Opera about the aftermath of a school shooting premieres in San Francisco

Opera about the aftermath of a school shooting premieres in San Francisco
Opera about the aftermath of a school shooting premieres in San Francisco

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — A haunting orchestral prelude sets the mood: muted percussion, melancholic breaths, anguished strings. The curtain rises and the first voices we hear are those of two young people crouching in the shadows.

“I… I… I can’t… go to work,” one of them stammers in German.

“I can’t board a plane… I can’t sit with my back to the door,” says another in Spanish.

They are living ghosts, traumatized survivors of a school shooting that occurred 10 years earlier, but whose memory intrudes like an unwanted guest at a wedding celebration taking place in the present.

Thus begins “Innocence,” the last opera by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, who died of brain cancer last year. Premiering at the Aix-en-Provence festival in France in 2021, it now debuts in the United States in San Francisco starting June 1.

For 100 minutes without intermissions on a revolving two-level stage, two worlds develop separately, at first, but gradually intertwine as we discover the tragic connections between the groom’s family and past events at an international school.

“I wanted to create a kind of thriller,” said Clément Mao-Takacs, who will direct this production at the San Francisco Opera. “She is very focused, which keeps your mouth open and your heart beating from the first note.”

Regarding the score, Louise Bakker, who directs the production, said that Saariaho had created “the atmosphere as much as the music.

“Don’t expect long, romantic melodies from Puccini,” he said. “That’s not what this is at all. But the beauty of this piece is in its truth and its precision and what you can contribute from that.”

Simon Stone, who directed the premiere and will oversee the production when it comes to the Metropolitan Opera in a future season, said the revolving stage helps audience members feel like they are discovering the links between past and present for themselves. .

“I thought if I could turn the restaurant where the banquet is being held into the school slowly, gradually, throughout the production,” he said, “Without the audience realizing it, they could be drawn into the same sense of intractable pain that they felt. characters”.

The pain is palpable, but the “innocence” of the title is less clear. It turns out that no one in the story is exempt from some responsibility, not even the waitress whose daughter was one of the victims and who now works at the banquet without knowing that the eldest son of the family was involved in the shooting.

“Innocence is what is killed when an event like this occurs,” Stone said.

Interestingly, Saariaho’s initial idea for the opera came from Da Vinci’s fresco of “The Last Supper.”

Matthew Shilvock, general director of the San Francisco Opera, remembers first hearing about the project during a dinner with Saariaho in 2015.

“Kaija was fascinated by the mindset of each of the 13 people around the table,” she wrote in an article on the company’s website. “A group brought together in a moment of deep emotional impact, but each one contributing their own perspective, history and reality.”

From this core, Saariaho and his librettist, Finnish novelist Sofi Oksanen, outlined the film, which has 13 singing or speaking roles: seven at the school and six at the wedding banquet. As if to underline the different understanding that each character brings to the events, nine different languages ​​are used in the script.

Finland has not been immune to school shootings, with the worst resulting in multiple victims in 2007 and 2008. But the prevalence of gun violence in the United States makes the issue especially sensitive here.

“I wonder how American audiences will cope with his relentless approach to a subject that, for decades, has been trapped in accelerating cycles of national madness,” critic Alex Ross wrote in The New Yorker after the opera’s 2021 premiere. “In the end there is no false tone of healing or hope; Instead, the circles of complicity continue to expand. What rescues the opera from utter desolation is the inherent beauty of Saariaho’s writing.”

Recognizing the sensitive nature of the issue, the San Francisco Opera has hosted a series of panel discussions and community outreach events focused on topics such as gun violence and “the representation of trauma on stage, screen and television.” music”.

Despite the tough subject matter, there’s a sense of things coming full circle by having the US premiere in San Francisco. It was here, in 2018, again under the direction of Mao-Takacs, that the opera’s music was performed for the first time by an orchestra.

Shilvock had arranged for the company’s musicians to record excerpts so that the creative team could experience the “sound world” of the opera. Saariaho was present in the auditorium.

“It was crazy and really moving,” Mao-Takacs recalled. “I’ll always remember the look on Kaija’s face when I turned to her, and she was in the orchestra pit in the big empty hall and I said, ‘What did you think?’

“And she said this beautiful phrase: ‘It sounds like I wanted it,’” he said. She expressed her joy that the orchestra sounded good, her pride in having been able to write exactly what she had in mind.”

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