Live Review: Between Worlds @ The Barbican

I need to have some serious problems with a work in order to bother writing a bad review these days. It has to really rile me on an ideological level. I’ve actually seen quite a few operas so far this year that have tried to engage with ‘contemporary events’, and ended up demonstrating some pretty odious politics (and the subjects are never actually very contemporary either), but they were productions far too small to be worth engaging with. Tansy Davies’s ‘9/11 opera’ Between Worlds is not a small event; it is a major ENO/Barbican co-commission, a nationwide media event, a huge undertaking that deals with one of the most epochal events of our time, and it’s been pretty well received. I saw it on Sunday afternoon, and I have serious problems with it. So I’ve written a very bad review. Here goes…

Between Worlds depicts the events of the 9/11 attacks by focusing on five characters who work in the WTC: four white-collar professionals and a janitor. They start their days, leave their homes and arrive for ‘an important meeting’ in a conference room which is suspended – as the middle section of a three-tier set – above a milling chorus on the ground (who variously represent their loved ones, a grieving crowd and a sea of dead bodies) and below a higher tier on which a mysterious, Shamanic countertenor sits and interjects periodically. The characters are only very vaguely differentiated, primarily in relation to their absent families. They experience fear and confusion when the first tower is hit, attempt a failed escape, express their regrets, call home to leave a message of love, and finally accept death. We hear almost nothing about the details of the events as they unfurl.

The characters’ stories are enveloped by choruses evoking the flood of electronic communication – pagers, messages, phone calls, emails – that issued from the towers that day, which blend with extracts from the Requiem Mass and the grieving sobs of one of the character’s mothers. Practically all of the specificity of the event is removed. There is no sense of the geopolitical weight of the event. We experience the events as, we must assume, the characters’ themselves experienced it: confusion, panic, despair, acceptance. The reasons for their deaths unknown. The opera is actually really about the moment of these characters’ deaths: specifically, it is about the possibility of having to call or message a loved one to offer them your final words. It is, as the composer affirms, an opera about ‘love’, or about saying ‘I love you’ for the final time. This might seem pretty inoffensive, albeit rather hackneyed, but then why make the opera about 9/11 at all?

UNIVERSALITY

Davies and the librettist Nick Drake purport to tell the story of 9/11 by focusing on the lives of individuals, but this is not really what they do in practice. The huge scale of the set, the orchestra, the chorus, the mystical frame of the libretto with its Shaman who conveys the characters ‘between the worlds’ of life and death, are clearly extraneous to any kind of individual narrative. Telling the story through an individual frame would have required no more than a small black room, a couple of instruments, a single singer, a phone with speaker and a television. And that would have been permissible. 9/11 is an event of sublime proportions; it would be reasonable to accept that it can only be ‘got at’ indirectly. But this is not what the opera does. It attempts to use the events as a frame in which to explore death-in-general. The characters are generic and interchangeable; their back-stories are meagrely developed. But at the same time, they are not universal. They are here as a stand-in for ‘people like us’ – the people in the audience, white middle-class professionals with families – who are invited to imagine how dreadful it would be if they were in that position, having to phone home and say goodbye.

What Between Worlds makes patently clear is that, for us, 9/11 is not the immense, weighty, iconic event that it is because of geopolitical reasons – because it jumpstarted the gears of history by dividing the globe and functioning as a declaration of an interminable and intangible war – but because it happened to people like us and it happened out of nowhere, while they were at work, in the middle of a ‘normal’ day. Between Worlds imposes its own mystical, metaphysical, ‘universalist’ frame on the deaths of these people. Rather than being burned alive in the shell of an office plan office, or falling in a hail of shattered glass, we must seem them as floating between heaven and earth, on the cusp of Being and not Being. Between Worlds is about the coming of death into a place where death is not supposed to come; unlike some parts of the world, where death might be met in the street or in one’s house, death in America is supposedly confined to certain institutional spaces and isn’t supposed to irrupt in the middle of the everyday.

