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Rolf Wallin

Publisher: Chester Music

Elysium (2015)
commissioned by Den Norske Opera
Work Notes
commissioned by Den Norske Opera, Oslo
Text Writer
Mark Ravenhill
Publisher
Chester Music Ltd
Category
Opera and Music Theatre
Sub Category
Opera
Year Composed
2015
Duration
2 Hours 0 Minutes
Chorus
SATB (9 each)
Language
English
Solo Instrument(s)
2S,S (Boy), Ms, T, Bar
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Programme Note
Rolf Wallin Elysium (2015)


Synopsis

The future. The human race has re-invented itself as a species. With designed births and hugely expanded life times, the very essence of humanity has moved far beyond the life form that conceived of 'human rights'. This is the world of the transhumans.

Like modern humans looked back on the brutality of the mongol raids or the Inquisition, the ultraprosperous and peaceful transhumans look back at the 21st century with disbelief. Although the first Declaration of Human Rights had existed more than 200 years, the human race was still not capable of being truly humane. Through wars, violence and environmental destruction it was inching towards self-extinction.

What saved humanity was one single technological gizmo made to enhance the communication rate between humans: a chip implanted in the throat transmitting tremendous amounts of information through an eerie but fascinating electronic music. While the slow and limited speech of humans made them constantly misinterpret each other, transhumans fluently and accurately exchange complex feelings, sensations and motivations. Because its success in creating peace and progress, the Chip is now mandatory throughout the planet.

Act I

But a small group of humans has been kept on an island under strict security measures, in commemoration of the origins of transhumanity. As the opera begins, we meet a Wife who feels stifled by the shortcomings and pains of human life: her violent Husband, her Neighbour terminally ill from a brain tumor. The community is preparing for a performance for visiting transhumans: Beethoven's opera Fidelio serves as a reminder of the long struggle for human rights. When the Neighbour breaks down in the middle of her aria, the performance is stopped. Using the chaotic situation to break free, the Wife meets a transhuman Woman, and they become mutually fascinated. The Woman is nostalgic for the old humanity and their genuine emotions and natural bodies. After their intense first meeting, the Wife decides to escape from the island and find the Woman and to become like her. She sets sail from the island to go to the world of transhumans.

Act II

Some months later, the Woman returns to the island. She has had a short affair with the Wife on the mainland, but seeing that their goals were totally opposite, they split. The Woman has gone through an illegal operation to remove the Chip and wants to live a true human life with the islanders. The Husband and his son (Boy) take care of her. The leader of the transhumans and the inventor of the Chip, Coraig, comes to the island. The next step after transhumanity is in progress: Singularity, where the mind leaves the body and is uploaded to an omnipresent cyberspace, the ultimate "Brotherhood of Humankind", as Schiller and Beethoven dreamt of. All other transhumans in the entire world have left their bodies. Coraig has come to find the rebellious Woman, and to shut down the island.

Coraig gives the islanders the choice between dying on the island or to join the transhumans in Singularity. The Wife, who has become a transhuman, has also returned to the island. She bears witness of how wonderful her life as a transhuman is, and the islanders are finally convinced to enter Singulatiry. As their bodies drop to the ground, it is unclear whether they are really uploaded or simply terminated. Husband remains the only left: "I am the last human. Greater than God!"

This opera is a fable about our inborn fear of change. Throughout modern history we have made painful steps towards human rights: Democracy, the abolition of slavery, women's suffrage, racial and gay rights - each step seems so obvious looking back, but each step was met with fierce resistance and condemned as contrary to nature, and they still are in many parts of the world. Not because of evil, but because change feels like standing on a cliff, where moving forwards could mean falling into mayhem. Where is your breaking point between natural and unnatural? Maybe in the process that goes on in this moment, as modern technology slowly transforms mankind into something else: perhaps something terrible, perhaps something wonderful, something more humane than humans? Only future will show, and we are not there - yet.

Roles:

Wife coloratura soprano
Woman coloratura soprano
Neighbour mezzo soprano
Boy boy soprano
Coraig tenor
Husband bass baritone
Transhuman 1 (alto - from chorus) (not appearing in Act 1)
Transhuman 2 (bass – from chorus) (not appearing in Act 1)

Performances
Reviews
Wallin’s music is quite stunning…. Earthy, eerie, elegant, the score sharpens and shapes the imagination effortlessly. The pacing is impressive (this is his first opera) and the climax nothing short of breath-taking…. The meshing of electronic and acoustic sources is beautifully managed, as are the chewed-up snatches of the Quartet and Prisoners’ Chorus from Fidelio.
Guy Dammann, Times Literary Supplement,25/03/2016
The evening’s greatest success is Wallin’s musical language. You hear both humanity (arching, lyrical vocal lines) and the encroaching digital world (wonderfully visceral bodies of electronically enhanced sound and arsenals of percussion). Transhumans no longer need words, since they can transfer data via their implanted chips, so unless they are communicating with humans, they sing in short bursts of coloratura. Wallin’s orchestral and electronic sound-world is emotional and engaging without ever lapsing into kitsch, even when he is quoting Beethoven. Very few composers can manage musical nostalgia without a significant cringe factor, but Wallin retains his own quirky language throughout, both original and highly communicative.
Shirley Apthorp, Financial Times,14/03/2016
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