Edmonton: Montreal-based composer Ana Sokolović settled in Canada in her early 20’s. She left Serbia as a student, and although her music has won recognition — and more importantly, performances — in Canada, she was mostly unknown in her native land until this past autumn.
Sokolović’s 51-minute chamber opera Svadba (Wedding) premiered in Toronto in June 2011, and its producer, Toronto’s Queen of Puddings Music Theatre, took it on the road to Dublin, Orléans, Paris and Belgrade in October. It began a small western Canadian tour in Calgary and Edmonton, co-sponsored by Edmonton Opera, last week. It’s on to Vancouver this week.
Sokolović, a tall, slender woman with a French-tinted Slavic accent, constructed the libretto partly from Serbian poetry, but her approach to language is as musical as it is semantic. The texts flirt with Serbian bridal shower traditions and certainly allude to Serbian folk music culture, but the six women singing a capella in Svadba are as likely at any moment to be imitating Indian theka, a percussive rhythmic scatting, as they are the nasally Balkan vocal style of her homeland.
The seven seamlessly flowing scenes of Svadba conjure universally familiar rituals, such as dressing and adorning the bride’s hair, and sundry forms of girlish playfulness. But although the foundation of the piece is Serbian, Sokolović yanks the episodes out of their specific cultural referencing through a compositional approach that is eclectic and contemporary without ever feeling forced or overly intellectualised.
Her aim, she said in an interview before the Edmonton performance on January 12, was to capture the universal emotions in the culturally specific context. There is the sad yet hopeful final farewell song the betrothed sings as the all-night party ends and the wedding day dawns (the only real complete aria in the work), but much of the musical spirit of Svadba could be described as unbounded and effervescent — erratic and, at times, erotic, but above all, propulsive. In the scene ‘Alphabet and Party Games’, for example, the women squabble. Their verbal artillery is just the Serbian alphabet, which when recited with a little venom makes a dramatic musical impression. Overall, to get an idea of what the composer’s palette resembles, imagine a Balkan Bobby McFerrin.
Explaining her motive, Sokolović says, ