Photographer – David Fraser

Monodrama for Soprano, Electric Cello, Computer Sound and Video

by Douglas Knehans (music) and Juanita Rockwell (libretto)

Story

Backwards from Winter is an hour long operatic monodrama exploring a single woman’s reflection on a love relationship as seen through various elemental filters of seasons, color, nature, emotion and memory and told through live voice, live electronic/computer music and multiple video streams.

She traces the past year with her beloved, moving backwards through time: from deep winter where she is in grief over his death, to autumn, where she experiences the sharp pain of losing him in a storm, through the summer’s heat of their passion, to the heart-opening birth of their love in spring.

Just as our conventional experience of linear time can be disrupted by deep grief or joy, this operatic work destabilizes theatrical conventions of narrative, character, psychology, conflict, language and setting as it explores impermanence, loss and love.

Go to the project page

Otherness is a central theme of Constantine Cavafy’s poem Waiting for the Barbarians; written in 1904, it is one of Cavafy’s most important works. The poem echoes the dramatic traditions of Ancient Greek Theatre and resonates with today’s eco-political environment.

The Barbarians, (poem and opera) is structured as a series of both questions and answers (why – because) and reflects on the timeless elements of the State (the emperor, consuls, politicians), the Polis (the chorus, community), and in referring to the Barbarians (the others) how we deal with hope, fear and uncertainty.

Cavafy drew his themes from personal experience, the depths of history and mythology. Though he was not always comfortable with his role as nonconformist, he critically examined aspects of Christianity, patriotism, politics and homosexuality.

The opera explores the many contradictions of Cavafy’s life, the labyrinth of political correctness across the ages and the impact of his sometimes radical ideas.

Filming Directed & Produced by Mike Sampey & David Pyefinch

Review
Principal Performers
Chorus Leader Athanasia Houndalas
The Man Christos Linou
The Poet – Bass-Baritone Nicholas Dinopoulos
The Poet Youth – Boy Alto Ayrton Rose
The Woman – Soprano Grace Ovens
Creative Team
Text Constantine Cavafy
Music & Direction Constantine Koukias
Production Designers Liminal Spaces
Peta Heffernan and Elvio Brianese
Structural Engineers Gandy & Roberts
Translator & Advisor Athanasia Houndalas
Lighting & Special Effects Jason James
Sound Designer Greg Gurr
Music Director Donald Bate
Digital Projection Designer Carl Higgs
Installation Artists – Final Sequence Clockwork Beehive
Dianna Graf & Mark Cornelius
Effects projection Hugh McSpedden
Principal Singers Costume Designer Elizabeth Monaghan
Chorus Costume Designers Natalie Holtsbaum & Ella Knight
Chorus Leader – Costume Designer Robin Riley
Pre Recorded Tapes Donald Bate & Constantine Koukias
Musicians
Violin Yue Hong Cha
Trumpet Dee Boyd
Percussion Gary Wain
Percussion Tracey Patten
Hand Percussion & Improvisation Jane Baker
Bassoon + Contra Bassoon Simone Walters
Celeste + Harpsichord + Hammond Organ Clarissa Zhang
Production team
Project Manager Kristen Molhuysen
Production Manager Michael Bullock
Assistant Director – Stage Lyndall Edwards
Assistant Director – Technical & Chorus Chris Jackson
Production Liaison Werner Ihlenfeld & Caroline Flood
Chorus Costume Fabricator Elizabeth Monaghan
Box Head Fabricators Rita Houndalas & Jim Vaughan
Assistant Stage Manager Josephine Giles
Pyro-technician Werner Ihlenfeld
Lighting Operator Jason James
Sound Operator Greg Gurr
Digital Video Projection Operator Carl Higgs
Production Assistants Patrick Denell & Caroline Flood
Production Accounts Sonja Kingston

Film by Marty McNicol

Synopsis

Days and Nights with Christ is for four solo singers, who sing in Greek, and a dancer – Christ – whose movements, although choreographed, are not obviously ‘dancey’. A battery of musicians, electro-acoustic instruments, winds and brass stand on a podium close to the audience. Placed in this way, they enter the circuit of energy binding spectators and performers. The spectators are seated in tiers opposite each other, mirroring each other, as the Christ figure between and below them mirrors them all.

