This three-disc collection documents the operas and major vocal works composed by Liza Lim for ELISION, Australia’s preeminent new music ensemble, with whom Lim has maintained a close collaborative relationship for nearly four decades. As with all of her works for the stage, here Lim embraces opera’s opportunities to explore radical ideas of anthropological ritual, transculturalism, transfiguration, and the spiritual dimensions of myth, memory, language, and culture.
To sing, in Lim’s operas, is an act of ventriloquism through which a body onstage becomes possessed by a second powerful presence—multiple characters, identities, truths, or temporalities vie for embodiment through the voice. There is perhaps no better example of Lim’s staging of this flickering presence than in the ‘Angel of History’ aria at the end of the first scene of The Navigator (2008). The character, borrowed from Walter Benjamin’s meditation on Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, is a paradoxical creature who gazes upon the past while being buffeted into the future, caught at the wings by the storm of human progress. As a result, The Angel speaks with a voice that is at once part beast, part deity, part bird, and part human, combining past, present, and future in a single conjugation.
In addition to The Navigator, these discs include world-premiere recordings of Chang-O Flies to the Moon—the sixth scene from Lim‘s opera Yuè Lìng Jié (Moon Spirit Feasting) (2000), in which Chang-O struggles to reconcile in a single body the many versions of herself that populate her myth—and Mother Tongue (2005), perhaps the most significant vocal work of Lim’s beyond the operas, a meditation on the ecology of language and also a radical act of preservation: encased in Patricia Sykes’ libretto are words and sounds from Aboriginal languages now on the brink of extinction.
These are joined by The Oresteia (1993), a remarkable work—even more so considering it was only Lim’s third published composition, undertaken just shy of her twenty-fifth birthday—which was originally released by Dischi Ricordi in 1994, but has long been out of print. This “memory theater in seven parts” summons the characters of Orestes, Electra, Cassandra, Clytemnestra, and Agamemnon into a space to revive, rather than retell, their unrequited feud. The libretto weaves single-word fragments from the Greek play with Tony Harrison’s modern English translation and the poetry of Sappho.
Purchase from NMC Records | Spotify | Apple Music
In her works for the stage—the first three of which along with the large-scale work Mother Tongue are included on this disc—Liza Lim embraces opera’s opportunities to explore radical ideas of anthropological ritual, transculturalism, and spiritual presence. Music becomes the mediating force through which performers and audiences make contact with the spiritual realms of myth, memory, and culture.
These ideas of music and theater are inseparable from Lim’s nearly four decades of partnership with ELISION, Australia’s preeminent new music group. Since their inception in 1986 (when the founding members and Lim met as students at the Victorian College for the Arts), the ensemble has had a hand in a majority of her music, including her first three operas: The Oresteia, Yuè Lìng Jié (Moon Spirit Feasting), and The Navigator. This proximity has helped shape her musical vocabulary of distortion and “beautiful noise” through a wealth of extended techniques and sounds afforded by years of collaboration and personal relationships.
Lim’s upbringing as a child of Chinese parents in Australia was equally influential in crafting her musical imagination, offering personal experiences of music’s transformative role in ritual contexts. These experiences have shaped Lim’s approach to writing opera. Rather than begin with a story, which must then be animated by the actions of musicians, she begins with the musicians gathered in a space and asks: “What stories are summoned by their collective ritual of performance?”
The answer often comes in the form of mythic archetype, the kind of story one knows long before hearing it. These stories are attractive to Lim precisely because of their ubiquity: they are interesting not because of their content, but because of the ways their content is transformed and transmuted in the collective mind across time and culture—a kind of intergenerational game of Telephone. In her earliest published works for ELISION, Garden of Earthly Delights and Voodoo Child (both from 1989), Lim is already experimenting with these illuminated spaces of transformation between cultures (Hieronymus Bosch and Italo Calvino in the former) and linguistic physicality (the poetry of Sappho in the latter).
