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Liza Lim
Singing in Tongues Antonio Poscic , December 14th, 2021 09:49

The music of Australian composer Liza Lim turns opera on its head, finding thrilling new paths for contemporary vocal music, finds Antonio Poscic

If most traditions of Western classical music have become ossified, mindlessly performative mimicries of their original selves, then opera is most guilty of this sin. Far removed from its Wagnerian missive of overflowing emotion in each phrase and gesture, its predominant mainstream manifestations are often a repetitive cliché, full of inescapably bland tales wrapped in baroque thespian mannerisms and sordid musical shapes. It’s a shame, seeing how opera’s intersection of arts offers a potent medium for contemporary explorations. Enter Liza Lim’s radical reframing of operatic traditions. While operas and other vocal pieces make a relatively small part of the Australian composer’s very productive career, they appear as cornerstones of her practice, guiding her compositional approach from its very beginnings right to this day.

Singing in Tongues is a triple release that compiles four of Lim’s seminal works as interpreted by Australia’s ELISION Ensemble: 1993’s opera in seven parts The Oresteia, a scene from 2000’s “ritual street opera” Yuè Lìng Jié, 2005’s song cycle Mother Tongue, and 2008’s opera The Navigator. Spanning fifteen years, there is a vivid thread connecting these works. On a conceptual level, they share transgressive transcultural, anthropological, and metaphysical motifs that try to transform common tragedies, romances, and conflicts into something more. On a musical and performative level, the opera is no longer purely a stage for retelling someone else’s story, but a form that allows both performers and audiences to become parts of its existence.

Take, as an example, the ‘Chang-O Flies to the Moon’ scene from the Yuè Lìng Jié (or ‘Moon Spirit Feasting’) opera that Lim envisaged to be performed in the streets, between food vendors. The piece not only replicates the atmosphere of the Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival, but becomes its living and breathing instance, blurring the divide between audiences and musicians. Here, Deborah Kayser’s mezzosoprano scintillates gurgling growls into muted highs, pressing them against a ploinking koto and a delirious violin martelé. However loose, this is also the tamest piece on the album, bookended on either side by the raw and unfiltered Oresteia and the poignant Mother Tongue.

The former is among Lim’s earliest works, a “memory theatre in seven parts” where each singer takes on multiple voices and becomes multiple characters. That we hear Aeschylus’s Orestes or Cassandra or Clytemnestra is beside the point. Rather, we’re invited to immerse ourselves in their essences as sculpted by the singers’ overwhelming physical delivery. Their voices are stretched to extremes. They spasm from slushing whispers through delirious glossolalia to throbbing death rasps, accompanied by a sparse yet attention-grabbing, steelpan-infested percussive backdrop that gives rhythm to the cyclical nature of the music. Appropriately, Liza Lim and Barrie Kosky’s libretto is similarly unfettered, formulated from Greek and English fragments of the original play and verses from Sappho’s poetry.

Lim further explores her fascination with language as an interlacing layer of humanity on Mother Tongue, a cycle for soprano and fifteen instruments that pokes at its titular term from multiple angles. To understand how language shapes individuals and civilisations, the opera weaves its own dialectical fabric. It borrows words and phrases from dominant idioms and languages on the brink of extinction alike, then makes them all equally fragile while fusing them into a continuous whole. Compared to the soprano’s deranged role in The Oresteia, Piia Komsi’s delivery is less visceral and more abstract now, metaphorical rather than literal. As she interprets Patricia Sykes’s libretto, her voice swallows the text, making it a part of its own inflections, meandering from beseeching shrieks to controlled plateaus swept away by lonely Ganassi recorder lines.

The Navigator brings an abstract conclusion to this imagined narrative by deep diving into the metatextual until a parallel reality is created. Here, the harsh noise of electric guitar feedback and voices mangled by whistles, yowls, cackles, and throat vibrations complete the transformation and create a space not quite of this world. And although any original sources and themes that inspired Patricia Sykes’s libretto are only vaguely alluded to, they are simultaneously so vivid that you can almost feel yourself falling into their sinister world.