Opera rising out of the Ring of Steel: Repudiating Oran

By Stella Joseph-Jarecki (Enquiries: stellamusicwriter.wordpress.com)

When you hear the word ‘opera’, do you think of something created through international online collaboration, influenced by a pandemic, a painting of Hell, Béla Bartók, and Steve Reich? I’m guessing not.

But maybe after reading this article, you will.

This piece was written as part of a paid partnership. Unless otherwise stated, all material published on Fever Pitch Magazine is put together through voluntary contributions from the editor (Stella Joseph-Jarecki) or guest contributors.

Repudiating Oran

Music and libretto by Luke Belle, Emilio Guarino, Sofia Elisabeth Laursen Habel and Michael Folmer Hansen.

Sung by Luke Belle and Sofia Elisabeth Laursen Habel with The Chromatic Production Orchestra. Narrated by Mike Brady, AM.

Arranged, mixed and mastered by Emilio Guarino.

Produced by Michael Folmer Hansen.

Repudiating Oran is a chamber opera entirely conceived and composed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Running at thirty minutes long, it is the result of a collaboration between four individuals: composers Michael Hansen and Emilio Guarino, and classically trained singers Sofia Laursen Habel and Luke Belle. It is currently available to stream and download on Bandcamp, Spotify and Apple Music.

While Michael, Luke and Sofia all reside in Victoria, Emilio is based in the US. Due to Stage 4 lockdown in Melbourne, none of the group were able to meet in person. The global COVID-19 pandemic not only necessitated digitally-distanced collaboration, but provided the impetus for the story of the opera itself.

Repudiating Oran follows two lovers, Mi and Albert. Mi is under quarantine in Oran while Albert lives in freedom outside Oran’s Ring of Steel. Together they hatch a plan for Mi’s escape, and we follow their journey until its end. (Oran is also the name of the French Algerian city quarantined during the Bubonic Plague in Albert Camus’ novel The Plague.)

Michael was strongly inspired by the right panel of Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights. The far-right panel depicts a surreal and nightmarish iteration of Hell. “I first saw the picture when I was a kid… it has been in my dreams for more than forty years. It’s full of stories, of suffering, of hellish things like COVID.”

Right-hand panel in Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’. Dated between 1490 and 1510.

Michael and Emilio have worked together on a number of projects before, but Repudiating Oran marks the pair’s first foray into opera. (Michael cites minimalist composers Phillip Glass and Steve Reich as musical influences, and Nick Cave when it comes to writing a libretto). Once Emilio received the initial musical sketches from Michael, he began the process of creating a thicker orchestral arrangement. The two singers then came on board, kickstarting an unorthodox but complementary composition process.

Emilio describes, “We found our own solutions. Rather than telling Sofia and Luke what to do and sending sheet music, I had them improvise and record ideas to my orchestral sketches. Then, they would send the recordings to me via Dropbox and I could chop them up and arrange their parts with the sound itself rather than using the tradition pencil and paper process.

We would then discuss over a zoom call and bounce things back and forth a few times until we found something that worked. It’s definitely more of a ‘producer’ approach than a ‘composer’ approach. The idea was that it helped get around the audio limitations of a Zoom call as well as build the vocal parts around ideas that were specific to Luke and Sofia. I wanted the whole thing to have their fingerprints all over it.”

A collaboration session over Zoom. From left to right, top row: Sofia Laursen Habel, Michael Hansen, Emilio Guarino. Bottom row: Mike Brady AM

And how does the finished product sound? Despite being put together without a recording studio, the sound quality is crisp. (Thanks to the compact technology of USB microphones). Those who baulk at the idea of three-hour-long operas can relax- this is a succinct and melodic piece filled with punchy percussion and hypnotic looping motifs on string and brass.

Although the well-worn trope of star-crossed-lovers drives the story, it’s accompanied by wry narrations which reposition fragments of Shakespeare, letting us know this opera can laugh at itself: “Two regions, both alike in dignity, separated by a Ring of Steel/ From ancient natural threat break new novel virus/ Where unclean hands- and breath- speaks civil death.” These narration segments were bought to life by Mike Brady AM.

Soprano Sofia believes Repudiating Oran is playing a part in “bridging the gap between traditional and modern opera, while opening up a space to what could be. We’ve taken parts of the traditional art form, such as an overture, recitative and aria, and then expanded them into the 21st century. We composed from a basis of “there are no rules”, while still knowing and appreciating the traditions of opera.”

It’s also nice to have an opera where the tenor dies at the end instead of the soprano.”

She has a point there.

Sofia Elisabeth Laursen Habel (left) and Luke Belle

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