The Oresteia (1993) is a “memory theater in seven parts” that summons the characters of Orestes, Electra, Cassandra, Clytemnestra, and Agamemnon into a space to revive, rather than retell, their unrequited feud. The libretto weaves single-word fragments from the Greek play with Tony Harrison’s modern English translation and again the poetry of Sappho, so that what occurs is not a linear story but a series of charged presences and outbursts that overtake the instruments and bodies on the stage. The seven-part structure abstracts the tale into a ritual architecture, which progresses from invocation and awakening to sacrifice and dismemberment, through procession and dance to annunciation and purgation. There is no explicitly staged murder, no trial of Orestes, no interrogation of the seer—the audience already knows that tale. Instead, the characters are distilled to pure energies, filtered through musical structures of recursion, repetition, and echo as the singers and instrumentalists embody their collected memory of the play’s ancient fury.
Because Lim writes first with musicians in mind, the singers are listed in the score by voice type rather than character. This scoring implies that they are, crucially, not the personas they embody, but the singers, exactly as they are. To sing, in Lim’s operas, is an act of ventriloquism through which a body onstage becomes possessed by a second powerful presence. This is the magic of her operas: the physical drama occurs not in a faraway land but in the very room in which they are performed.
The Oresteia is a remarkable work, even more so considering it is Lim’s third published composition and was undertaken just shy of her twenty-fifth birthday. Already the composer is demonstrating an astounding mastery of the stage and, more importantly, a confident and flexible theatrical language capable of adaptation. The promise of The Oresteia was followed, however, by a seven-year hiatus from opera in which Lim, among other things, completed a postgraduate degree from the University of Queensland, experiments with installation art alongside Domenico de Clario, served as artist-in-residence at the Peggy Glanville-Hicks House, and wrote sizable commissions for Ensemble Modern, ELISION, and the Arditti Quartet. In 1999, Lim, along with librettist Beth Yahp, returned to the genre on commission from the Adelaide Festival to tackle another myth, this time of the Chinese goddess Chang-O, her herb of immortality, and her ultimate flight to the moon.
Yuè Lìng Jié (Moon Spirit Feasting) (2000) marks a significant theatrical departure for Lim. Different from the private ritual of The Oresteia, Yuè Lìng Jié abolishes any boundary between performer and audience. Singers and instrumentalists travel between the stage (in the original production, a barge floating on the Torrens River) and an altar constructed behind the audience, constantly vying for the attention and belief of the onlookers. The opera, which is modeled after the ritual street theater of the Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival, intentionally acknowledges the presence of the audience through a performative theatricality that verges on camp. (At its most extreme, the characters of the Monkey King and the Queen Goddess enact a Daoist sex manual in a competition of kitsch.) Lim goes so far as to encourage that the production be surrounded by street vendors, replicating not only the sounds but also the smells and sights that would traditionally accompany these festival performances.
The character of Chang-O herself, however, feels more at home in the world of The Oresteia, full of contradiction and multiple selves. While the Monkey King and Queen Mother battle for the truth of her identity, she struggles to reconcile in a single body the many versions of herself that populate her myth. This shimmering self is perhaps best reflected in her aria “Chang-O Flies to the Moon,” the opera’s sixth scene. The aria maps the character’s/singer’s journey through pronomination, which begins by addressing the moon goddess as ‘she’ (the singer talking to her), progresses to ‘I’ (she speaks through the singer), and then to ‘you’ (the bifurcated presence of mythic being and performer within the same body). These split presences are illuminated by heavy musical distortion—as if one sound were trying to break through another.
In the years after Yuè Lìng Jié, Lim spent relatively little time writing for voice. Most of these seven years between operas were focused on large ensemble works (a period in which Lim was Composer-in-Residence for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra). There are, however, two vocal works: The Quickening, for soprano and qin on texts by Yang Lian, followed almost immediately by Mother Tongue for soprano and ensemble, a collaboration with Melbourne-based poet Patricia Sykes.
