Nicholas Lens is a Belgian contemporary music composer, best known for his opera work. Together with the South-African and Australian writer JM Coetzee, he has written the opera Costello in Limbo (Elizabeth Costello at the gate). An extract of this opera will be presented at Adelaide Festival 2024 this March under the name Is this the gate? We chat with Nicholas Lens about this opera, his work with JM Coetzee, and with Nick Cave and much more.
IS THIS THE GATE ? AND HIS WORK WITH JM COETZEE
Nicholas Lens, at Adelaide Festival, a special concert will present in a worldwide premiere a major extract of a new opera you composed. Tell us a little about this opera and the extract that will be presented.
I will read to you a summary I have just written:
The famous author Elizabeth Costello has died. In the afterlife, she comes to a massive door (“If this is the threshold to the afterlife,” Elizabeth quips, “couldn’t they have come up with something more original?”). Costello is curious to see what lies behind the door and would like to go through. But she is stopped. As before, she has to justify her life as a writer.
Is this the gate? is a preview of the entire opera Costello in Limbo (Elizabeth Costello at the gate) (2.5 hours), based on the novel Elizabeth Costello by John M. Coetzee. This is the second opera I’ve written to a libretto by John M. Coetzee. The first was called Slow Man and premiered at the Malta Festival in Poznan. Our third opera, The Master of St Petersburg, will be centred on an event that occurred during the life of Feodor Dostoyevsky.
In this preview of Is this the gate? the orchestration has been reduced from symphony orchestra, a women’s choir, 6 soloists (Costello, the Guardian, Kapo and the 3 Judges) to a single vocal soloist (Elizabeth Costello) and a small chamber ensemble.
This isn’t the first time audiences at the Adelaide Festival have heard your work, with Flamma Flamma performed on the opening night of the festival in 1998. Are you coming to Australia for the festival this time?
Yes, I’m coming to the Festival this year and I’ll be attending some of the artists’ rehearsals. 1998 was a long time ago. Back then I was at the beginning of my career and I hope my technique and skills have improved since then :). The funny thing is that Flamma Flamma will be re-released worldwide in April 2024 on double vinyl and in all digital stores. This is a re-release 30 years after the original’s release, as a sort of celebration. The album has been completely reissued and remastered. Sometimes in the past I’ve called Flamma Flamma a sin of youth, but now I see it as an honest creation of that time and the person I was.
This extract is from an opera you wrote with J.M. Coetzee. This isn’t the first time you’ve worked together either. How long have you been working together and how did you meet?
We wrote the opera Slow Man (Coitus with a Stranger) together, based on his book Slow Man. The work premiered in 2012 in Poznan at the Malta Festival in a magnificent production by Maja Kleczewska. Only a month ago, the work was purchased for publication by Mute Song Ltd with prints by Chester Music and I would love to see the work resurrected as it is one of my favourite creations. Indeed, I consider Slow Man to be one of my most accomplished works to date.
I believe you are Belgian based in Belgium and JM Coetzee is South African based in Australia from what I understand. How do you work together?
We don’t want to reveal the method, if there is one. Not because I don’t want to be generous, but rather because I’m afraid the magic would disappear if I analysed our working relationship for myself and for an audience. So it’s hard to go into detail, because we are still working together, both on the opera Costello in Limbo (the full 2.5-hour version) and on another opera, The Master of Petersburg, inspired by a rather peculiar event in the life of Feodor Dostoyevsky. At first, we had many exchanges by letters and emails, but then we met for the first time in Toulouse, France. Since then, things have been going according to plan.
Did you read his novel Elizabeth Costello, on which the libretto is based, before composing the music?
Of course, I’ve read the novel, like almost all JM Coetzee’s works.
The opera adaptations we create from the novels are perhaps still different from the original story, because the book already exists. We give different accents to the protagonists; their physical presence, and the fact that all the words are sung give them a completely different dramaturgy. In particular, the tension that develops is not the same as when you read the work on your own.
In general, with JM Coetzee for Slow Man, I personally chose the characters we were going to work with from his book, and came up with a first draft of a sober, lyrical transcription. On this basis, John continued and eventually wrote the libretto. But for Costello and The Master of Petersburg, John does everything himself. Once again, there are no rules.
What is the extract that Adelaide Festival audiences will hear about?
In this preview, Costello eagerly steals text extracts from other soloists (from the full opera) and adopts them to make her point. In a sense, she confronts an imagined duality of her own nature, both intellectual and rebellious.
Are there any specific emotions or messages you wish to evoke through your music?
Interesting question, but difficult to answer. I’m an instinctive writer, which means I don’t intellectualise what I write. Perhaps that might come later, when I’m orchestrating and structuring these impulses. So I’m not aware of any specific message that might be hidden in these thoughts, but I don’t rule them out. You mention emotions. It’s not emotions that I’m looking for or that I want to trigger, because I can’t control them either. I just want to tell an honest story and I hope it will be understood.
How would you describe your musical style? Is there anything unique about this opera that sets it apart from others?
Again, it’s difficult to answer, but it’s interesting. I come from very different backgrounds, my mother was a classical pianist and my father conducted Gregorian chants for a male choir. Classical and contemporary music was all that was allowed in the house. So, when I was a teenager, I secretly went to listen to Jimi Hendrix, Jethro Tull, Black Sabbath, CCR, etc, outside the family home. This might explain why in the beginning, as in Flamma Flamma, I even allowed the pop structure in my work at times, because it seemed completely natural to me. I was after all a child of my time. Of course, later on I started to work in a way that didn’t rely exclusively on tonal structures and I began to experiment with rhythms; and different and more complex sounds. My work today is a mixture of all that, of simplicity versus complexity, of vulgarity versus tenderness, and all that without questioning it. I use it as it comes.
