On April 13, 2007 PMP hosted a one-on-one discussion with Austrian composer Olga Neuwirth and NewMusicBox.org editor Frank J. Oteri. Neuwirth was visiting the United States to attend performances of her opera “Lost Highway,” produced by the Oberlin Conservatory at New York’s Miller Theatre. She shared samples of her work and discussed the new music scene across the Atlantic.
In 1991, at the age of 22, Neuwirth first came into the international limelight during the performance of her two quick-witted mini-operas at the Viennese Festival. She likes to compare her work with early daguerreotypes: centered on a sharply defined opening motif, the remainder is presented in a frayed and over-exposed fashion. The use of twisted enlargements, and the succession of what are sometimes strongly contrasting impressions and viewpoints could be likened to the skills of a film producer. Besides an affinity for film, one also notices a strong passion for literature, from Charles Baudelaire to Elfriede Jelinek, from Goethe to Gertrude Stein. Olga Neuwirth has studied at the Hochschule für Musik und Darstellende Kunst in Vienna, at the Elektroakustisches Institut in Vienna and the Conservatory of Music in San Francisco. Inspiring encounters with Adriana Hölzsky, Tristan Murail, and Luigi Nono definitively steered her towards composition. In 1996 she was a guest in Berlin with a grant from the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst, and in 1998, the Salzburg Festival dedicated two concerts to her set in the “Next Generation” series. In September 2000, she succeeded Magnus Lindberg as In-House Composer at the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra of Flanders.
New Frontiers in Music: One on One with Olga Neuwirth Frank J. Oteri: The piece that brought me to your music and that brought a lot of people to your music has been “Lost Highway.” There’s something so all-consuming about “Lost Highway,” your opera, and certainly the film that inspired it. But before we even get into that, I thought it would be a good time to say something about the word ‘opera’ and how you see this opera as a piece. Olga Neuwirth: Well, I don’t call it opera because the word ‘opera’ is so much loaded with history. It’s about the singing voice. For me, music theater was always interesting, how to use the spoken voice from theater. I also bring in something from radio plays. So that’s why in “Lost Highway,” I have chosen 45 minutes in the first act only speaking and if it changes into an unreal part, that’s when the singing starts. It’s so interesting to compare them. In a music theater work and opera, one thing that you can’t get is the close-up, so in one way the music becomes the close-up. Music is the way you can invoke fear or passion, or any kind of emotion.
Composer Olga Neuwirth, photo by Priska Ketterer
I especially made “Lost Highway’s” mystery man more frightening because he’s the alter ego. In his eye is the camera. He is the one who is watching everything. He’s sort of the maestro that’s playing with everybody. He is a countertenor, and that is why I wanted this kind of voice, which is kind of like you don’t know where he fits to. He doesn’t fit anywhere. This film is a masterpiece, so I had to do everything with a means of music, because it gives these possibilities and layers of darkness and creepiness and the unearthly. I’m very curious: when this had its premiere in Europe, what was the reaction of the audience? The David Lynch film was popular with European audiences as well, I’d imagine. The only difference was that people didn’t just always speak of the film. Why this film, why this film? I mean, why did Verdi choose Shakespeare? Why did Alban Berg choose Buchner? You take something that you’re interested in. The only thing I don’t understand was that in Austria, the director tried to stay too close to the film, and that’s the problem. And I wrote these big marks in the score and in the libretto that there should be no reference at all because you can’t imitate something that is two-dimensional, with all the possibilities of close-ups and flash backs and wonderful actors. I mean the singers can be good actors, but not great actors. So you have to do something else. And even if a director tries to use little things from the film, you are already on the wrong track because it’s a masterpiece and you will fail with the means of theater. What made you decide to set the opera in English? Because the words and sentences are very short, which is very good for opera already, and we used the original language, the screenplay, as the basis. So why should we translate it into another language if the language is perfect? It’s a very reduced language. In German you wouldn’t get that. Were the people in the original production all native English speaking, fluent in English? That’s what I wanted, because if something has to be read in a language, even if they practice a long time, something is still wrong with the affectations and the color. So if I do something in English, they have to be English speaking from the Motherland. Otherwise it sounds stupid. When did you get the idea to do “Lost Highway?” When you saw the movie did you say, “Oh, I have to turn this into music?” How did this whole thing evolve? I am a prudent composer; I am dependent on commissions. I don’t start an opera, which is the biggest work for years, just like, “Oh, I’m going to write an opera.” When Graz became the capital of Europe (I was born there), I was asked to do one of the four operas for a commission. So this was in 2000, and Graz became the cultural capital of Europe in 2003. When I do this big stuff, it has to be a recent topic that is important and very close to me. When I was thinking of content which pleases me, it’s always recollection; it’s memory, the pressure of a human being in a society which is kind of brutal, and it is always
about what is real and what is fake. I kept on thinking of, “What do I really like?” And then I came back to David Lynch, a filmmaker. When I first saw Elephant Man, I was eight years old and I was very struck. It was very human, and I was like “Oh yeah.” So I was thinking Eraserhead or Mulholland Drive, or Lost Highway. So then I asked, “Well it’s an opera, what is the one that is the most like a chamber play?” And Lost Highway is the most chamber play because it all takes place in just the room of this couple, except in the second part, but it all really takes part in the brain, all these outside shootings and other movements. And it loops, like a musical term, so I thought, “It will be Lost Highway.” Because everything comes back and you can’t escape, so just sort of working with these ritornelli. The last area that I wanted to talk about with you is this whole question of working with electronics. We’re living in a very highly technological age, but there’s always a human element. I thought it would be interesting for you to speak something to that. And why you use electronics, and how you use them. I was always interested in electronics as a provocation of the traditional instrument; they widen the means and the colors of the traditional instruments. In my work, we are taking the rough and uncertainty that comes from human beings and then transforming it with the live electronics, and sometimes even prepared electronics. But still, I believe in the interaction of both. It’s something between a machine and a human being, and I don’t like only the machine. The other thing is that I don’t write my scores with a computer because it changes the way of composing. I don’t want to be fixed to the rules of the computer. So, I’m still writing it by hand and then the publisher puts it into computers, and I don’t recognize my own scores. It’s very weird because your own handwriting is sort of tactile in a way, and it is more precise and detailed and shows, again, the personality of each composer. The computer reduces the personality of the composer to a nice layout.