Here is a sentence I have never written before: I caught a new opera in Stockholm on Thursday night. Playing at the Royal Swedish Opera was Dracula, by Victoria Borisova-Ollas.
She was born in the Soviet Union—in Vladivostok, way out East—in 1969. She studied in Moscow. In 1992, she went to Sweden, where I believe she has made her home since.
I was struck by this sentence from a bio: “Borisova-Ollas was born late enough to enjoy the freedom afforded by the new political system—such as the freedom to travel—but also early enough to profit from the advantages of the Soviet system of music education.”
At some point, Borisova-Ollas re-read Bram Stoker’s classic novel of 1897 and decided it should be an opera. She was surprised that no one had done it before. There had been a musical on Dracula, yes, and a ballet—but no opera, apparently.
And it is a highly operatic story. Damn freaky, too. Watching the opera, you might long for Bluebeard’s Castle, to have a little normality.
The librettists are Claes Peter Hellwig and Kristian Benkö. The opera is in two acts, and it is in Swedish. (At the Royal Opera House, there were supertitles, also in Swedish.) I will discuss the music in the most general terms.
Victoria Borisova-Ollas has an urge to communicate. You feel this urge, hear this urge, in almost every bar. She is storytelling, through music. She is writing for listeners—not her fellow composers, necessarily, and not for critics. The music is natural and duly theatrical. It is also psychological, as the composer gets into the heads of her characters. Further, it is atmospheric. That’s a lazy adjective, a cliché. But Borisova-Ollas is indeed creating, or reflecting, an atmosphere at every turn.
I would call the opera a “singspiel.” There is talking as well as singing. Unless I was asleep—time zones and all—there are no arias or duets. There is lots of color in the orchestra, as the composer avails herself of a wide range of instruments. I heard the organ and castanets, I believe, in close succession. Also, the score is filled with vibes.
The orchestra has a lot to do without seeming busy—and busy-busy-busy is a hallmark of today’s music. The opera is smartly paced. It moves along, without being rushed. After much anguish, tumult, and horror, the show ends in a peaceful D major, if I’m not mistaken—though the atmosphere is still fidgety, slightly disturbed.
I must tell you about the production, which is under the care of Linus Fellbom, a Swedish director. It is one of the most astonishing productions I’ve seen. There is a lot of hocus-pocus up on that stage, making you think, “How do they do that?”
Things go bump in the night. Bats fly, people fly. Rats squeak their way across the stage. Wolves howl. Blood spurts. There are three weird sisters, as in Shakespeare. Acrobatic, they form a sick Cirque du Soleil. Also—I shouldn’t say this about such ghouls—they are sort of sexy.
At times, I thought I was watching a slick, ingenious Disney movie rather than an opera on a stage.
My expectations for Dracula were not terribly high as I walked to the opera house. Frankly, I would like to go back and see it again.
I have some footnotes for you—a full five:
(1) Dracula was sold out. Not a seat to be had.
(2) It started on the dot—right at the appointed hour. There was no grace period, as in America.
(3) My impression is that most modern operas are about two hours. People are wary of taxing an audience. According to publisher’s statistics, Borisova-Ollas’s Dracula clocks in at exactly 120 minutes.
(4) Tradition, as I understand it, dictates that the singer in the title role takes the last bow. This is true, for example, in Don Carlo, the Verdi opera. Carlo has a lot less to do than other characters in this show. In fact, he is sort of ripped off, musically. Yet he takes the last bow.
So, in Stockholm, that should have been the baritone singing Dracula. Yet it turned out to be the soprano singing Mina. Were the Swedes operating on the principle of ladies first (or rather, ladies last)?
(5) There were two substitutions in the cast: yet the substitutions were implemented in a European style. The original cast members—the indisposed ones—appeared onstage, as they normally would. They were in costume and acting. (One was lip-synching, one was not.) The subs came to the side of the stage, with music stands, and sang.
As they came and went, the subs toted their music stands, as normal people would. And I had a very American thought: “At home, the unions would kill them.”