|Published: 2004-10-21 by Martin Bondeman
Preferably a little whacky humour, leaning, if at all possible, towards the surreal. Paula af Malmborg Ward has nothing against turning to the weird and wonderful in her musical depiction of the world. On the contrary.
“I feel that it’s often through the absurd that you really get to the heart of something,” she explains. “In the opera ‘The Bomb Party’ for instance, I have the guests stand there for several minutes wittering on about how great everything was, while what I was really trying to get across was how little they actually had to say.” Her sixth opera, which is receiving its original première at the Vadstena Academy this summer, gives a lot of elbow room to the funny and the bizarre. “Ärret” (“The Scar” in English”) is based on Bulgakov’s novel “The Heart of a Dog”.
“It was originally set designer Marika Feinsilber’s idea. By the time I was contacted, in around 1999, librettist Kerstin Perski and director Nils Spangenberg had also become involved.”
The book, written in the 1920s, tells of how rejuvenation expert Professor Gudomlikov carries out a scientific experiment in which he takes a dog from off the streets and replaces some of its vital organs with those of a dead human. Instead of creating something congenial and well-mannered, the professor ends up building a monster, a hell-raising, dog-man abomination. On another level, explains af Malmborg Ward, the book deals with how bolshevism represses individualism, just like how the world intrudes on the professor, who just wishes to live his life of affluence in peace and quiet, free to research undisturbed.
“What we wanted to do was ask questions about the moral responsibilities of science, without, of course, giving any answers. The story is shifted forward in time, the “baddy” is economism and the intruder on the professor’s life is a kind of wide-boy, a property shark, keen to make a quick buck – not a Bolshevik as in the original tale. The bones of the story are the same as Bulgakov’s, it’s just been updated.”
“I also felt it needed a new title. “The Scar” sums things up nicely – all disciplines get their scars, time gets scars, morality gets scars. We move on, but something of the trauma remains in the form of a scar.”
A hint of the Russian has also flavoured the music in places, although admittedly her plans to use a bass domra (a kind of stringed instrument) had to be shelved. Meanwhile the incorporation of the tune “Brightly shines the moon” into the opera has its own little explanation:
“The book tells of how the dog-man’s implanted human organs come from a restaurant musician, who liked to play this particular tune. Although this isn’t mentioned in the opera, the melody’s still there, though perhaps mainly for our own smug amusement!”
What was it about the story that first caught your attention?
“It suits my temperament. There’s a lot that happens, the people are a bit nutty, a little obsessed in some way, all of them. This makes it easy to pin down the characters. And this is particularly true, of course, of the dog-man, who’s a mishmash of expressions and crazy features with no real identity or voice.”
“The Scar” has five principal roles and six choir roles (with students of Vadstena folk high school), and is written for a scant little orchestra of six musicians. “The Scar” is the second opera af Malmborg Ward has written for the Vadstena Academy, the first being the mini opera “Would you like a frosty pear” in 2002.
“In that opera the superficial plot was slow, but the psychological one was buzzing with action. In “The Scar”, you’ve got action on all levels. In both acts, mostly in the second when the situations and sub-plots develop, there are also more reflective moments, something which I think is necessary for both the drama and the audience.”
Freelance journalist and music critic for Svenska Dagbladet
English translation: Neil Betteridge
Music: Paula af Malmborg Ward: Ärret/The Scar. Libretto: Kerstin Perski after the Bulgakov novel “The Heart of a Dog”. Conductor: David Björkman. Director: Nils Spangenberg. Set design: Marika Feinsilber
Performances at Vadstena Old Theatre from July 4th to 20th 2004