a chamber opera in seven scenes
for soprano, mezzo-soprano, countertenor, baritone, clarinet, saxophone, violin, percussion and electronics
Performed by Guerilla Opera
Aliana de la Guardia, soprano; Carrie Cheron, mezzo-soprano; Douglas Dodson, countertenor; Brian Church, baritone;
Amy Advocat, clarinets; Gabriela Diaz, violin; Kent O’Doherty, saxophones; Mike Williams, percussion; Alfonso Peduto, electronics
Libretto by Paul Schick
When Guerilla Opera first approached me with the possibility of composing for them, I immediately considered drawing on the strange and mysterious life of the Norwegian novelist Pedr Solis. I have been fascinated with this little-known experimental author of modernist literature for several years now, and have composed a number of pieces based on his novels and ideas. When I approached Paul Schick about the possibility of writing a libretto somehow involving this man and his work, he became very excited about the idea. It was my description of Solis’ novel Stillaset that most interested Paul. He immediately made a connection with a play called The Tower, by Hugo von Hofmannsthal (who, incidentally, was the librettist for some of Richard Strauss’ best known operas).
The resulting libretto for the opera Pedr Solis is a complex tale that deftly blends elements of Solis’ life in Norway, his novel Stillaset, and Hoffmansthal’s play. The Hoffmannsthal play, The Tower, involves a king who sequesters his only offspring, the crown prince, in a tower after it is prophesied that the prince will kill him. The characters in the opera Pedr Solis are drawn from Solis’ life and novels, while the dramatic action is mostly from Hofmannsthal’s play. The separation between these sources is not clearly defined, leading to some intriguing ambiguity in the story line. For example Solis’ role in the opera is both that of an author, with the power only to alter the realities encompassed by his own works of fiction, and a king-figure, the leader of some unspecified realm. Ignis is both Solis’ son (and heir to his “kingdom”), and the main character from Solis’ novel Stillaset. (In reality, as far as I can discern, the actual author Pedr Solis had no children). The setting of the opera fluctuates between the undesignated “mythic time” of the novel Stillaset, and Solis’ Oslo of the nineteen seventies.
The life and work of the man, Pedr Solis, warrants further explanation. Solis was arguably one of the most abstract practitioners of literary modernism to emerge from Norway. Stillaset (or “The Scaffold”), his most famous novel, was written in the late nineteen-sixties. The story describes the journey of an unnamed protagonist as he navigates a seemingly infinitely large edifice. The early chapters chronicle an orderly progression through a series of barren chambers, drawing on imagery of sterility, order, empty self-referentiality (a library filled with bibliographies, for example), and moonlight. However this sterility is disrupted upon his discovery of a “Black Book”, a type of compendium of Norwegian folklore and magic maintained even into the modern age. The linear narrative begins to break down as elements drawn from Norse mythology intervene. The text itself deteriorates as well, increasingly intruded upon by passages in Old Norse. Images of monsters such as Fenris, Hel and Jormundgand, as well as Loki, their father, begin to appear. He enters rooms but never leaves them, finds himself in rooms he has never entered. He is struck by the color of the sky, the trees, and especially their roots, which seem intertwined with everything. The solidity of the walls seems to fluctuate, rendering some rooms discrete, others continuous. These intrusions, these disruptions of existing order are both terrifying and beautiful. The novel does not have an ending in the traditional sense. The author’s Norwegian is eventually overcome completely by Old Norse, which itself comes apart – letters, sentences, and finally paragraphs go missing or are replaced with symbols resembling runes.
After completing Stillaset, Solis is said to have begun work on follow up novel. It was never completed however, and only scraps of his notes are extant. At some point during this process he simply disappeared from public view. As best I can determine, he either died or quietly retired in isolation to the very North of Norway (or perhaps both).
This opera was commissioned and premiered by Guerilla Opera.