Time, possession & ventriloquism in my operas

I recently participated in a very stimulating workshop on opera, ‘Sound & Story’, convened by the composer Hans Thomalla and held at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, 28-29 June 2017. Here’s my talk text (long read – who knew that the scroll format would come back into vogue after all these centuries…)

The Future-present-past voice: possession and ventriloquism in my operatic works

It starts with distortion – otototoi – Cassandra’s lament against Apollo’s curse. Popoi da! Prophecy pushes against a silencing wall of rationality – the Greek chorus is deaf to Cassandra’s words and can only hear the noise of something lost in translation, the distortion created as her words cast from the future are squeezed through too small an aperture in the present.

Ex. 1 Scene 1 of The Oresteia (1993), libretto by Liza Lim after Tony Harrison’s version of Aeschylus’ trilogy, ELISION cond. Sandro Gorli, Melbourne  [excerpt 0’00-2’10]

That’s the opening of my first opera ‘The Oresteia’ (1993) performed by ELISION with production directed by Barrie Kosky. Written 25 years ago, it’s a 70-minute version of Aeschylus’ trilogy in which fragments of story surface through the performers through acts of possession. The floor of the stage is charged, barely separating the living from the dead, and any of the singers or musicians that step onto its surface can suddenly be caught up as channels to the unrequited voices of Cassandra, Clytemnestra, Agamemnon, Orestes, The Furies. ‘The Oresteia’… it’s a well-worn tale that has worked well for opera composers, a mythic story that doesn’t need much re-telling because you already know the outlines. The possibility of relying on a certain level of redundancy in the text and its meanings, allows me as a composer to occupy a more speculative space in which music’s affective power can do most of the work of communication.

This early experience with making opera, in which a predilection for excess is sustained on stage by the thematic framework of performers channelling archaic forces has shaped my choices in three subsequent operatic works. The staging of presence itself has been at the forefront of my concerns. In these works, story usually exists as a mythic template for archetypal figures, for symbolic psychic manoeuvres and projections of various kinds. Where story is foregrounded, it is deliberately about the ‘retelling’ of story: in my second opera ‘Moon Spirit Feasting’ the Monkey King and the Queen Mother of the West, a demon goddess, compete in a song competition to tell their versions of the tale of Chang-O, the Moon Goddess. In my most recent opera ‘Tree of Codes’, Adela sings ‘Let me tell you a story’ before recounting a version of the fairytale become horror-story, ‘Der Erlkönig’. In ‘The Navigator’, the story that is retold is of the ship that flies the false flag, the fake news of Isolde’s death, as Tristan awaits her arrival.

Each of these re-tellings are concerned with narrative slippage where meanings are ambiguous and open up a rift. In that rift something arises; there we find extra presences that compete to be heard. What the hell is that story really about? This extra presence – the hidden voice, the story that lies beyond another story – is staged in my work through possession and ventriloquism. In both of these things, we are dealing with a special kind of voicing, a voice that comes from pushing one identity aside in order for another to come forward.

I mentioned distortion and you could say that that is almost a default state in my music. It comes from a fascination with emergence, the sense of something arriving. I say ‘pushing aside’ because with distortion there is distension and compression. That deformation suggests to me a trace, the evidence of invisible presences squeezing through into our space-time field. Distortion brings strangeness, alien-ness, divine or demonic energies, shock, repulsion, awe and other signs of the sublime into view.

In my opera ‘The Navigator’, there is an Angel of History character borrowed from Walter Benjamin famous aphorism. The Angel is a figure ‘moving with its back to the future’, a paradoxical inertia-filled movement into the future whilst looking at the spillage of the past. The Angel for me is, like Cassandra, a figure possessed by a future-present state whilst also channelling the past. What would the voice of that conjugation of time sound like?

Ex. 2 ‘Angel of History’ aria from The Navigator (2008), libretto by Patricia Sykes. performed by soprano Deborah Kayser, ELISION cond. Manuel Nawri, director Barrie Kosky, Brisbane dress rehearsal

The Angel of History channels multiple voices – there are human, demonic-angelic, bird-like and bestial voices that are trying to break through and they’re all competing for space in the cavities of the singer’s body. These voices possess the singer, moving her and jerking her around like a puppet.

The distortion here is completely acoustic/analogue and there’s no use of electronics at all. The soprano is singing and also whistling with a little plastic membrane stuck to the top palette of her mouth, and the distortion and beating effects are created by the interference patterns of the criss-crossing lines of sound. The singer is literally grappling with multiple fields of energy inside her body, that transform her body as she gives in to these states of possession and pure presence.

Here, ‘story’ in the narrative sense of creating a sequence of causal events is veiled; one only captures a few bare threads of text retroactively out of the metamorphoses of language and sound; meanings are suspended during the performance and concepts overwhelmed by the intensity of those simultaneities of voice.


