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Writing these words I find myself in Copenhagen. It is the middle of April and a few days ago the Eyjafjälla volcano in Iceland has started to erupt. And despite its unpronounceable name the volcano is the main topic of conversation in the city. The cloud of ash blown out from one of its vents is spreading over the north of Europe and the streets of Copenhagen are full of tourists caught by surprise and trapped in the city by the closure of all air traffic routes. Unlike most of these people, I am not just passing through Copenhagen. I am here working on the dramaturgy of a new project with Calixto Bieto, a commission from the Betty Nansen Teatret, which is just a few minutes away from the centre of the city. The rehearsals began a few weeks ago but there is still a month and a half before the premiere of the piece at the Bergen Festival. This weekend Calixto had been planning on getting back to Barcelona to see the family, but the volcano put a stop to that. The same thing has happened to Rebecca, the set designer, and to Ingo, the costume designer. They both had bought plane tickets for a getaway to their homes in Germany. At the table next to us in the French restaurant where we four are having dinner together is an international representative of the Belgian brewery Chemay. Over a plate of seafood he is being philosophical about the unexpected supplement to his holiday and tells us that his counterpart in the Spanish market is also in the same boat. We have a few drinks with him shortly after at the next-door bar, and he passes on the rumour that there have been some businessmen who have paid thousands of coronas to get a taxi to take them from Copenhagen to Berlin or Paris. Listening to the tales of this chap, now in English, now in French, I can’t help but think of the Tambora, the volcano in Indonesia that in 1815 started erupting with such force that a year later Europe and America were left without a summer. That other cloud of dust caught unawares another group of tourists, English ones, on the shores of Lake Léman, at the foot of Mont Blanc. The extraordinary summer storms forced the group - composed of Lord Byron, his doctor, Dr. John Polidori, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley and her step-sister Claire Clairmont – to remain indoors in the Villa Diodati and from this confinement, with the electrifying atmosphere of those nights and the incessant rain against the window panes, was born two of the leading works of romantic gothic literature, Frankenstein and The Vampyre.

I knew of these events a long time ago. I must confess that sometime in my youth there was to be found around the house a recording of Gonzalo Suárez’s great film, Rowing with the Wind, whose images ended up being a rather blurred through being  put on the video player too often. All the residue of sensations that the film had left in me came to the surface again one day, now more than two years ago, when Agustí Charles and I were looking for a theme for our second project of collaboration in opera. That day I came across a book in a local bookshop, a collection of short stories that tried to reproduce the fruits of a gathering on one of those stormy nights around the fireplace in Villa Diodati. This was the night that Lord Byron challenged his guests to write short stories inspired by the tales of terror collected in the book Fantasmagoriana, which he had been reading from night after night until the very last page. As they found themselves without that nightly diversion Byron challenged his guests to write themselves the material that was to keep them amused in the isolation, which seemed it would never end, from the rest of the world.

It was clear that the anecdote from Villa Diodati was highly charged material for the creation of our new opera and so came into existence the seminal idea of Lord Byron, un estiu sense estiu.  From the outset, we were provided with a group of literary figures, who, as well as being of interest for their own vast work, offered us a complex interweaving of relationships of affection and disaffection. We began with the unquestionably magnetic figure of Lord Byron, conscious himself of his own genius, but at the same time having a morbid complex about his congenital lameness. Next to him we had Doctor Polidori, drawn in an unhealthy manner to the light given off by the poet even while he was the butt of all of Byron’s jokes, frustrated by his own limitations as a writer and jealous of Byron’s new friendship with the fellow poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. The latter, for his part, was living intoxicated by the world of abstractions in his mind, the universe of sensations born from his imagination and that bound him intimately to nature, distancing him therefore from reality, and by extension, from Mary. She, for her part, was suffering from this alienation from her lover while at the same trying to make her own voice as a writer heard in a world where the only act of creation allowed to a woman was childbirth. And finally, there was the voluble Claire Clairmont, in love with Byron and secretly expecting a child by him, a person who faced life from the principle of pragmatism. This network of relationships, with so many nuances, became the foundation on with we have built the opera with the intention in the libretto to tackle the themes not so much from  a cerebral point of view as from the organic one demanded by the characters and their dramatic situations. Our work has also consciously aimed at a certain theatricality - but not of an old-fashioned type - with a certain intention of countering those experiments of a badly understood modernity which pay no attention to the dramatization that every opera needs.

The discovery of the determining role that the eruption of Tambora played in the destinies of our characters was a key moment in the construction of the piece, both from the dramatic as well as from the musical point of view. So we wanted to imagine that the opera began with the eruption of the volcano on the other side of the planet, in the Pacific, and that its echoes reached a Europe torn apart by Napoleon, with the sound of the eruption thundering over the battlefield of Waterloo (where, according to documents, Byron and Polidori halted). And finally, its roar, in the form of a tempest, cornered and confined our personages to the four walls of the Villa Diodati. Moreover we wanted the domino effect of this eruption to culminate in the writing of the stories, as if this surge influenced and inflamed their imaginations in a decisive manner. So for us, the orchestra and the chorus have ended up forming an organic whole that comes to life with the eruption of the volcano, and that starting with this initial surge, spreads like a living thing throughout the piece, an animate bolster against which we hear the recitative passages of the soloists.  The ensemble of the orchestra and chorus is a natural force that in transformation, at one moment is the murmur of the forest, at another the roar of the tempest, at yet another the voice of the dead, and then is the mirror of the words that come from the mouths of the living … as if all the musicians formed part of the same living organism, one in continual transformation.

Listening now to the anecdotes of the Belgian beer rep (stories that I would never have heard if it hadn’t been for the interruption in our lives of the Icelandic volcano) I can’t help but smile. Who would have said to us, to Agustí and me,that echoes of Tambora would have  had such resonance for us  such a short time before the premiere of our new opera?

Marc Rosich

Translation: Louise Higham