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This contemporary opera is inspired by a mysterious post-9/11 incident

Ben Neutze

In the days following the September 11 attacks, five young women presented to emergency rooms across New York with identical symptoms. None of the women knew each other, but each was having difficulty breathing and speaking, convinced that there was building debris or body parts caught in their throat. Doctors found no physical obstructions, but all five women did in fact have constricted throats.

When Melbourne-based director Adena Jacobs first read this story in Susan Faludi’s The Terror Dream, she was immediately captivated.

“There’s something about that image that’s so haunting to me for so many reasons,” Jacobs says. “Firstly, there’s the impossibility of speech in the face of this crisis they’d just witnessed, but also the feeling that their bodies and environment had merged into one: that there’s no distinction between the events that were surrounding them and themselves, or that they’d been entered in some way. There’s something about that that I found really disturbing and fascinating, but also reasonable as a response to that event, or any event that you’ve witnessed.”

The story is part of the inspiration for The Howling Girls, a new contemporary opera composed by Damien Ricketson and directed by Jacobs, starring soprano Jane Sheldon and an ensemble of five young women, aged 14 to 19. It will be staged by Sydney Chamber Opera at Carriageworks from March 28.

The opera doesn’t tell the story of those women who believed there were objects stuck in their throats; in fact, it doesn’t really tell any story. Jacobs and Ricketson have created an entirely abstract and mostly wordless work which explores the limits and versatility of the voice, and what it is to have a voice in both the literal and figurative sense. Ricketson’s score uses just the voices – making just about every sound you can make with a voice – alongside a theremin, an electronic instrument most known from its frequent appearances in Sci-Fi soundtracks for its other-wordly whir.

Adena Jacobs in Rehearsal for Belvoir's 2014 production of 'Hedda Gabler'
Photograph: Brett Boardman

Jacobs says the score is full of fast and dramatic dynamic turns, but mightn’t be quite what you expect.

“It’s quite hypnotic and beautiful, even though it’s called The Howling Girls,” she says. “I think you expect a super intense and rough kind of work, but Damien’s work is very articulate and lush at points, and delicate.”

Jacobs sees the medical response to the post-9/11 incident as a contemporary image of female hysteria, a sexist blanket diagnosis used for hundreds of years by medical professionals to assign any stress, trauma or mental health problem to a woman’s gender and sexuality. The term may have been abandoned by the American Psychiatric association in 1952, but Jacobs’ work – both through her own independent company Fraught Outfit and as an at-times controversial resident director at Belvoir – has frequently explored how women’s experiences and voices continue to be ignored. Her work always has a female voice at its core and often stands in opposition to theatre’s patriarchal structures.

That means not only is the subject matter of her theatre challenging, but also the form that her theatre takes – her shows mostly speak through striking imagery more than words, eschewing traditional narrative storytelling for something a little closer to contemporary or performance art. Some of her productions at Sydney’s Belvoir theatre were met with damning reviews (her 2014 take on Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, which cast a male actor in the central role was met with great derision from some corners) but as she reached the end of her tenure at the theatre with a brilliant, avant-garde reimagining of The Wizard of Oz, her voice was starting to cut through to Sydney audiences with more clarity.

“For a number of reasons, the responses to The Wizard of Oz indicated to me that a shift was taking place in terms of the audience’s diet as well as my relationship with that audience. There was a younger, different audience that was attracted to my work, Annie-Lou’s [Anne-Louise Sarks] work, post, the Rabble, Nakkiah’s [Lui] work, Sisters Grimm.”

While she hasn’t always had the easiest relationship with big audiences, Jacobs hopes that Australian theatre companies will continue to take risks on artists who are pushing boundaries like she’s aiming for with the genre-smashing Sydney Chamber Opera. She was recently reminded of the appetite of younger audiences for more socially radical thought while reading an unexpected publication, and wants to see that attitude embraced by our arts leaders.

“The conversations that are happening in Teen Vogue – which is a super mainstream magazine – are intersectional and pushing the conversation. And if our mainstage theatre companies can’t be engaging in that conversation then we’re doing something wrong. It feels confusing to me. It’s happening in pockets of companies, and happening in some companies but not others, but at large I think we need to demand that we lead the conversation rather than let the most conservative side of the audience to lead the conversation.”

The Howling Girls is at Carriageworks from March 28 to April 7.

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