Vladimir Tarnopolski
Wenn die Zeit über die Ufer tritt
(When Time Overflows its Margins)

Pictures from the premiere (Munich Biennale, 1999)

Notes on the opera

My opera When Time Overflows, to a libretto by Ralph Günter Mohnau, was written in 1999 in response to a commission from the festival of contemporary music theatre the Münchener Biennale.   The opera is based on situations and themes taken from various famous Chekhov plays:  Three Sisters, The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, and others.  However, the libretto does not follow any one of these plays, but rather creates a new ‘metatext’, a kind of distillation of Chekhov.  At the same time, the main propulsive element for the development is not, as it would be in a conventional literary-inspired opera, the plot, but in the three scenes that make up the opera, three varied treatments of the same situation — guests assembling in a country house. In Scene One, the action takes place in Chekhov’s time and milieu, that is to say at the end of the nineteenth – beginning of the twentieth century in provincial Russia. Scene Two is set in our own time at the turn of the millennium, in an unidentified cultural metropolis, while Scene Three takes place in virtual space at some unspecified time in the future. 

The material discussed in the dialogue modulates in parallel with the three time periods – past, present and future – and the three different cultural mentalities:  provincial Russia, an metropolitan capital city, and deep space beyond the solar system.   Scene One deals with love;  Scene Two – art;  and Scene Three – death.   Despite the superficial contrasts between the three environments, it emerges that the existential problems of mankind remain the same:  the impossibility of communication and mutual understanding, loneliness, and the absence of meaning to life.   Not only are these problems unchanging, they become more deeply entrenched as our civilisation develops.

This immutability is expressed in a particular aspect of the opera’s construction:  the three scenes represent in essence three free variations with a common structure.    Each scene is prefaced by the same phrase:  ‘Today is Sunday’ – reflecting an episode in which the three sisters are absorbed in their nostalgic dreams of something or other.   Two male characters then make their appearance and introduce the principal theme of the scene in question:  love, art or death.   Finally, after an ostinato climax, two more characters, a bass and a countertenor, steer the high-minded discussions into a grotesque, parodic vein.   Each scene concludes with a reference to the clock which inexorably marks the passage of time and reminds us of the opera’s title When Time Overflows its Margins.

My purpose in following this framework was to underline one of Chekhov’s  basic existential ideas:  that while things change,  people do not.   This construction, at the heart of which lies the principle of the same thrice-repeated structure, connects to a specific understanding of the phenomenon of time.   Time is considered here not as a vector (there is practically no action in the course of the opera) but as an image symbolised by the annual rings revealed when a tree is cut down, each of which constitutes a variant of its predecessor.

Alongside the concept of immutability, there is also an opposing principle at work in the opera:  that of progressive deconstruction, manifested primarily in the particular quality of the sound world employed.   Thus, as the opera progresses, the various instruments increasingly resort to all manner of ‘non-classical’, ‘alienating’ devices: multiphonic playing of wind instruments, semi-audible sounds on the strings and many others.  The deconstruction motif is most apparent in the evolution of the opera’s single leitmotiv:  time.   Emerging as if from a background of random rustling sounds, in Scene One the leitmotiv gradually acquires a bell-like character, but later on it progressively loses definition, dissolving in glissandos, screeching noises and clusters.   A no less radical aspect of deconstruction is likewise to be found in the evolution of the vocal line: while in Scene One a florid cantilena dominates, in Scene Two devices such as Sprechstimme, the singing of consonants and text fragmentation start to play an increasingly important role. Finally in Scene Three the words themselves deconstruct into discrete sounds which are parcelled out among the various characters, and in some episodes this is graphically portrayed in the recorded vocal line:  a vibrato will migrate to the point where the line breaks up completely.   There are other similar examples of non-classical vocal production.