The opera effectively uses 9/11 as a frame to portray the possibility of death of the white middle-class cosmopolitan, and elicit some tears and some catharsis in the process. In so doing, 9/11 is presented as a kind of natural disaster. (The Telegraph’s Ivan Hewett called it “the most gigantic disaster of modern times”…). Perhaps the creators thought they were being progressive here, in telling the story without attributing any blame. But all this hides the fact that the 9/11 attacks already have a huge, universal frame which has to be dealt with. Just because the characters don’t know what killed them, doesn’t mean that we don’t (and surely the whole point of having a ‘Shaman’ character is to allow for these meta connections). Indeed, the event already has a very troubling ‘spiritual’ frame, given that these people were killed in the name of God, which rather mocks the simplistic attempt to make the Requiem Mass, psalms and Jewish prayer adopt a purely ‘universal’ spiritual function.

To memorialise the events as a bolt-from-the-blue natural disaster is fundamentally a lie. 9/11 was not a ‘disaster’; I wouldn’t say it was even a ‘tragedy’. It was an act of war, the result of a calculated attack, of the kind that happens all around the world, all the time, and has been happening throughout human history. And it was the beginning of a long and seemingly interminable campaign of revenge which has claimed many more lives and embroiled many more parties than those directly involved in the 9/11 attacks.

[Incidentally, for a piece about a natural disaster that also manages to engage in a strikingly nuanced and challenging way with its socio-political context and give an incredibly moving portrait of grief, you should all listen to (one of my favourite pieces of all time) Ted Hearne’s Katrina Ballads.]

9/11 has reconfigured global politics, defining Western imperial powers in relation to a radical theocratic war machine that is fundamentally unassimilable to the demands of capitalist democracy, and maintains an infinitely complicated relationship to fascism, socialism, patriarchy and nationalism. But the piece doesn’t even gesture in the general direction of all this. It collects up the entirety of the event and transfigures it into a memorial for 3,000 ‘everyday’ people. This is shirking the huge responsibility that you assume by deigning to make a work ‘about’ this event. Certainly you wouldn’t be expected to address every aspect of its aftermath as described above, but you would need either to acknowledge these dimensions, those unheard voices, or attempt to open up some new space through which some aspect of it could be glimpsed, pointing to the depth and complexity beyond. Between Worlds does the opposite of that. It seals it off and smooths it over.

HUMANITY

The argument behind this kind of depiction (as various reviews, apparently citing programme notes, have made clear) is that it humanises the victims of the attacks. Through the performance of their deaths in the opera, in which they’re able to sing their ‘I love yous’ and face death holding hands, we salvage, restore, reaffirm the human dignity that was taken away from them when they were killed. I find this whole argument hugely problematic, as it constructs an idea of ‘humanity’ from which certain humans can easily be excluded. The idea is that, by being killed in this way (i.e., presumably, not in a heroic way, not fighting in a battle), these people’s humanity was taken away.

But what could be more human than death? Well, for one thing, the opera already has a clear answer to that: death in ironic circumstances. For some reason, an element of irony is added to several of the characters’ storylines, which is another attempt at transfiguring a real act of war into Greek tragedy: they are killed by fate, not by al-Qaeda. How bizarre to add this element of irony, when the piece is supposed to be about the actual deaths of 3,000 actual people, many of whom were probably exactly where they were supposed to be, when they were supposed to be, at the moment the planes hit. The ironically dead aren’t more grievable. Those killed by tragic twists of fate – fatal flaws – aren’t more grievable. Just being alive in the first place is ironic enough, just as human history is already suitably tragic.

The opera shows the characters clinging onto their humanity by maintaining a little autonomy and a little sociability in the midst of the chaos. In the moments before they die, in the conference room, they carve out a space for themselves in which they can face death with human dignity. It is the function of this fictionalisation to afford them this. But the truth is that all post-9/11 culture is that space. No-one has been more intensively humanised than the victims of 9/11; they are the most human humans there could ever possibly be. This opera is just another instance of that. The victims aren’t humanised because we see them calling home and being brave and hugging; they are humanised because, unlike the vast majority of the people killed across the world, they have had a huge opera made about them, with the sole purpose of humanising them. And why do they deserve this? Because they are already the most human dead, because they are us and we are them, and we are most definitely human. By talking about salvaging ‘humanity’, we infer the existence of a category of the non-human, the sub-human, into which some humans must nevertheless slip.

