Miroslav Srnka’s “South Pole” at the Bayerische Staatsoper Munich
A journey into the unknown: a hundred years ago the Norwegian Roald Amundsen and the Briton Robert Falcon Scott set out to conquer the South Pole. This immense undertaking is the theme of Miroslav Srnka’s opera South Pole, written in collaboration with the Australian librettist Tom Holloway. Srnka’s double opera in two parts with Thomas Hampson and Rolando Villazón in the main roles promises to be a thrilling venture at the Bayerische Staatsoper with Kirill Petrenko conducting. The premiere production on 31 January 2016 is by Hans Neuenfels.
Around 100 years ago – on the eve of the First World War – two expeditions set off at the same time in a race to become the first to reach the South Pole. One team, that of the Norwegian Roald Amundsen, won the race and returned safe and well, whilst the other reached the destination in the midst of a desolate, icy landscape a few weeks later, but froze to death on the return journey. The result made headlines in all the daily papers: little Norway was able to celebrate an unexpected triumph “for King and fatherland”, but the heroic death of the Brits helped people from the British Isles to achieve a moral victory.
What destined this subject matter to be set to music in the form of an opera? And what role does music and singing play in this? The story of South Pole tells not only of a sensational physical achievement, but also of an admirable act of will and planning. That alone would not be enough for an opera. But as Amundsen and Scott conquered one of the last remaining untouched pieces of this earth, they achieved a place in the mythology of the 20th century – and it was precisely Scott’s failure which demonstrated that in their endeavours, they had crossed a frontier. The crossing of this frontier has dimensions to it which have also lost nothing of relevance in the subsequent hundred years.
The two adventurers and pioneers Amundsen and Scott styled themselves as heroes and chose the Antarctic as their great stage. With their personalities, their failures and shortcomings, they became a 20th and 21st century myth, symbolic figures representative of the hubris of modern life. Miroslav Srnka’s music draws on the events of 1911 to 1912. It takes place in the atmosphere of the deadly ice, the loneliness, the forward movement and the standstill of the expeditions, the disorientation in storms, snow blindness in sunshine, the ups and downs of hope and despair. An opera for an audience of modern times which is interested in the legends and demons, and also the possibilities, of our present condition.
Uli Aumüller in conversation with Miroslav Srnka
How did the idea for “South Pole” come about?
On hiking tours and in nature, questions arose: what’s it like if you are much further away and have nothing with you at all which you’d otherwise take for granted in civilisation? That was the beginning. Later I came across the story of Scott and Amundsen, which is so tremendously exciting in its temporality and its drama. In a second question it’s about opera itself, which contains elements of the absolutely stylized and unrealistic in its form. I searched for a reality which seems absolutely unreal in itself. That is Antarctica. What it’s like there has nothing to do with the world here, it seems to be as absolutely stylized as the world of opera. But that’s only a sliver of reality, and this then came to fascinate me.
So is it this incredibility of the Antarctic which seems similar to the credibility gap in opera to you?
In a certain sense that’s true. In the world out there, there is something which is completely open and “unlimited”. In the Antarctic there is simply no civilisation. There are only the heroes, the figures, only the characters in an unending world which bears no traces of civilisation. That gives the piece an enormous freedom. The fact that there is no civilisation there places the focus on the people – in an extreme situation. In opera too, the characters are mainly in an extreme situation and have to battle with themselves.
What does “South Pole” sound llike?
I did a great deal of research. People imagine that the Antarctic is silent, but it’s anything but. The wind and nature and everything there are all extremely loud. Everything which affects the senses is more extreme than what we experience here in civilisation. In our story the Antarctic itself plays a role: as a kind of constantly present “Deus ex machina”, as the Antarctic played a game with both the expedition teams. The relationships within the teams were completely different. It seemed almost as if someone had determined which one would win. For example, the luck which Amundsen had with the weather, and Scott’s terrible misfortune make the Antarctic into a kind of entity with an active role of its own. It is never personified in the opera. But it’s present in the back of our minds.
What does the opera deal with?
The opera is about the race between Scott and Amundsen. The subtitle “A double opera in two parts” explains how the music is structured. There are two musical layers which always run parallel and asymmetrically in their tempi, because, with a few exceptions, we always have the two teams parallel on the stage. But in reality they are separated. For in fact, they never met in the Antarctic. Each took a different route, and the only point in common was the South Pole which they both approached from different directions. The whole opera tells the same story twice, a story which changes in details, and which at the end leads to fatal consequences. The opera takes place in a kind of simultaneity, but also – and this is always a central theme for me – deals with communication. We live today in a world in which communication is constantly available. Here, however, we have two teams which do not know how the other is doing for several years. The exciting thing is then what’s going on in their heads. Tom Holloway has written a fascinating libretto for me in which he concentrates on the psychological development of the two main protagonists as well as the men in the teams. He has also found interesting things in their private lives which may give reasons for why they undertook the expedition. It can be regarded as a kind of suicide mission – and for half of the men this became the reality.
And the music?
I wanted a structure which would be absolutely fluid in itself. What takes place in the Antarctic and what the men described in their diaries is an “absence”. There is simply a lack of clear, visual objects. The only thing they can see, well structured the whole time, is a horizon, and even that’s very often missing. When, for example, it snows, then the men describe in their diaries that they simply can no longer decide where the ground or sky, where above or below are. The categories with which we normally describe our surroundings have disappeared, and I’ve therefore tried to write music which moves freely.
Is this, so to speak, science fiction from the past for you?
Yes, I love science fiction because it’s concerned with categories which contain a great freedom in themselves. They do not describe our world, but a larger world, with more possibilities.A really important theme in the opera is this route to a supposed destination. When the men arrive, they establish that what they have been striving for for years, or perhaps their whole lives, is in fact empty, and that they have done all of this for quite different reasons, because each sought a way for himself.The entire social and political discourse is concerned with questions about what we are entitled to, what you can buy with money, what you can simply take with political power. It’s about the power to keep something for yourself. In this incentive to “win” the South Pole it’s not only about a mental craving just to be there physically first, but it’s also to do with achieving fame and acquiring a part of society for yourself. And the men at first regarded that as their true motivation. Only at the South Pole, when they stand at an abstract point in an empty white wilderness, do they analyse this putative value.
(from [t]akte 2/2015)
(translation: Elizabeth Robinson)