All three scenes contain pleasing touches from the Chekhovian era, but they also are presented in unexpected and alienating ways which seem to violate their classical functions:  the archetypal Chekhov shotgun is heard not once but twice; the piano turns out to be a mechanical piano, the striking clock whose chimes mark the change of scene suddenly booms out the real time in the real performance.

The individual attributes of the characters, which are already somewhat indistinct and shadowy in the first scene, are also subjected to deconstruction later in the opera.   They gradually lose even their names, so that in the second scene they are referred to only by their initial letters, and by the third scene they have become no more than numbers.   This lack of genuinely identifiable characters makes it impossible for the structure of the opera to incorporate any solo arias, hence the entire work is composed as an ensemble piece. During my work on the opera, its ensemble nature became in fact a key concept:   the three sisters sing together practically throughout, a sort of trinity that becomes in effect a single polyphonic entity.   The number three is another important organising principle of the opera.  The orchestral accompaniment to the three sisters is provided by a trio of solo strings;  three themes – love, art and death – respectively define the content of the three scenes, which embody three epochs and three settings for the action.   In each of the three climaxes, Latin phrases are heard when the characters declaim the key words of the particular scene.

I derived the notion of Latin from a fleeting detail in Chekhov when Masha, driven to distraction by her husband, conjugates the verb amo, I love. This for me became an acorn from which I have attempted to grow a complete oak tree.  It determined the meaning and the structure of the whole opera.

This is a good example of my approach to Chekhov’s text.   My object was categorically not to try to get close to the so-called ‘real’ Chekhov — who is entirely unknown to everyone, — for this I believe to be impossible, certainly in opera.   On the contrary, I absolutely rejected as naïve any notion of setting Chekhov’s words to music, a purpose for which they are quite unsuitable.   I am generally convinced that the languages of the different art forms resist transference from one to another.   Even the simplest reworking of any work of literature for the stage obliges the director fundamentally to rethink and reconstruct all the material.   When it comes to composing an opera, the composer must  seek an entirely new artistic lexicon, a new construction and a new way of presenting the material.

In this respect, I considered my most important task to be to fuse together a heterogenous collection of stylistic elements, not in the banal polystylistic manner of Schnittke (which essentially ends up as the sum of all the different stylisations and quotations embraced), but as a true acoustic re-generation at the deepest level.   I tried to find a kind of meta-style, within whose aural magma any particular potentially identifiable idiom would be washed away in the sound waves of harmony-timbre-noise.   For myself, I think of it as a new euphony in which the conflicts of consonance against dissonance, sound against noise, harmony against timbre, acoustic against electronic instruments, are dissolved.

In the opera I frequently evoke barely-perceptible stylistic allusions, which have the capacity of altering their features like a chameleon.   I ‘recalled’ cryogenic moments from various works and composers:  Glinka, Tchaikovsky’s cards, Musorgsky’s bells, Rachmaninov’s endless cantilenas, the piercing anguish of Lady Macbeth, although of course the listener will not consciously be aware of any of these.   In the first scene I have even quoted a phrase from Liszt’s Liebestraum, and the opera’s climactic scene makes use of rap and minimalism.  As they develop, these idiomatic references acquire a more and more perceptible critical aspect, until eventually they disintegrate under the weight of their own definition.   However, my aim was to incorporate the whole gamut of this stylistic spectrum not as a jostling crowd of individuals on the surface, but as part of a ‘root system’ whose branches inform the texture of the sound itself.

In the final scene, the librettist has included the Address to Mankind uttered by the members of the suicidal religious sect Temple of the Sun as they were on the point of poisoning themselves en masse.   This unexpected idea, at first glance so shocking in the context of Chekhov, appeared to me on the contrary most organic and appropriate to the opera. I found that the text of the address contained unexpected, almost literal, consonances with some of the maxims that proceed from the mouths of Chekhov’s characters, thus closing the thematic circle of the opera and underlining the archetypal nature of the timeless and age-old problems of our brief human existence, revealed by the genius of Chekhov.