A variation on the theme of a play of voices and identities can be found in my Chinese street opera ‘Moon Spirit Feasting’ (1999) where ‘voice’ might be understood as grammatical ‘person’. [Lydia Liu’s work on the translation of Chinese pronouns was important here – the gendered 3rd person didn’t exist in written Chinese until the early 20thC when Chinese scholars ‘invented’ it to translate European texts because originally, ‘it’ covered he and she contextually]. The opera deals with multiple versions of the story of Chang-O, the Moon Goddess who stole the elixir of immortality and flew to the moon – ask any two Chinese people to tell you the story and I can guarantee that they’ll immediately get into an argument as to whose version is more authentic. This contestation of the ‘real’ story and who gets to speak it is one of the through-lines of this opera.

Scene 6 of the opera is called ‘Chang-O Flies to the Moon’. The text by librettist Beth Yahp, is structured around a set of grammatical translations in which the character, Chang-O, first tells her story in the third person which then shifts to the first person before reaching out into the second person – from ‘she’, to ‘I’ and then to ‘you’, the ‘shadow sister’.

Ex. 3 Libretto for Scene 6 of Yue Ling Jie – Moon Spirit Feasting (1999), poem by Beth Yahp

Chang-O text

In the music, distortion is again the destabilising, liquidating energy that enables movements between states of being to occur. The verse structure is matched by the looping of musical phrases that start with a high-pitched suspension on the 3rd person pronoun, ‘she’, moving to distorted ululations that jolt things forward into a tracing and retracing of melodic contours. At the word ‘I’, there is a shift to the declarative spoken voice. The bondage of the musical circling is broken. We hear the woman’s speaking voice as an authoritative gesture before she sings her own name and claims her story for herself.

Ex. 4 Scene 6, ‘Chang-O flies to the Moon’ from Yue Ling Jie – Moon Spirit Feasting, libretto by Beth Yahp, Deborah Kayser soprano, ELISION cond. Simon Hewitt (Brisbane, 1999)

Chang-O’s scene ends with an embrace between ‘I’ and ‘you’ suggesting a new I-you pronoun – not subject-object but, to repurpose Steven Connor’s words [about Michel Serres (with apologies!)], ‘Rather, they enter into each other’s composition, such that the reciprocal constitution of subject and object is both inaugural and ongoing’ (Connor, 2009, p.8). From a kind of estrangement or dissociation of identity, the text traverses different facets of personhood – it moves from the distanced view of the subject being spoken about, to a self-speaking subject that, in a twist at the end, brings in an extra layer of unification with a transpersonal self. There I see something of the melancholy of the ventriloquist’s subjection of and possession by another subject.


In so many operatic ‘mad scenes’, the female voice has been associated with emotional volatility and loss of control. Opera has often focussed on the woman’s voice as siren call – seductive, sexualised and dangerous. And actually, all power to that! The gendered valuations and devaluations of things variously called ‘shrill’, ‘volatile’, ‘hysterical’ – everything related to distortion – are for me, a source of deep knowledge and beauty. For me, there’s a basic truthfulness in noise – particularly the high intensity full spectrum kind – and the way it disrupts norms, the way it invades the body and blurs boundaries between things, the way ecstasy creates its own time and space and physicality. Noise creates force fields with which and within which, one can conjur up presences.

In my most recent opera ‘Tree of Codes’ premiered last year at Oper Köln with Ensemble Musikfabrik, the theme of ventriloquism as identity shift is attached not just to the female character but also to the figure of the ‘Son’, played by the baritone Christian Miedl. The opera is based on Jonathan Safran Foer’s cut-out book of the same title which was made by filtering words and phrases out of existing stories in ‘Street of Crocodiles’ (1943) by the Polish writer Bruno Schultz. With Safran Foer’s book one can read the story of a man’s last day of life (or extra day of life) by focussing on the surface of each page but one also can literally see through holes or slots in each of the pages so that one glimpses multiple layers of the story to come. It’s a perforated story (you can see why I was attracted to it) marked by an existential riddle – how do we know we’re alive, and what would we do with one last day.

Ex. 5 page view, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes (2010)

Tree of Codes book

The Son asks those questions and provides the answers: ‘Is my father alive?’; ‘No, he’s dead’; ‘Does he guess?’; ‘No, he doesn’t guess’; ‘This is a secret operation’; ‘Here we reactivate time past’.

Here’s part of that riddle in the opening act of the opera:

Ex. 6 Excerpt from Act 1, Tree of Codes (2016), libretto be Liza Lim after Jonathan Safran Foer. First riddle, Son, baritone Christian Miedl, Opera Köln, Ensemble MusikFabrik cond. Clement Power, directed by Massimo Furlan with theatre performers of Numero 23 Prod. 

And here it is again in a dialogue in English and Polish in which the questions and answers bounce around as if like voices in the head of the Son as he hovers over the Father’s body.

