Oil, Opera and the history that haunts us
When I meet with the Danish Composer Neils Rønsholdt on a scorching summer afternoon in Copenhagen, he has a kind of crackle of excitement about him. He’s just come from a rehearsal for another piece but he’s in town to prepare for the premiere and subsequent run of his new opera, The Last Rites, at the Copenhagen Opera Festival. Normally, Rønsholdt resides in Aarhus where he is an associate professor in composition at the Royal Academy of Music. It is very clear that Rønsholdt is eager to share this work with his audience but until he can he has to make do with me and the question I could generate on the basis of the programme description.
The opera takes its start from the hunt for whale oil in the 18th century. 1721 to be precise. The year of Denmark’s colonisation of Greenland. In the opera, however, the hunt doesn’t take them anywhere so specific, it simply takes them north into the cold and dark. And here we find the first of many ambivalences in the piece. The desire for oil is the desire to escape the cold and the dark, but the characters must journey into the cold and the dark to find it. To underline this aspect, Rønsholdt and director Louise Beck has decided to stage The Last Rites in Østerbro Ice Skating Rink, which, he tells me, allows the audience to be »forcefully immersed in the situation of the opera«. He goes on to say that »the coldness is a metaphor for the practicalities of the problem they seek to solve with their various skill but also for the coldness with which they go about it.«
»Even if we knew it was wrong, we would do it anyway. Because of greed and cynicism and power«
The machinations of desire
Much like the allegorical nature of the narrative’s journey north, Rønsholdt’s characters are less people than they are concepts. Rather than getting caught up in the infinitely contestable details of what, in fact, went down then, Rønsholdt is keen to get at the underlying mechanisms and structures that animate the extractive practices that characterise modernity. So his characters are abstractions. There are four singing roles and one silent. Those who verbalise their ideas and experiences are idealism, power, cynicism and skepticism. The one who remains silent is desire (drift). The four singing parts all seek the light, which means a different thing to each of them. For example, for idealism, the light is enlightenment, whereas for cynicism the light is money. But one question that the silent presence of desire raises is to what extent are these characters-as-grand-ideas expressions of an actual commitment to engaging in the world in a certain way or to what extent are they merely apparitions that cloak the machinations of desire itself?
»I mean a G major chord is not something I made up. It’s a found object«
As the quest unfolds, Rønsholdt tells me, »they exploit each other for what they can do to get what they all want but, of course, this means that the second they get it, their relationships collapse.« This opera is then an interrogation of »the cynical thought that this exploitation is a driver of human behaviour.« It is about the idea that this drive has wreaked havoc on the planet and its inhabitants throughout history and that we, in the present, live with privileges and catastrophes that this has produced. It is for this reason that Rønsholdt believes that the story he is trying to tell and the ideas he wants to articulate are well served as an opera. Indeed, it is almost imperative that it is »because the opera is a historical genre, it is a genre that needs to deal with history. So, there must be some reason for something to be an opera. In my view, there should be some kind of argument somewhere in the material to find a reason for this to be an opera.« And with history being such a central concern for Rønsholdt, to talk about these ideas through opera is »to talk about history with its own voice. We are a product of these centuries of history of exploitation. All that is awful and all that is good.«
»I didn’t write the music entirely myself«
This understanding also informs his working methods, which Rønsholdt considers to be complexly referential and citational. For example, a previous work of his called, Country, from 2019/20, saw him engaging with traditions and practices of American folk musics and resituating them in a work of contemporary composition. This was not meant as a gesture of legitimization or the hunt for authenticity but as a project that looked to explore the dissonances and resonances such a combination produced. Rønsholdt is deeply committed to the idea that his work is not so much something that he produces from nothing as it is the result of an ongoing encounter with history: »I didn’t write the music entirely myself,« he tells me. »I mean a G major chord is not something I made up. It’s a found object, a historical object that I put into play.«