Mother Tongue (2005) is perhaps the most significant vocal work of Lim’s beyond the operas. Premiered by Piia Komsi and Ensemble Intercontemporain in co-commission with ELISION and Festival d’Automne à Paris, the work is a meditation on the ecology of language. The phrase ‘mother tongue’ suggests many possibilities, from the role of language in shaping the world to the first sounds of meaning made by an infant. The work is also a radical act of preservation: encased in Sykes’ libretto are words and sounds from Aboriginal languages now on the brink of extinction, a kind of Ur-Mother-Tongue (most notably in the phoneme “tik,” thought to be the first vestige of human speech). This obsession with embryonic states and ecstatic ecology points thematically toward Lim’s next ELISION opera, but it is the final lines of The Quickening that form the clearest bridge: “cicadas/in the body/endlessly cry.”
This insectoid cry is where The Navigator (2007) begins. A lone alto Ganassi recorder, itself an instrument of rebirth (a modern model of the Venetian Renaissance instrument, played here by longtime ELISION member Genevieve Lacey), croons in an independent overture titled “Weaver of Fictions” (named after Eros, Greek God of passion). The instrument is gradually overtaken by field recordings of cicadas, whose piercing mating calls of death fill the hall before being spliced by a distorted electric guitar (originally written for Lim’s husband Daryl Buckley).
Already this opera is different, more sensual, more abstract. Where the first two operas used story to access states of abstract archetype, here it is the abstract themes of ecstatic and erotic transformation that sit at the fore, forcing the story far into the background. The libretto—again by Patricia Sykes—employs another pair of ancient myths to frame transformations of presence, this time the false flag and love-death of Tristan and Isolde and the Dice Game gamble in The Mahabharata. Neither story is directly referenced, and the details of their plots are only marginally perceptible. They are instead reduced to mythic archetypes—The Beloved, The Navigator, The Crone, The Fool, The Angel—who together traverse the sensoria of sexual transformation that form their stories of ecstatic passion.
In fact, all of Lim’s operas occupy some ecstatic state of transformation, each to increasing degrees of intensification. To access such states, Lim’s approach to stories has evolved. In The Oresteia she presents the tale in half-remembered shadowy fragments that hint at the narrative outline of the play. The summoning power of music possesses the onstage bodies, illuminating transformative spaces as the singers and performers flit between character and self. This goes a step further in Yuè Lìng Jié, where the story is almost told—even argued over—much more than it is ever performed. The Navigator is a kind of climax: through complete narrative abstraction, only the ecstatic transformations of the original tales remain. Character identities are fully submerged in the shimmering musical ritual.
There is no better example of Lim’s staging of such flickering presence than in the Angel of History aria at the end of The Navigator’s first scene. The character, borrowed from Walter Benjamin’s meditation on Paul Klee’s “Angelus Novus,” is a paradoxical creature who gazes upon the past while being buffeted into the future, caught at the wings by the storm of human progress. As a result, The Angel speaks with a voice that is at once part beast, part deity, part bird, and part human, and combines past, present, and future in a single conjugation. The Angel’s immense interference of sound and time is perhaps the most condensed representation of the distorted presences that occupy all of Lim’s operas. To achieve this musical multiplicity, the singer—here Deborah Kayser, whose role as a key collaborator is present across this disc—inserts a small plastic membrane (a “wacky whistle”) against the roof of her mouth which, when activated with air, fills the voice with a second layer of buzzes, squeals, and shrieks. The control required to maintain the plastic whistle is immense, and as a result the singer must physically fight the other voices emanating from within her own body: the drama of split presence that has animated Lim’s operas since the beginning has, fourteen years later, taken its bodied form.
Opera is traditionally an art dependent on willing suspension of disbelief. For 400 years, the genre has relied on its audience to divorce a certain amount of realism to help make the leap from a constructed set and a few onstage singers to winter, Paris, 1837. Music helps bridge the gap: any world governed by song and singing is necessarily removed from reality. The omnipotent presence of music makes extravagant plot and extended histrionics believable precisely by their arealism—music is the magic of it all. In the operas of Liza Lim, performance and ritual have an imaginary sorcery of their own, which creates space for real humans, cultures, languages, and histories to negotiate their relationship through the stories they tell. Whether it is Ancient Greek tragedy, Chinese ritual myth, or Wagnerian ecstatic love, opera for Lim is a vehicle to animate these relationships in real time, and it is her music whose magic brings mythic worlds, for the briefest of moments, in contact with our own.
— Tyler Bouque