Perhaps such categories do have a power in our collective imagination. But surely it is our responsibility as artists to rescue those humans who slide into what a broader culture would consider ‘non-human’ (or who would never qualify as candidates for ‘a celebration of humanity’, which is the same thing). Are the victims of 9/11 really at the top of this list? Is their humanity really at stake, more than the people languishing in camps on the Syrian border, the people incarcerated in detainment camps without charge, the people clinging to the bottom of lorries? How about the hijackers themselves, or present-day Islamist radicals? Could it ever be ok for us to consign them to the category of non-human, and then treat them as such? Shouldn’t we be writing operas to affirm their humanity, first and foremost?

But imagine if those operas were made. Would it not seem crass? What right do we have to represent them in our medium? To make them speak with our musical voice? To translate the horrors and sorrows of their lives into our harmonic and timbral clichés? If we were to answer ‘yes’, would that not actually suggest that they are less human to us? I think it might, but I would certainly also argue that it would throw the very possibility of opera ‘celebrating humanity’ into question. To be afforded an operatic voice, we must already recognise a character as potentially human, in relation to ourselves – ‘we are human, we feel what you sing, you too are human’, etc. To exclude humans from the possibility of operatic representation is to admit that their humanity is not complete, or else to admit that the humanity which opera affords cannot be a ‘universal humanity’. And, naturally, a ‘humanity’ that isn’t universal is no humanity at all. Can the subaltern sing? I think not.

THE MAGICAL NEGRO

There is one element of the opera that I found pretty scandalous, but which none of the reviews appear to mention. This was the role of the Janitor, who was an absolutely classic example of what is called the ‘magical negro’ trope. What he lacks in backstory, he makes up for in magical powers. He is the only black person among the central characters, and spends the entirety of the piece basically assisting, healing and otherwise helping the white characters. He can hear and commune with the ‘Shaman’ above them, and speaks in tongues, but he never actually confronts or questions this fact. He passively accepts his role as facilitator for the other characters’ personal dramas. He appears to allow some of the characters to communicate telepathically with their loved ones, but he himself has no-one to say goodbye to. Finally, he leads them off the building, to their deaths. He is, to all intents and purposes, an angel.

The Magical Negro effaces the realities of race and class. In the opening monologue, we hear the Janitor sing about how he is one of thousands of cleaners and service workers who descend on the office every night, make it pristine and then leave unseen. There is no class resentment here; just a pastoral, fairy-like dimension in which everyone is playing their part and making the world go round. We learn absolutely nothing about the jobs of the other characters, presumably because it might have invited us to think for a second about why on earth anyone would want to murder them. Even so, it is clear that the Janitor is not one of them: he is different from them, separate. He does not die with them, but mediates their deaths. He too is not fully human. The irony that leads him to stay in this office that day and not go home does not confer on him an air of Greek tragedy, but instead can be explained as part of ‘his spiritual quest’. He is there, along with the Shaman, to humanise the real victims. He himself is merely an instrument, and his role in the redemption of the white humans just an extension of his after-hours fairy labour.

‘Into the Unsayable’

In a video interview, Nick Drake says the following:

Opera was the only form that I could imagine any satisfaction in making [a work about 9/11], because music in the end moves us beyond what’s sayable into the unsayable, and that’s where we need to go with a story like this.

It’s a familiar enough statement, despite the fact that it’s almost always non-musicians/composers who end up expressing such sentiments. And I think he has a valid point, but it’s not the point that he wants to make. I was disappointed by the music in Between Worlds, given how much I love Davies’s other work (including her vocal music). The impression was of a single, serious, tastefully-coloured chord with a lot of barely distinguished arioso over the top, of the kind that is ubiquitous in these new British operas (although not nearly as bad as in some other recent examples). It certainly didn’t redeem or nuance what would surely have been an unforgivably one-dimensional stage play.