Are there any specific musical techniques or instruments that play a crucial role in this composition?
Is this the gate? is written for mezzo soprano, bassoon, piano and string quartet – a very classical configuration, so to speak. Occasionally, the musicians themselves also participate in the production of vocal sounds, but this is rather limited and is used more as a modest sound effect.
OTHER WORKS: NICHOLAS LENS AND NICK CAVE
You’ve also worked with Australian singer-songwriter Nick Cave on an opera about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in soldiers returning from war. How did you come to work together?
The Opéra Royal de la Monnaie asked me to write a piece on this subject. It’s a subject that appealed to me because I was born in a so-called war town, Ypres, near the French border in Flanders, where the First World War was the epicentre of millions of deaths.
I called Nick who immediately said yes and sent me a few texts in just a few hours. We met in Los Angeles and started working by sending each other snippets, then we worked mainly in his kitchen in his old house in Brighton. It all went really well, smooth and cool. The work was also performed live in Paris and there is now an interest in Australia to revive it here too, because the work is not about a particular war but about war in general, its universal aspect in all its idiocy and suffering.
JM Coetzee and Nick Cave are writers blessed with a very strong authenticity, in other words: every word they have written is true, almost written with blood between their fingers. Sometimes it hurts to read them, but it’s certainly sincere and human, and that’s why it’s an honour to be able to work with people of this calibre.
ABOUT NICHOLAS LENS AND HIS PROCESS
What attracted you to the world of opera composition and how did you get started?
I started writing without thinking, ever since I was 13 actually. It was like that, I wrote in secret, and I didn’t show it to anyone. Until I dared to publish my first writings. For me, the lyrical structure is the ultimate form of theatre. There are all these layers of expression, and each layer has its own dramaturgical tension. If used well, these dramaturgies come together in an overwhelming whole, creating an impression that cannot be compared to any other form of staging. A singing voice does not lie, perhaps not because it does not want to, but because it is simply not capable of lying. Any hesitation, even if technically masked, will be heard. Lyrical discipline creates the opportunity to combine beauty with cruelty, virtuosity with sobriety, and eminence with indecency.
As the language is not spoken, it provokes a different thrill to direct communication, certainly a more penetrating one, as it takes time to let the whole experience be absorbed into your joints and bones. Especially over the long term, it can work like a slow but pleasant and healthy intoxication. If it’s done well, the intensity stays with you like a strong perfume that refuses to vaporise. Especially at a time when our attention to things in general has become very brief and limited, opera is a mental well-being in its own right.
Are there any specific Belgian or cultural influences that can be identified in your opera? What impact does your cultural background have on your compositional style?
I was strongly influenced by contemporary dance, which since my childhood has been very present in my country and extremely developed, and has even become a reference worldwide. Reading books, travelling, meeting people of very different natures, in particular the confrontation between the Latin and Germanic cultures that form the backbone of Belgian culture, have always been my sources of inspiration and that has never changed.
What is your creative process?
There are no rules. When I started out, I didn’t even have a piano, I wrote my first works completely in my head, just with a pencil. Now everything suits me: singing motifs on a recorder while I’m on the road, rushing to the toilet at dinner to write notes on toilet paper, working at the piano or directly on software. No rules. That’s the fun of it.
How do you approach the creation of characters and the construction of a story through music?
The characters in JM Coetzee’s books are as solid as concrete, all I have to do is transform them into a musical presence based on their original credibility. The fact that they tell the story through both their physical presence and their voices creates the possibility of not exaggerating the dramatic tension, because in opera we already have all these different layers.
You compose works that will be performed by others. Do you ever present them yourself?
I was a performer for many years. Now I just write for other people.
Why should people buy tickets to Is this the gate? concert at the Adelaide Festival?
- Both writers will be there, for what it’s worth 🙂
- The Australian performers have excellent credentials.
- Everything will be filmed, but there’s nothing like being there live.
- It’s the first time this work will be performed, especially in a particular format.
- And I would say, read the book, then come and see it. It will make the performance even richer.
Anything else you’d like to tell us?
The Adelaide Festival is considered to be one of the three great festivals in the world, along with the Avignon Festival and the Edinburgh Festival. It’s an honour for me to come and I’m really looking forward to it.
We thank Nicholas Lens for this interview and look forward to hearing the opera excerpt at the Adelaide Festival this March.
KEY INFO FOR IS THIS THE GATE?
WHAT: Is this the gate? A major excerpt from an opera written by JM Coetzee and Nicholas Lens
WHERE: Elder Hall
WHEN: 12.30pm, 8 March 2024
HOW: Buy tickets for Is this the Gate? via this link
HOW MUCH: Ticket prices are as follows:
- Adults $39
- Friends of the festival $33
- Concession : 30 (Discounted tickets are available to pensioners, health card holders and MEAA/Actors’ Equity members. NOTE Commonwealth Senior Health and Seniors cards are not eligible).
- Under 30 $20 (ID required)
- Full-time student $20 (ID required)
For events with links to France and the Francophonie taking place in Australia this month, see our What’s on in January article.