2016 Ojai Music Festival: Claude Vivier’s Kopernikus

A heavy sky hung over Libbey Bowl on the final afternoon of the 2016 Ojai Music Festival, as performers all in white arranged themselves on Peter Sellars‘s blocky altar-like set to present the American premiere of Claude Vivier’s Kopernikus. Scant hours earlier, a lone gunman had killed almost 50 people in the worst American mass shooting in recent history, opening fire at an Orlando gay club’s Latin Night. Vivier, who was openly gay, lost his own life in a senseless act of violence at the young age of 34. The poignancy of the parallel was clear. Sellars emerged from the wings and solemnly called for one minute of silence in memory of the victims before the performance started.

“In a crisis of civilization as profound as the one we are going through now on this planet, the human being perhaps has a need of a return to an intimate, fetal state,” the composer wrote. Kopernikus is subtitled “a ritual opera,” but it has none of the visual trappings of opera or oratorio. There is no hero, no villain, no conflict, and no defined narrative arc. Loosely, Kopernikus is the ritual of the holy child Agni’s passing from one world to the next, and the proximity of the work to Vivier’s death has led some to call it the composer’s requiem for himself. Vivier’s vision of the after-death is only vaguely religious, brushed lightly by his childhood surrounded by nuns, more inspired by magic and the fantastical. Agni greets Merlin, Lewis Carroll, and heretical astronomers, and they recede into the background without saying goodbye.

Much of the singing is in a nonsense phonetic language, which when spoken sounds like an infant’s passing impression of the sounds coming from the giants surrounding her. To sing and declaim in a constructed language presents a challenge, especially when the only definite authority on the language is deceased. The opera’s seven singers, all members of Roomful of Teeth, are quite used to weaving music from nothing but syllables, but their approaches were unique. Alto Caroline Shaw, as Agni, let the syllables flow as easily and naturally as if she were speaking English or French, while the three male singers mostly used a theatrical sprechstimme including eerie forced laughter. (I’ve never met a notated laugh that I liked.) Soprano Esteli Gomez brought forth a beautiful, high cascade in the finale of the first section, blending the syllables together in an ecstatic chant.

Roomful of Teeth--Photo by Bonica Ayala

Roomful of Teeth–Photo by Bonica Ayala

The texture was homophonic for the most part, individual voices and instruments rising out of the shimmering clouds of harmony to add contrast. A trio of clarinets trilled and swooped like exotic birds. A trombone at the top of the altar and trumpet at the back of the audience were the heavenly horns of the West, while softly chiming gongs and temple bells added an Eastern religious accent. The dancer Michael Schumacher lay face down on the altar for all of the first act, rising at the trumpet’s call and moving up the aisles as if sleepwalking. Remembering it after the fact is like remembering a fading dream, with important details standing out in colorful streaks and the background continually shifting.

Sunday morning, seeking solace from the tragedy that had scarred the world while Ojai slept, I sat down by the small shelf of poetry volumes lent by local literary labyrinth Bart’s Books, and opened up a slim gray book by Mary Oliver to:

The man who has many answers

is often found

in the theaters of information

where he offers, graciously,

his deep findings.

While the man who has only questions,

to comfort himself, makes music.

Kopernikus was that music: music of uncertainty, unanswerable questions, and dreams of a return to perfect innocence.