When Drake talks about the unsayable, he isn’t really talking about a totally abstract realm beyond meaning, he’s talking very explicitly about the enormity of the emotions which the characters are supposed to be feeling. Music cannot actually take the place of these emotions; instead, we have come to learned that, when we are confronted by musical abstraction along with the requisite codes, we should infer that massive emotions are what is being represented. Music, in this case, is a placeholder for a very specific, albeit ‘unsayable’, thing, and the rest of the opera is constructed to inform us exactly what that thing is: it’s the feeling of grief at the loss of loved ones. The fact that we cannot possibly know what that feeling actually feels like is besides the point. As long as we are feeling something, it is sufficient as a tribute to that other feeling. In a way, as with so much opera, the music does the empathising for us. The music feels the characters, and we feel the music.

But music needn’t be tied down to this kind of equivalence. It should resist and escape at every opportunity, and work against triteness and sentimentality. It should confound even those emotions that we’re told we must feel. I was full of anticipation through the first scene of the piece: a strange and foreboding overture, over which the Shaman whistled a cyclic (ringtone) melody, rang a bell and muttered strange sounds. It promised a depth and nuance that the opera failed to deliver. The piece became momentarily good again right at the end, when an aerial ballet accompanied by an instrumental musical passage gave way to the wordless mourning of the Young Man’s mother, and a final candle-lit silence. These two moments should have been the whole opera: no characters, no words, no sentimentality. However, in order to give the music any kind of benefit of the doubt and attempt to hear it as maintaining an ambivalence throughout, one would have to discount the sincerity of the rest of the production, and totally undermine the vocal integrity of the characters.

As it was, the opera’s musical dimension functioned as an easy stand-in for ‘the universal’ (even though many of the people whose lives have been claimed as a result of the War on Terror surely would not have recognised in these sounds the universal truth of their sorrow or grief, or even considered it ‘music’ per se). Moreover, the application of music to the depiction of 9/11 excuses its depoliticisation, because the application of music is depoliticisation. I’ve argued elsewhere that music is frequently conceived of as the opposite of politics, and that one (prevalent) definition of ‘the musical’ is the non-social, non-political, non-‘worldly’. A piece of art has a ‘musicality’ when its form coheres ‘on its own terms’, without signifying beyond itself.

So when Nick Drake calls opera the ‘perfect medium’ for such a work, it is because – as with so many ‘monumental’ pieces – the music can be used to get around the awkwardness of addressing an event which still resonates throughout global affairs. It can fill the spaces that are left when these contextual aspects, these awful specifics, are extracted, and replace them with a comforting soulful nothingness. As long as the kind of sentiments that Drake expresses regarding the function of opera, and the place of music in musical drama, remain in play, opera can only be a way of masking, as opposed to penetrating, the ‘truth’ of any situation.

[One review compared the piece favourably with the War Requiem, which is my actual favourite piece of music ever, but the comparison only serves to show how hopelessly vacant Between Worlds is. The War Requiem is an infinitely complex and critical work that explodes the function of ritual mourning even as it achieves it. It attempts desperately to bring the events of the First World War into the frame of the Christian Requiem Mass, while simultaneously showing how such a subsumption is ultimately impossible (perfectly reflecting the sentiment of the Wilfred Owen texts that it sets). However, even the more straightforward Requiem Mass settings contain more drama, more insight and more ambivalence about the nature of death and grief than this opera.]

GOOD TASTE

Between Worlds was a significant event because it catalysed a rather bewildering debate in the press and broadcast media about the role of art in relation to such events. ‘Is it too soon for a 9/11 opera?’, etc. Many commentators have pointed out the bizarreness of this particular question, since pretty much every artistic discipline has already engaged with 9/11 as a subject, including opera. And yet I actually disagree with the entire premise of this debate. However, it instructively reveals a lot about the assumptions that critics have about the use and function of ‘art’, especially in its relation to a discourse on ‘taste’.

