Maverick Life

TRIAL BY MEDIA

Duelling arias and piano gunfire — the shock and awe of new opera

Duelling arias and piano gunfire — the shock and awe of new opera
Rehearsing a scene from Trial by Media during which a jury of South Africans in dark sunglasses surround the accused Oscar Pistorius with their cellphones, helping to transform his trial into a public spectacle. (Photo: Conroy Scott)

South African composer Conrad Asman tries his hand at opera for the first time, turning to a topic close to many of our hearts: former golden boy Oscar Pistorius and the murder of Reeva Steenkamp. 

Dwuh! Dwuh! Dwuh! Three gunshots rang out, each separated from the previous one by a perfectly timed pause, as though they were metronome-measured beats. The sound reverberated through the large studio, caused hearts to shudder, heads to turn in shock.

Only they weren’t gunshots at all. The loud bangs were being made by José Dias, the Portugal-born Cape Town-based musical director, who was slamming down the lid of his Yamaha rehearsal piano, again and again. In response to the shocked expressions on the faces in the room, he explained that the thuds were stand-ins for whatever would be used to create the actual gunfire in the opera. His salvos of rehearsal dwuhs were for the singers to get used to the heart-thumping jolt that audiences would undoubtedly experience on the night.

The opera is Trial by Media, a new work by London-based South African composer Conrad Asman. It’s about the trial of Oscar Pistorius, the Paralympic athlete who shot and killed his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, on Valentine’s Day in 2013.

 Conrad Asman, opera

Composer Conrad Asman. (Photo: Flavia Catena)

Read more in Daily Maverick: Convicted murderer Oscar Pistorius home on parole 11 years after killing Reeva Steenkamp

Co-directed by Fred Abrahamse and Marcel Meyer, the show is being produced as part of Cape Town Opera’s Shorts: A Festival of Pocket Operas, on at Artscape’s Arena theatre in Cape Town this month.

Gunshots notwithstanding, don’t expect from the opera a straight-up documentary-­type reappraisal of the trial that so captivated the public imagination. Though the libretto by late author Schalk Schoombie deliberately quotes directly from court transcripts, it also plunders the online and social media commentary that surrounded the case, and it engages critically with the manner in which public opinion became part of the greater discourse about the trial.

Just as Schoombie’s narrative sets out to present multiple angles of the unfolding courtroom drama, Asman’s cutting-edge, frequently fiery score tries to capture a variety of perspectives, the mood and style of the music shifting throughout the opera as a way of embodying Nietzsche’s notion of truth as a construction of multiple viewpoints.

Conroy Scott, opera

Bass-baritone Conroy Scott, who plays the defence attorney, with musical director José Dias on the right. (Photo: Cape Town Opera)

In contrast with the almost mathematical melodies used to underscore the procedural, forensic nature of the libretto in its most litigious moments, there are, for example, elements of waltz in the opera’s moments of levity — such as the lightness and joy evoked by Valentine’s Day, before the murder takes place. But, soon to come, there are the dissonant and jarring signatures of trauma and tragedy, plus those gunshots and the musical sparring between the two attorneys as they state their respective legal arguments in what comes across as a pair of duelling arias.

“In these scenes, it’s very calculated, very cold and unemotional,” says Asman of the technical manner in which the attorneys (bass-baritone Conroy Scott and tenor Tylor Lamani) plead their respective cases. “As their arguments build, they start to interrupt each other more and more, and the music grows increasingly agitated. It becomes quite fiery, culminating with this completely unrealistic battle of words and heightened emotions of these lawyers singing over one another. And the music takes the audience on that journey with them.”

Musical director José Dias.

Musical director José Dias. (Photo: Cape Town Opera)

Beyond the sometimes dry lyrics of the litigation aspect of the drama, there’s a metaphysical element, too: Reeva Steenkamp’s spirit is present — and she not only watches but participates. Played by award-winning soprano Brittany Smith, Steenkamp’s apparition roams the stage, reflecting on her relationship with Pistorius, bringing some sense of how she might have felt about what was unfolding in the physical realm of the courtroom.

Although he doesn’t have synaesthesia — that ability some folks have to hear colours or see sounds — Asman says he does possess some “deeply internalised” ability to create a connection between sound and emotion.

“That’s what mainly drives me, and I can be quite neurotic about how I control that,” he says. “That’s what I love about composing: having the ability to harness music to make an audience feel something.”

Trial by Media cast

Playing the jury-cum-chorus in Trial by Media are (back row, left to right) Jason Atherton, Nolubabalo Mdayi and Asisipho Petu, and (front row) Thando Mpushe, Luvo Rasemeni and Ernestine Stuurman. (Photo: Luvo Rasemeni)

Achieving that sort of control is a considerable process which, in order to create the Trial by Media score, began with “sussing out” the overall movement of the libretto, working line by line to establish the general mood and any development in each moment. Then he created the vocal score, using the piano to lay down a kind of blueprint.