Ex. 7 Excerpt from Act 3, dialogue in English & Polish, Son, baritone Christian Miedl; Father, Yael Rion; Doctor, Stéphane Vecchione 

Where’s the distortion?

If I had opera singers who could do Mongolian throat singing meets death metal meets Korean p’ansori I’d be really happy. But I don’t… so in this opera, the singers generally vocalise in a rather lyrical, bel canto way (& actually, I also love this sound) and distortion is voiced ‘off board’ in the instrumental accompaniment. In the section following the English-Polish dialogue, that quality of otherness that I seek to evoke through disturbances in sonic surfaces is grafted around the baritone voice by the accompanying bassoon. The Son, now turning into the Father, sings of death and madness, caught up in a rocking lullaby-boat song of bassoon multiphonics.

Ex. 8 Excerpt from Act 3, Tree of Codes, Baritone, Christian Miedl; doctor, Stéphane Vecchione; bassoon, Lorelei Dowling; Ensemble Musikfabrik cond. Clement Power, directed by Massimo Furlan (Cologne dress rehearsal, 2016) 

Instruments are used as ‘off board’ components of the voices in various ways throughout the opera. This aspect of instruments as distributed components of voices was highlighted in the production directed by Massimo Furlan where the musicians were, as you could see in the video, on stage as characters, moving and interacting with the singers and actors and at times also singing. Their presence on stage heightens the artifice of the theatrical situation – there’s no behind the scenes or pit – you can see the dress up, you know it’s a drag show, the puppets and the masters are all in view.

Yet there is much that is ‘hidden in plain sight’. Though things may seem to be obvious, like all good magic, they also remain somewhat unaccountable. At the end of Act 3, Adela, played by soprano Emily Hindrichs, swaps role with a plant-creature… and relates a version of Goethe’s ‘Der Erlkönig’ as told by Bruno Schulz. What you hear is both her chanting whisper and the chanting of rasping woodblocks. The speech patterns of Goethe’s poem are transferred into these froggy, insectoid scraping sounds. The text is hidden but the meaning still comes across – the thread of the story is carried into an alien soundscape yet we still understand what those blocks are saying in their secret woody tongue.

Ex. 8, End of Act 3, Tree of Codes, Adela, soprano Emily Hindrichs, Oper Köln, Ensemble MusikFabrik cond. Clement Power, directed by Massimo Furlan

Wer reitet so spät durch Nacht und Wind
Es ist der Vater mit seinem Kind

(Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Der Erlkönig)

These are words that tell a devastating story and I think they’re made even more devastating when spoken by blocks of wood. In those scraping sounds something else beyond the words is coming through and coming to life. Like Bruno Schulz’s stories in which mutant birds made of papier maché fall from the sky; where people are turned into useless machines; the father turned into a cockroach, objects and life-forms become interchangeable. The semantic communication of the soprano’s voice is replaced by percussive utterance, by sonorous gesture. We trick ourselves into hearing words where there are none. Inanimate wooden blocks take on an animistic power. In agreeing to the illusion – that woodblocks speak – we fall for the oldest ventriloquist’s trick in the book: we ourselves recreate speech from less than clear enunciations and believe that the words emanate from the puppet. We put up with the poor sampling rate for the information and anthropomorphize the object. The retroactive meanings we put together ‘after the fact’, is the future collapsing back into the past so that we understand what is happening as if in the present. Ventriloquism is a time-space shift act – a shifty sleight of hand between meaning and voice.

In my operas, there are oblique relationships between story and sound, meaning and presence, where things may not be in the places where we might expect to find them.

Timothy Morton in his book ‘Realist magic’ (obviously I’m indebted to the polymath thinking of both Morton & Steven Connor), says ‘Time emerges from relations between things. The meaning of an object is in its future, in how it relates to other objects, including those objects that constitute its parts. Relations are hollowed out from the inside by the un-canniness of the objects between which they play. This hollowness just is time. To figure out what a relation is, means to build another relation.’ (Morton, p.93)

Time – future-present-past – is like the ventriloquist’s art, a hollow dummy perhaps, ready for the operatic stage and all its illusions.

Liza Lim
28 June 2017, Berlin

 Selected References

Connor, S. (2000) Dumbstruck: a cultural history of ventriloquism. Oxford, OUP.

Connor, S. (2009) Thinking Things. Textual Practice lecture. University of Sussex, 14
October 2009. [online, http://stevenconnor.com/thinkingthings/thinkingthings.pdf, retrieved 13 June 2017].

Liu, L. (1999) ‘The Question of Meaning-Value’. in Tokens of Exchange, the Problem of Translation in Global Circulations. Durham & London, Duke University Press.

Morton, T. (2013) Realist Magic: Objects, Ontology, Causality. Ann Arbor, Open Humanities Press.