As far as I’m concerned, it is never ‘too soon’ to make art about such an event. In fact, some kind of artistic engagement must commence immediately. This is because one of the functions of art should be to counterbalance the other, ‘non-art’ domains of cultural discourse – political speech, the media, public opinion – which will automatically commence their mediation of the events immediately. For me (and I get most of my ideas about art and ethics these days from Alain Badiou), art will always be a more ethical sphere in which to conduct the ‘conversation’ that these events elicit. This is because art, in my definition, is the application of a necessarily universal ethics (which, again, I get from Badiou) to singular events. Art opens up the space to bring a discussion of an event like 9/11 outside of the other ‘common-sense’ discourses of the public sphere, which will all necessarily frame it according to their own, uncritiqued criteria.

For most of the critics of Between Worlds, however, it is clear that this is not what art is supposed to be. For them, it can be ‘too soon’ to bring the events of 9/11 into this sphere of interrogation, and apparently 14 years later may actually qualify as too soon. I would argue that this fear, on behalf of critics, is based on a pre-existing idea of what the resulting piece will necessarily involves: what its function must be. What the critics really mean is: is it ‘too soon’ for the events of 9/11 to be turned into entertainment? Is it too soon for them to be instrumentalised for an audience’s collective catharsis, which is – I would argue – more of a function of entertainment than art (or, at the most, a byproduct of art)? The critics knew perfectly well what Between Worlds would look like. They knew it would be about death and love and ‘humanity’. They were right to be concerned. It it too soon to turn the events of 9/11 into a tacky weep-fest. It is not too soon to make an opera about it though.

And yet, the critics seemed to mostly agreeBetween Worlds avoided ‘bad taste’. It was ‘tasteful’, and not ‘tasteless’. By saying this, again, critics betray the fact they already had a preconceived notion of how the events should be dealt with, and thereby an idea of what the function of an opera about 9/11 should be. The whole concept of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ taste is fundamentally bullshit. As a category, it should be rejected by any self-respecting critics. ‘Taste’, as the term is commonly used, is a paradox. ‘Taste’ is, by definition, subjective; that is what ‘taste’ is. There’s no accounting for it. It means that it is unaccountable. So, to ‘have good taste’ (or even to ‘have taste’, as some say) shouldn’t make sense. How can there be recognisable value categories applied to inexplicably arbitrary aesthetic preferences?

‘Good taste’ means two things: it means the kind of taste that those people with the most cultural power/capital determine to be ‘correct’, and it means a value category that excuses itself from any justification. Good taste is just good taste. It might seem to be used interchangeably with a certain ethical dimension – saying something ‘in bad taste’ is supposedly unethical (although that is because it is usually also hurtful, insensitive, disrespectful or threatening) – but as a category, it masks the necessary incompleteness of its ethics. Good taste has more to do with the status quo than with ethics. It’s what people think they’re talking about when they talk about ‘political correctness’. To do something in good taste is basically not to do anything at all. It is entirely expected and predictable. It is the absolute minimum. To be in good taste is to confirm everything that everyone is expected to already know about everything. It is an affirmation and a sedimentation of the status quo’s belief in itself as necessary, reducible to the belief that the term ‘good taste’ actually means anything at all.

I’m not advocating ‘bad taste’ here, because in a way acting in bad taste also merely reinforces the category. I’m advocating a wholesale rejection of thinking at all in terms of taste, and replacing it with an active, reflexive, self-conscious ethics. Good taste is always hiding some insufficiency; only in an ideal world would good taste correspond with good ethics. Between World says nothing; I’m not sure it could have said anything and remained ‘in good taste’. But its very tastefulness is the mark of its ethical reprehensibility.

