The story that inspired director Adena Jacobs and composer Damien Ricketson’s opera The Howling Girls is so fascinating it’s now been told across almost all of Sydney’s arts media: in the days following the September 11 attacks, five young women – none knew each other – showed up to different emergency rooms across New York City believing there was building debris or body parts from the attacks stuck in their throats. When doctors examined the women, they couldn’t find any physical obstruction but the young women weren’t exactly bluffing: their throats were constricted.
Jacobs was haunted by this story, which spoke to a mass trauma and reminded her of historical attitudes concerning “female hysteria”. The response of the young women – who became more or less speechless in the face of great trauma – was unusual but absolutely astonishing.
Anybody going to The Howling Girls hoping to hear their story will likely be disappointed, at least in one sense. The story is just one of many reference points for an entirely abstract work with no plot or words. The score is a difficult, slowly evolving, sparse and gripping exploration of the limits and power of the voice itself, performed with minimal instrumentation; to call the opera adventurous is selling it rather short. In fact, many wouldn’t call it an opera, even though it has the essential elements: a musical score, singing and a theatrical perspective.
The work begins with a long, slow and gradual blackout before the first of four distinct sections begins. In near complete darkness, we see a figure off in the distance on the Carriageworks stage. Lying on a platform and covered by some kind of material, she’s moving very slowly and repetitively as her quiet breathing is amplified throughout the whole space. There’s music in the way her pitch and tone adjusts between inhalation and exhalation, while a distant bass rumbling appears and disappears to accompany her. Soon enough she begins to activate her vocal cords, singing repeated, sustained refrains that shift as she adjusts her vocal placement. It’s rare to hear vocalisation that’s so explorative and entirely human.
That figure is soprano Jane Sheldon, whose achievement across this 70-minute work cannot be understated. It’s a test for her technical skill, memory and endurance, and her control of her instrument is extraordinary. For a long time her only accompaniment is musical director Jack Symonds, bringing a sinister and surreal sci-fi tinged score to life on theremin and keyboard, gorgeously enhanced by Bob Scott’s enveloping sound design.
After a while, she’s joined by six young women from theatre company The House that Dan Built – it’s not immediately clear that they’re young women; they first appear as a congregation of hazy dark figures. Soon enough they become more visible as a chorus for Sheldon’s journey while embarking on their own. In one particular segment the women speak in overlapping repeated phrases in a language of their own making, drawing on vowels, consonants and cadences from languages all across the world. They seem to be not only forging autonomy from the prescribed modes of speech, but a new way of communicating.
As with much of Jacobs’ more experimental work, the audience experience is more isolating than communal. As she and Ricketson present a series of simple but richly evocative images and sounds, they’re inviting the audience to look inward. There are moments that are aurally and visually confronting and discomfiting, and others that are sublimely beautiful and meditative in their impact.
Eugyeene Teh’s design, with its white proscenium arch and deep, velvety blacks (and a vast furry curtain) is essential to the work’s success, as is Jenny Hector’s thoughtful, bold and impactful lighting.
The work isn’t so much about how we understand these tableaus as a collective, but the kind of thoughts and music they throw forth for each individual audience member. Jacobs and Ricketson have carefully orchestrated just about everything, except for your emotional response.
There are times in the work where the sense of trauma and suffocation is nearly overwhelming, but by the end we find ourselves very much looking toward the light. Somehow, after 70 minutes of experimentation and invention, the women on stage have found a way forward as individuals and as a group, crafting a new expression. That’s also true of Sydney Chamber Opera, which has pioneered a more uncompromising form of opera over the last few years. This is the pinnacle of their daring provocations and an essential work for anybody wanting to experience the cutting edge of the operatic art form.