Despite the seemingly endless space which the production as a whole occupies, the work generates an extraordinary degree of intimacy – due in large part to the way emotion is deeply internalised in it, this introversion working very subtly on the spectators’ feelings and perceptions. Christ, too, turns the agony of his schizophrenia inwards towards himself under the gaze of the spectators who are given two focal points, a close-up and a long shot, simultaneously.

He is a modern Everyone, infinitely alone and infinitely vulnerable as he choreographs deliberate, almost hypnotic, dance-like movements whose rhythms do not always harmonise with the music. Christos Linou, who performs the piece (his homonym giving a wry twist to the name of the work), is made small as he crosses the huge empty space around him.

Or else he comes back to his normal size when he crouches and slides in hundreds of dead leaves on the floor near the spectators, or when, towards the close of the performance, he is bathed by his mother who sings a refrain rather like a Greek Orthodox chant. Her voice and gestures are charged with pain and compassion. By this stage her refrain has become the signature of the composition.

Religious allusions like these are echoed elsewhere, notably by an upside down Christ made tiny by the expanse of space between the spectators and the far end of the wharf. The inverted Christ, who also recalls the hanged man of the Tarot  – and he appears to music from the Orthodox Easter liturgy – is made tinier still by the mountain of several tonnes of salt on which his cross stands. The effect is searing, as are in their different ways the gigantic blocks of ice at the extreme opposite end of the salt mountain, the installation made from children’s chairs drawn up and down on pulleys, the robot-well that continually pours water out of buckets, and the piles of eggs that make an ethereal sculpture and somehow refer to the eggs of the resurrection of Easter. Large as they are, these constructions seem like markers on the horizon and only assume their real dimensions when spectators walk around them after the show.

There is no unambiguous conclusion, however, to this time spent with a figure who combines sex and gender and is male and female in one.  His-her personal alienation becomes, throughout the course of the performance, a metaphor not only for metaphysical or spiritual isolation, but for collective social and cultural displacement.  A sign appears at the end of the performance suggesting that healing may be possible for the multiple wounds that are suffered by all those whom this vulnerable Christ metonymically represents. The sign comes in the form of a stupendous angel who is blown in, at the far end of the wharf where the salt mountain stands, by a machine making wind on the docks. The angel trails a huge, white parachute billowing behind her.  As the doors of the wharf are noisily opened one by one, the sky and the seagulls outside are open to view: outside and inside space are joined. The angel comes closer and closer – a splendid soprano called Penelope Bruce – and gives Christ a small key which may, or may not, open some door to salvation.

This theme, the theme of a search for liberation from the suffering engendered by alienation, displacement and exclusion, of whatever type they may be, returns, although not in quite such a tragic vein, in To Traverse Water, which Koukias essentially staged as well as composed. (It reappears in darker mode, as far as can be ascertained from its concert version, in MIKROVION, Small Life.).

Maria Shevtsova is Professor of Drama and Theatre Arts at Goldsmiths, University of London and a Fellow of the International Research Center ‘Interweaving Performance Cultures’ at the Freie Universitat in Berlin.

About

To Traverse Water depicts a young Greek woman’s departure for Australia and her settlement there. Her tale is loosely based on that of Koukias’ mother, and the opera makes direct reference to her at the end of the show when a slide picture of her appears, along with a tape of her voice intoning an old village song.

To Traverse Water blends instrumental music, operatic singing, folk song, drama, dance, light sculpture, art installations and film to create a hybrid performance piece. Sung in Ecclesiastical and Modern Greek, the text is drawn from fragments of the Old Testament, the New Testament, the I Ching, Greek folk songs, the Divine Liturgy, and the writings of Kostas Gionis, Vasiliki Koukias (Constantine’s mother) and Koukias himself. The work is in two parts and features eight singers, five speaking voices and seven musicians.

Writing of the 1995 Melbourne Festival production, The Age’s Jim Davidson noted that “with the modern decline in church-going, one of opera’s key functions is to offer ritual re-enactment at an emotionally intense level”.

About

Prayer Bells is divided into 21 prayers, some of which are performed by bells alone. The work is based on heterophony, as opposed to polyphony or harmony. This means that the melody or chant is used to create a harmonic accompaniment and structure to the chant.

