Following up its presentation of a virtual opera billed as the first of its kind, Adelaide’s OzAsia Festival has programmed yet another pioneering example of the genre for 2018. This year’s offering, War Sum Up, is a contemporary opera from adventurous production company Hotel Pro Forma, first staged at Latvian National Opera in 2011. Performed by members of the splendid Latvian Radio Choir, it promises to be a visually spectacular experience that uses Manga imagery as well as characters from classical Noh Theatre to explore themes of war, destruction and loss. Boasting an eclectic score from Latvian composer Santa Ratniece, French electronic artist Gilbert Nouno and English ensemble the Irrepressibles, it fuses classical music with pop and electronic sounds. Limelight speaks to War Sum Up’s director and stage designer Kirsten Dehlholm – also the founder and artistic director of Hotel Pro Forma – about the work’s Australian premiere.

War Sum Up. Photo supplied

Can you talk about the origins of War Sum Up? Where did the idea for the work come from?

Hotel Pro Forma always chooses big topics to examine and use for our artistic productions. Since 2003 Denmark has been involved in wars in the Middle East and dead soldiers have come back. That is why I wanted to focus on the subject of war, but not any specific war. War is as simple and as complicated as man itself.

You explore the theme of war through characters drawn from Noh theatre. Can you explain how these characters tell the story?

War Sum Up tells of war through three main characters: The Western Soldier is sent home from war. He suffers from PTSD and no longer feels at home in civilian society. He returns to the war and dies in a roadside explosion and a monument is raised in his memory.

The Islamic Warrior is killed in battle. His unnatural death prevents his soul from making a natural transition to the other world. He becomes a spectre who must tell his story in order to find peace. This is an old superstition which still exists in many Asian cultures.

And finally, The Spy is captured in the war. In order to be freed she must relearn the martial arts and is transformed into a superwoman and escapes.

All three stories are framed by the woman on the stage. She is the person who continues working because life must go on even though there is a war. She is the Game Master, who ultimately demonstrates that war is never ending.

Each story is intensified and enlarged when the voices of the Civilians are heard, represented by the Latvian Radio Choir.

War Sum Up. Photo supplied

This production uses some animation and is inspired by Manga. Can you talk about how you have used the space to help enhance the narrative?  

The scenic space is simple, it consists of a scaffolding where the 12 singers are placed. In front and behind the scaffolding are projection screens for front and rear projections. This gives a kind of 3D effect. The projections are extra-large images from the book How to learn to draw manga. Here I found the basic drawing of eyes, ears, faces, bodies, weapons, landscapes and structures, which also helped me to tell a story about how men become war machines. Also, the colours of the foreground and background add to the storytelling. The singers are not moving a lot but standing in changing positions, so the projections have a greater effect.

The music of the opera is a real mixture of styles. How does it speak to you?

War Sum Up combines several musical expressions and styles. For example, new, composed classical music treated electronically creates a spherical, unreal sound image. New written pop-music describes the three characters with a mix of chamber pop and electronica, where man and machine melt together. The music changes between violent, shrill, melancholy and beautiful melodies and sounds in order to cover all that war means to people. The old world meets with the new, when old texts from the Noh theatre unfold in the electronic universe in order to tell the never-ending story of the nature of war.

You are of course working with the wonderful Latvian Radio Choir. How have you directed them to use the stage, and what kinds of characters do they inhabit in the opera? 

Before starting rehearsals with the choir I elaborate a visual score, almost like a musical score, so I know where to place the singers. Then I work for a week with extras on the scaffolding where we also add the lighting. Now I can start working with the singers who already know the music and the songs. Four soloists represent the four main characters, chosen from their voice quality: tenor, bass, alto and soprano. All other singers represent the civilians. I direct their minimal body language. All is according to the music. For them it is easy to learn together with the music. The singers are not showing emotional expressions but keeping neutral as the music expresses it all.

What do you hope audiences will feel after seeing War Sum Up?

I hope the audience will be touched. I believe that works about war are stronger when they’re not just violent but also beautiful. It goes deeper into the audience’s mind. And the music helps it to go into the soul of the audience. Music is the bridge to the emotions.


OzAsia Festival’s War Sum Up is at the Adelaide Festival Centre, November 5 and 6

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Limelight, Australia's Classical Music and Arts Magazine