UR-OPERA

Between Worlds is not daring, or brave, or bold. It is the most obvious and inevitable opera conceivable. It is the Ur-opera of Western liberal ideology. It transfigures the events of 9/11 into a cathartic meditation on the universality of death, but its claims to universality and humanity are made through the explicit performance of a Western bourgeois humanity by the Western bourgeois characters who are allowed to call home and sing their farewells. As such, it invites us to mourn 9/11 by reducing it to what we already understand to be most mournable. To achieve this, the opera must distance itself from the many other deaths that 9/11 directly and indirectly catalysed across the world.

As the critics well know, there is only one way for us to ‘tastefully’ process these events, and that is to cut them off from all the messy context, to reduce them to the loss of human lives – to the loss of our own lives – and to cry and feel cleansed. This is, without doubt, one of the key functions of ‘art’ in our culture (as one reviewer said of the opera: ‘this is what art is for’), as well as public discourse more generally, and in the case of 9/11, it was a process that began on the afternoon of the attacks. It is the ‘art-as-therapy’ model, as pedalled by the despicable Alain de Botton. But it is not art. The opera Between Worlds is just a particular instance of the much grander-scale opera that has been teaching us how to grieve for 9/11 since the event itself: as composed and performed by politicians, the media, all manner of cultural artefacts, our friends and family, the entire discourse of the Western world. It is perhaps only now that we are able to put up the blinkers completely, and cut off all its associations the present state of the world, realising that (like so much of human history, apparently) the real import of 9/11 is as a memento mori for the Anglo-American middle-classes, with the necessary amount of ‘love conquers all’ thrown in for good measure.

In the promotional video, Davies says that you should come see Between Worlds ‘if you believe in love as the most powerful thing that there is, in all it’s different forms’. As far as I could tell, Between Worlds can be reduced to a celebration of the two forms of love still fully endorsed by neoliberalism: love for our families and love for ourselves. In order to even begin to close the global fissures that the 9/11 attacks and subsequent events have left gaping, we’re going to need a more radical form of love than these.

[This opera was, at one stage, going to be about Philippe Petit, the tight-rope walker from Man on Wire. That would certainly have been a much better opera. More to the point, it probably would have been a much better opera about 9/11. I hold out hope for Davies’s future operatic projects though, because her other music is so great, and I recommend listening to her song ‘Greenhouses’ (a setting of a letter sent home by activist Rachel Corrie, who was killed while trying to block an Israeli armoured bulldozer in Gaza), which is the perfect antidote to Between Worlds, and deals with the intersection between communication, mourning and geo-political events in a much more successful, penetrating and moving way. And the music’s much better too.]

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2 Responses to Live Review: Between Worlds @ The Barbican

  1. Nicholas Till says:

    Hi Thom, spot on!

    I wrote a much shorter response to this piece (below – part of longer piece), but I think we are pretty much in agreement.

    Nick Till

    My Nietzschean self, by the way, wriggles uncomfortably at finding myself having used a term like redemptive (even if absolved by Adorno). Especially in relation to a form like opera which so often aspires to the condition of redemptive transcendence, or universality – an aspiration that often rings hollow in practice. The 2015 opera Between Levels by playwright Nick Dear and composer Tansy Davies, presented by the English National Opera at the Barbican, was an example. Set in the World Trade Centre on the day of 9/11, the opera told the story of a group of people trapped inside an office in one of the towers. Drawing upon the clichés of the disaster movie without the thrills, and upon the formulas of the made-for-TV drama-doc weepy, the opera tugged incessantly at our heart strings as one after another of the characters sang his or her farewell to a loved one over the phone. The opera ended with the chorus (who have been present throughout, witnessing and commenting on the events) lighting candles and intoning singing the Requiem Aeternam in a moment of stunning banality. I, for one, was dry eyed. By personalising what was an occurrence with global political implications the opera simply trivialised a subject that demanded a far more complex response. And since the characters were inevitably undeveloped, the opera failed to move at even the level it sought to, adding nothing to either our existing understanding, or our emotional response, to the event. The gesture at the end then sought to “universalise” the fate of this particular handful of people, rather than acknowledging the real universality of daily death and destruction for so many people on the planet.

  2. Nicholas Till says:

    Oops – “Between Worlds” !!

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