All of the bells used in the work were specially commissioned and cast as the Federation Bells for the Centenary of Federation Festival, Melbourne Australia. The bells have proved a gorgeous and finely tuned instrument to use.  They also represent unity in the work, bridging the cultural and historical boundaries of these three divergent but highly related chant traditions.

The majority of the Hebrew chants come from early parts of the Book of Genesis of the Old Testament. Interestingly, the background of the Greek service of worship is to be found in Hebrew chant, especially from the musical theory and practice of Hellenised Judaism. The Old Testament had a conspicuous place in the thought and worship of the New Testament Christian Church; Old Testament quotations and allusions abound in the literature of the New Testament, and Jewish cantors were often used to teach early Christian communities chant and psalmody.

Photo by Georgia Metaxa

In the words of the musicologist Egon Wellesz, Byzantine Hmynography ‘is the poetical expression of Orthodox theology, translated through music to the sphere of religious devotion’. It is a highly sophisticated and powerful literary tradition that has extended over many centuries.

The Latin text used in Prayer Bells does not come from the canon of the church but is rather the joyous poetic expression of two respected medieval scholars, Sedulius Scottus and Paulinus of Nola, from the ninth and fourth centuries respectively. In the dying embers of the Roman Empire, Paulinus was Governor of a province and consul before he was thirty. Pupil of Ausonius he broke the old man’s heart when he was sent to Spain. He was finally established as parish priest of St Felix in Nola where he continued to write poetry and lyrics in celebration of the Church.

In addition to the orthodox tradition, there is also a presentation of Greek Gnosticism, an esoteric spiritual movement that developed from early Christianity, and grew in parallel to the conventional religions. The Gnostics explained the world by very different creation myths and by reference to powers (considered magical and alchemical by traditionalists) very much at odds with traditional Christian ideology.

Constantine Koukias

Sources

A History of Byzantine Music and Hymnography
By Egon Wellesz
Oxford at Clarendon Press; 1949 (Revised Editon 1961)

Byzantine Hymnography and Byzantine Chant
By Dimitri Conomos
Hellenic College Pres; 1984

Download Technical RiderDownload Program

Performance history to date

2010 Chicago Cultural Center USA
2010 Illinois State University USA
2010 University of St. Francis USA
2008 St Stephens Uniting Church Sydney, Aus
2008 Viva La Gong Festival Wollongong, Aus
2006 Festival of Voices Hobart, Aus
2005 Multicultural Arts Victoria – Kultour Tour Melbourne, Aus
2005 Nexus Arts Centre – Kultour Tour Adelaide, Aus
2005 National Multicultural Arts Festival – Kultour Tour Canberra, Aus
2003 Theatre North (Revised Latin Version) Launceston, Aus
2001 Premiere: Federation Festival of Melbourne (Russian Version) Melbourne, Aus

Sarah Jones – Soprano

For Soprano, Electric Trombone & Pilates Trapeze Machine

By Constantine Koukias & Design by Elvio Brianese & Peta Heffernan

About

KIMISIS – Falling Asleep (Greek: Κοίμησις) is a gallery-style installation work celebrating a Great Feast of the Eastern Orthodox Church which commemorates the Dormition – the “falling asleep”, or death and assumption into Heaven – of Mary, the mother of Christ.

The word akathistos literally means ‘not sitting’, i.e. standing; normally all participants stand while it is being prayed. In this work, the soprano performs on a Pilates Trapeze Machine which provides the platform for the Dormition, a state of passing through repose into the realm of the eternal.

The ritualistic elements of Kimisis direct the human senses to this unique window between the imminent and the transcendent. Samples of George Crumb’s Black Angels, a work that that has always inspired me, collides with the musical worlds of the Byzantine & Christian Arabic traditions of the Akathist Hymn.

Photo by Lucia Rossi

In the words of the musicologist Egon Wellesz, Byzantine Hmynography is “the poetical expression of Orthodox theology, translated through music to the sphere of religious devotion”. It is a highly sophisticated and powerful literary tradition that has extended over many centuries.

In addition to the Orthodox tradition, there is also a presentation of Greek Gnosticism, an esoteric spiritual movement that developed from early Christianity and grew in parallel to the conventional religions. The Gnostics explained the world by very different creation myths and by reference to powers (considered magical and alchemical by traditionalists) very much at odds with traditional Christian ideology.

Download Technical Rider – Australian/European versionDownload Technical Rider – USA version