?

One of Poland’s greatest writer’s, Schultz’s 1934 original is actually a collection of short stories recounting odd moments in the life of a small-town merchant and his family. Far from straightforward, it’s packed full of dreamlike events and visionary experiences. ‘The Father’ – a man who turns out to be not just a shopkeeper, but a crazy inventor and amateur scientist on the side – winds up inside Foer’s artwork, as does his inquiring young son, whose quest to find his absent parent becomes a crucial part of Lim’s opera. The latter work necessarily contains elements from both its sources. “I loved the cut-out form of [Foer’s] book,” says Lim. “The rhythm of the spaces in between the fragments of the text was very evocative and suggestive of music.”

Tree of CodesJohnathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes

Lim herself gives the most engaging flavor of her opera: “Tree of Codes takes place during an extra day grafted on to the continuity of life,” she writes in her program note for the Spoleto production. “Within this margin of secret time, a ‘backstage’ area, the boundaries between the natural world, animals, birds, humans, and machines are dissolving. Dead matter is combined with the living and becomes animated. It learns to dream, to speak, to sing…”

Taking her lead from the world of Schultz’s eccentric boffin, Lim’s opera bridges the thin line between life and death, between reality and fantasy, to create a world where mutant birds are conjured out of items of trash, whence they proceed to mimic human beings (and vice versa). Even the instruments are called on to mutate, with violinists bowing blocks of wood to create a uniquely primitive sound world. It’s out of this that rhythmic patterns emerge reminiscent of Schubert’s famous setting of Goethe’s Erlkönig – itself a life and death parable of fathers and sons.

“Displacement and dissociation of time, space, and identity create effects of menace and wonder. What is authentic? What is fake?” asks Lim. “The opera Tree of Codes asks: ‘How do the inheritances of our genes, our stories, and the unconscious beliefs passed down through generations, shape who we are, our desires, our curses? Do the living and dead exist in a relationship of ventriloquism?’”.

Tree of CodesEnsemble MusikFabrik in Tree of Codes. Photo © Paul Leclaire

So how did she manage to weave so many strands together into one opera? And was there a vision of an ideal staging at the back of her mind as she composed? “Working on the text myself enabled me to compose the structure of the work in a very flexible way. The text, its surrounding context, the choice of instruments and singers – all these things are already a rich bed of ideas for the music to grow out of,” she explains, while emphasising that the two productions of Tree of Codes to date have been almost completely different. “What that extra-ordinary time and space looks like is something I leave to the director… The multiple stories in the opera are, for me, about opening up emotional or psychic spaces. For the audience, I hope that people will see different things and plug into different aspects of the stories depending on their frame of mind at the time. If there is a ‘story’, it is about the basic ephemerality that attends our lives and our deaths, and a longing for intensity, iridescence, for epiphany.”

The directors of the two productions to date: Massimo Furlan (for Opera Cologne) and Ong Keng Sen (for Spoleto) have come at it from very different angles. Lim wrote Tree of Codes for Ensemble MusikFabrik, an exceptional group of musicians who were keen to explore different kinds of performance. They developed their singing and movement skills so that they could be choreographed on stage as part of the action. However, the opera can also be performed with the ensemble in a pit, the format being adopted by Spoleto.

Our production is a cut out of Liza’s opera in that we keep her wonderful aural panoramas of birds, tree roots, nature, and fantastic fermentation of matter,” says Singaporean director Ong Keng Sen. “However, we return the material to mankind’s epic lodestone of loss, the Jewish narrative in the years leading up to World War II, as well as its aftermath. This was the life of Bruno Schulz that butted up against the existential text that Foer cut out, which Liza has retained in her libretto… Our production of Tree of Codes suggests the constant evolution of life from non-life (Lim), counterpointed with the constant destruction of life by man (Foer/Schulz).”

Tree of CodesRachel Whiteread’s The Nameless Library

With its back to its roots approach, the Spoleto set design has been inspired by The Nameless Library, Rachel Whiteread’s Holocaust Memorial in Vienna’s Judenplatz – itself a building apparently made up of books whose titles are unreadable. “Whiteread created sculptures of negative space where she cast the volume of entire houses and rooms, which she termed ‘mummifying the air in a room’,” says Ong, “These giant sculptures often contained traces of the original room, evoking ghosts and memories of that space. Our colossal monolith evokes Foer’s book, which is itself a negative space of Schulz’s.”

By placing this massive sculpture onstage, Ong deliberately echoes the many memorials to be found in towns across Europe commemorating the millions of Jewish lives lost in the first half of the last century. In the Spoleto staging, the boy’s quest for his father leads him to Adela, a mysterious female presence with a connection to the monolithic memorial. “Together, they remember the past and the future, games that the father once played with the child, Kristallnacht, terrifying comets which portended disasters for mankind, and generatio aequivoca (the continuous evolution of life from non-life),” Ong explains. “Together, they spin the wheel of life, as Buddhists do when they walk clockwise around venerated objects, by walking around the monolith.”

This new approach is a far cry from the Cologne staging with its clinical white laboratory walls and mutant creatures, but that doesn’t trouble Ong. “Embedded in all good new operas are the ghosts of earlier operas, and in my view, Tree of Codes is no exception… In the shimmering end, we as the audiences of the boy’s search, embrace the beauty of the tree of codes, which was always there amongst us, but we could not perceive it.”

It certainly doesn’t bother Lim either. “I find it fascinating and enormously encouraging,” she says. “I really love that art can hold a multiplicity of interpretations – that it evolves in different contexts and can be remade anew each time. That to me is evidence of its living nature.”

Liza Lim’s Tree of Codes is part of Spoleto Festival USA, Charleston, South Carolina, which runs from May 25 – June 10