“There’s no real ‘right’ way to compose,” Asman says. “There’s no rule stating that you have to keep the audience in mind, or you must consider the performer… You can ultimately do whatever you like.”

Some composers dabble in “word painting”, he says. “It’s where, for example, if someone sings, ‘I love the smell of morning and butterflies in the air’, on butterflies you will hear all these butterfly-esque embellishments in the music as it attempts to emulate the composer’s idea of what a butterfly sounds like.

“For me, that can get very old very quickly, so I try not to do that. I like to think about the bigger mood of what’s being sung and I go from there, try to visualise the stage, think of how the singers are going to move around, consider where we need a duet or a solo, and where the chorus should be involved.”

Costume renderings by Marcel Meyer for Brittany Smith as Reeva

Costume renderings by Marcel Meyer for Brittany Smith as Reeva. (Image: supplied)

Dias says the music is perfect for the subject matter. “When Reeva enters in a kind of dreamlike or heavenly state, or comes on in a flashback, the music is gentler. There’s even a little bit of pop-music inspiration, because some of her favourite songs are subtly referenced in the score.

“While a lot of the music is challenging, the beginning of the opera is easy on the ear, because it’s ironically poking fun at the romance of that deadly Valentine’s evening.”

Asman’s score, crafted over four years, was finally completed just days after Pistorius’s parole request was approved in November last year. It’s his first opera, having made a name for himself as a creator of innovative and award-winning symphonies that have been performed by some of the world’s top orchestras and ensembles in several of the most celebrated concert venues, including Carnegie Hall in New York City.

He says he was convinced of the power of composing when, as a young teenager, he attended his first classical concert in Johannesburg, where he grew up.

Van Wyk Venter as Oscar Pistorius during a rehearsal of Trial b

Van Wyk Venter as Oscar Pistorius during a rehearsal of Trial by Media. (Photo: Conroy Scott)

“It was Mahler, and I remember thinking, oh dear, a whole hour of classical music, what am I going to do? Instead, I sat in that concert hall and from beginning to end it captured me, held my attention, uninterrupted. I thought it was the most amazing thing, and I knew I wanted to do whatever it was that had made me feel that way.”

He became preoccupied with the ability of a composer to create music that “kind of grabs you by the throat and demands that you listen to it”.

He also jokes that he turned to composing because he was “a very lazy practiser” — those are his words. “I would get bored practising piano, trying to perfect someone else’s music, and became increasingly interested in creating my own music. I wanted to see if I could do what these big-name composers had done: make something new.”

He says that part of the joy of composing is that he is able to do anything, which means trying out things he hasn’t tried before.

“Composing is a bit like being a chef, I guess. You’ve got these ingredients, and from history and experience you know that certain ingredients go well together while other ingredients clash, and certain things you just don’t put together. But you can basically do anything. You are the one in the kitchen deciding what happens, which ingredients are put together — and how. And then the audience comes and tastes the music.”

Just as chefs are always experimenting, Asman says he tries to do something different with every new piece. “Not necessarily new in the world, but something that’s new for me. And not everything works. Plenty of pieces I’ve written don’t work as I expected them to, and that’s okay. I’m sure some chef put ice cream on a steak once, only to realise that maybe a butter sauce would work better.”

Trial by Media opera

Rehearsing a scene from Trial by Media. (Photo: Conroy Scott)

Listening to the people working with Asman’s first opera score, though, it seems he created a recipe that works, and masterfully so.

And he’s managed to avoid excess cleverness or grandiloquence for the sake of it.

“It’s very cleverly composed,” says Dias, “but not in a show-off kind of way. I never feel that we’re fighting the music, which sometimes happens when working with a new, modern piece. There are these composers who like showing off, trying to impress everyone with the cleverness of what they’ve created, rather than serving the subject. Conrad doesn’t do that. He takes us along with him all the time.”

Abrahamse, who has directed numerous musicals and operas, at least 20 of them brand-new, says: “Some modern, minimalist composers can just drive you up the wall. I once directed Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale, and there were times when it sounded like a bunch of chipmunks got into the orchestra and just started banging on the instruments.

“The temptation with many modern composers is to create music for the aficionados sitting in the audience who, they hope, will be thinking, oh my God, how clever is that? That’s a tribute to Sondheim! Listen to that counter-melody.

“But the fact is that we, the listening public, simply want to watch and enjoy and hopefully follow the story.”

Abrahamse says he believes Asman’s score will capably take the audience on that journey. “His score is challenging and the music is difficult, for sure. It’s the sort of contemporary minimalist stuff that, when you hear it initially, you might kind of get a shock. But once your ear gets tuned in, you realise that what you’re hearing is just incredible.” DM

The world premiere of Trial by Media was on 11 April at Artscape in Cape Town. Shorts: A Festival of Pocket Operas also includes Francis Poulenc’s La voix humaine (The Human Voice) and Mozart’s comedy The Impresario (Der Schauspieldirektor). The festival runs until 21 April and tickets are available from Webtickets.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R35.

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