Sydney Chamber Opera’s Huw Belling Interview

Sydney Chamber Opera’s Huw Belling discusses composing Fumeblind Oracle

How have you musically responded to Janáček’s Diary of One Who Disappeared?

Bicycles were a fêted and irresistible invention, but the first of them were fairly comic to behold and very hard riding. So too, Janáček’s methods of notation are eccentric and challenging to the interpreter by virtue of their novelty, but the musical results are correspondingly irresistible and fêted. Both Janáček’s music and his late genesis as a true original are fascinating to me. Much of his mature approach to musical texture (rhythm in particular), and to piano writing was without precedent and peculiar to him. His operas are variously rigorous and gobsmacking, wistful and longing. His piano lines are incisive and spatial, yet alluring and hypnotic. From Janáček’s pen also comes Czech folk music and speech (and speech-rhythm), which is why it pleases me that we present Diary in its original Czech. I think it could scarcely be otherwise rendered.

Jack Symonds – who leads both Diary and my own Fumeblind Oracle from the keyboard – noted that Diary’s ‘collaged series of 22 song-fragments [are] almost entirely without traditional development, methods of repetition or logical sequences. The piece is thus in a constant ‘present tense”. I couldn’t agree more, and I would love to achieve a fraction of the same effect. I fear that in my case approaching any such result is more by happy accident than by design. I take solace that the same might just be true of Diary. It came from a man who wrote, at a pinch, gobbets of music on the back of table cloths to the distress of his long-suffering publishers. As grew his years, so grew his present urgency.

This ‘present tense’ makes for a strange ‘responding’. Imagine playing a word associations game: they say ‘black’, you answer ‘white’ and so on; high/low; hot/cold, kettle/teacup. Suddenly your inquisitor throws in ‘anomalous’. Janáček’s music is to a large extent – for me – quite unanswerable, and so much of my own composition makes little attempt to rhyme his material directly for fear of rendering a pallid caricature of the intensely personal. And I have no problem with caricature! Yet, I cannot shake the experience of hearing Diary from my body either, it is a supernaturally adhesive listen.

Textually at least, to contemporary ears, the male-fantasy trope of Janáček’s ‘gypsy’ Zefka (sung for us by Jessica O’Donoghue) begs interrogation. My music, and indeed Pierce Wilcox’s text (in fact the whole damned team) closely questions that characterisation but never – I hope – Janáček’s fabulous music. Fumeblind makes a brief and direct reference to this apparition of a woman: interleaving the motifs from Zefka’s stage appearances in Diary with rushing doubtful vocal interjections – as the latter character rails against the strictures of the former. Janáček’s ‘Zefka’ material destroys itself, descending to the depths, as Jessica’s newly nameless character searches out a more empowered Id. The new woman, or every-woman, takes fresh control of Zefka’s offstage chorus (in our happy circumstance multi-tracked entirely by Jessica herself). She wrenches it permanently back onto her own tongue whence it again furiously unspools. In doing so, she clears the path for our own hard-riding penny-farthing of a piece in which she might begin to reclaim her person.

Describe your collaboration with singer Jessica O’Donoghue

You couldn’t ask for a more intelligent collaborator, or one with more integrity. One early instance forms a microcosm of what became of the relationship:

Although I had written for her once before, early on in this project I asked to be reminded/updated about her vocal range, as all composers are wont to do (and better ones than I remember permanently). What followed was no less than a far-reaching discursion on where her voice sits, what colours and dramaturgical inferences were possible in what register and how she might render certain meanings better in certain tessitura. Most singers might answer “low F to high B, with a strong high G” (which at a minimum Jessica would be within her rights to spec, by the way, particularly the G). Herself an artist on whose forthcoming album I have collaborated with my choral hat on, and she also a longtime SCO principal, Jessica understands thoroughly the needs and challenges of creating a new work for voice. She also moves on stage with such apparent ease, and is at home singing in many styles, or no style, or a deranged style (hello from me to the latter).

Beyond that, and all the more importantly, Jessica shares SCO’s philosophical objective of art that challenges, and of challenging (the verb) art, past and present. She has written eloquently in support of her and SCO’s collaboration with the Conservatorium’s Composing Women program (Breaking Glass, 2020), and the philosophy of reinventing the representation of women on the opera stage. This is important to me too, although I am all too aware of my immutable limitations in respect of this objective as a cisgendered male composer. I was keen to create a work that, firstly, took technical heed of the absolutely precise guidance Jessica provided in respect of her instrument (and person), but that secondly and most importantly gave her musical material that she could owner-operate. The second objective ought naturally to follow success in the first. She couldn’t have made it easier. In every instance where an individual moment made little sense or sat poorly in the voice she fixed it with grace and musical intelligence, always interrogating the dramaturgy. We should all be so lucky to work with performers who think so deeply about the philosophy of their art practice and in whom we can so easily place our trust.

Interview originally published in full by Sydney Chamber Opera.