"We would only write when drunk so we couldn't control it"
AOP SPOTLIGHT: MARCH 2013
Composer Mikael Karlsson
AOP: Tell us about your new opera, Decoration.
Mikael: Well, I co-wrote the story with David Flodén. He's a good friend of mine, and neither of us are librettists, but we just like to hang out. We got drunk, had a lot of fun and just started talking. He said “Why don't we write an opera?” So we did, and we decided that we would only write when drunk so we couldn't control it. We didn't want to know what we were going to write, because then, why write it? The process has to be fun, and this way, it was.
And so the story has changed a lot, and it was always about whether to lie or not. The title refers to the way that we pretend that there's meaning, the way that we pretend that love conquers all, or that it has meaning or that it matters. And the truth is that the conflict is between devotion or belief on the one hand, which helps us live, and science and the cold facts, that this little shit hole that we're in is going to burn up in a couple of million years, so no matter how we live our lives, it's not gonna matter. But we can't live knowing that, so we decorate our lives by lying a little.
I tell myself that my friendships to other people really matter, and it feels like they do, I know they don't. On a personal level they do, but to the universe they don't, so the story is about that.
So our main character, her name is SHE – it's very impractical – we wanted her to have a neutral name because she's not about the beauty of the name, for instance. She's a woman, and an astrophysicist. She treats her scientific belief and conviction as if it were a religion. So she's maniacal about it, she truly believes that science is all that matters. She refuses to cope with any other belief, so she becomes very lonely. She's diagnosed with an MS-like disease that slowly starts to destroy her body, and she's losing control over it. And to a scientist, that should be great news, because you're only a brain, you know? You can be a martyr for science by giving your body, saying that “this doesn't matter, and it doesn't, ideas are all that matters.” So at first, she's being brave, and she thinks, “I can live like this, I can prove that ideas are what I am.” And I like that idea; it's very brave of her.
In the second Act, as she's slowly deteriorating, she changes her mind, and she wishes that she would have listened to some of the lies - to some of the love. But it might be too late, and it turns out that she's losing her mind also. So she talks to the universe as if it's a god, and it goes on from there. The central question is, should you be honest when nothing matters? And if nothing matters, why should honesty matter? If nothing matters, truth doesn't matter. Then what are you going to do?
It's a very strange story, and I like that it has logical loops and holes in it. We have an aria about dimensions also, so the idea of wormholes comes into the story, where something makes sense to a limit, and then you slip into another logic where it no longer makes sense over here. I hope that there are mistakes in it, because then the listener will have to figure something out. That's what I love about David Lynch, noise music, anything that's really gritty, distorted or fucked up – that you have to make sense of it, it's not presenting itself to you. Then it's interesting – then it's trusting its audience that they're not kids. That they're grownups who can deal with problems. So we're giving them a problem, and I hope we're giving them an interesting enough one that they're willing to solve it for us.
AOP: You've eclectically composed for video games, dance and opera. Do you feel your composer’s “voice” changes based on the medium? How has working in one medium influenced the way you compose for the others?
Mikael: I'm not sure I'm aware of what my voice is. I think it's inevitable, and if you have one, it's going to carry over into the different mediums no matter what you do; you have no choice. I never sat down and decided that this is going to be my voice. My voice is what I love and am able to do, those two things combined. And what I'm trying to achieve in terms in terms of furthering where I go. What I love in sound carries over the different genres.
My mom, who's not a classical listener says that she can hear me; that I wrote it, no matter what it is. Whether it's a gnarly, atonal clustery song-cycle, or if it's a sweeping orchestral score for a movie, she hears that it's my music; that's good to me. My voice is there, it's my brain, so it's going to have something of me in it.
And it turns out that what I love fits into many different categories. If I were to only work with percussion, which is a very popular thing right now, it might limit me, or it might steer me in directions, but my love is melody and noise. To find beauty in something that's ugly, or to distort something that's beautiful, until it is almost no longer beautiful.
AOP: If Decoration could be a double-bill with any existing opera, what would you like to see it paired with?
Mikael: A comedy, I think. Decoration will have some comedic elements in it, it needs to. But it's not a laugh-out-loud, happy romp. It deals with some really difficult stuff. But to have that with another dark piece, that would be unbearable. This is a pretty dark opera, so it needs to be paired with something joyous. I would love to have it paired with something that also celebrates life, but that does it in another way. Ours does it by saying “ok, so we take your bible away from you, we take your burning bush away from you, we take your weddings and your friendships and your love away from you, and we take your fairytale legends away from you, but look! Up there, in the sky, in the universe, in space. How can you not think that's a better deal? That's fantastic. Crashing galaxies, black holes, dark matter. If you can pair that with something that's funny on the surface, then that's the whole universe to me.Decoration will be performed on March 17 at The Manhattan School of Music and on March 23 at South Oxford Space in Brooklyn with the composer in attendance. Event info: www.operaprojects.org/events