»So there is this constant drive of going forward to the next tonic and the next tonic and the next, which becomes this metaphor for growth and expansion«
This kind of granular engagement with the referential nature of the material allows him to thoroughly dissolve the conceptual motivations behind the piece into the music. For example, he goes into detail on a formal and harmonic device he uses throughout The Last Rites:
»The way the opera goes forward is by an isolation of a baroque recitative cadence, so you make a cadence ending with a minor chord and then that is transformed into a major chord which becomes the dominant to the next tonic and so on on the next section. So there is this constant drive of going forward to the next tonic and the next tonic and the next, which becomes this metaphor for growth and expansion.«
The seductive power of the oil
This also plays into how he casts the orchestra, »the orchestra plays the part of the Protestant chorale.« Much like German economist and sociologist Max Weber's famous notion that the so-called Protestant work ethic helped to shape much of the social order of modern capitalism, here too Rønsholdt looks to this structure of religious communion as the organising principle that provides a foundation to his characters’ journey into exploitation. And as they progress further into the cold a ruthless drive the structure of this chorale as a community work ethic starts to come apart. The voices start to spin away from each other as the bonds that bind loosen before the overwhelmingly seductive power of the oil. The desire to acquire more resources has become for each of the characters a compulsion to exploit the environment, their companions and themselves.
These birds are known to peck into the heads of their fellows
For Rønsholdt, this is, however, all foreshadowed by the presence of a Meiser bird in the opera’s opening. These birds are known to peck into the heads of their fellows, searching for resources and letting all that may have been sacred about the other spill into oblivion.
But then Rønsholdt can’t stay in this judgmental position for long. The composer runs a little thought experiment with me. If we are cold and in the dark and there is oil that can not only warm and illuminate us but become the seed of generations of life and wealth, »are we just going to leave it?« The same goes for territory, are we just to stay put when there are places to explore and exploit? I posit to him that the sadness of his pieces seems to come from the absence of a sixth character, knowledge or perhaps wisdom. He likes this reading. He says:
»Knowledge says you can’t burn all the oil. But we do anyway. I’m not overly optimistic in my view on humanity. And the opera is a pessimistic satire of human nature. Even if we knew it was wrong, we would do it anyway. Because of greed and cynicism and power.«
This for him is where politics comes in. There is only a little reticence for Rønsholdt to discuss the politics of this piece. He knows this work is unavoidably political and wants that to be noticed by others too. But he doesn’t want to come across as the one with the answers. As he tells me, the critique offered in The Last Rites is as much an indictment of himself as it is all of us as products of an ambivalent (violent and miraculous) history. He says:
»Really I am pointing at myself as being part of this unfolding and historic problem. And then politics should be about holding back some of these desires. And maybe the problem is there has been too little politics.«
»The ice rink itself is absurd«
Winter all year round?
On the page, there is a risk that this conversation comes across as melancholic. In fact it was enlivened by the absurdities of the complex problems and world we inhabit. This is not to say that Rønsholdt or myself were not taking the unfolding catastrophe of climate breakdown resulting from human (and really industrial capitalist) environmental exploitation seriously. Rather through our conversation, I got the sense of an artist who, despite his well-founded pessimism, felt compelled to reflect on the problem in ways that might even reach beyond its immediate audience.
By making certain gestures, it seems Rønsholdt is hoping to help people recognise the strangeness of the supposedly normal world. Taking for example the staging of the opera in an ice rink, he can’t help but plainly state the madness of such a thing being a possibility at all:
»The ice rink itself is absurd. Like we need to have a place where it’s winter all year round? It is just this idea that if we can we must.«
If there is one uncomfortable thought Rønsholdt wants his audience to be haunted by as they leave The Last Rites, it would seem to me to be why is it so hard for us to resist the compulsion that if we can we must?
»The Last Rites« premiers as a part of Copenhagen Opera Festival at 22.00 on August 25th. It will also be performed on August 26th and 27th.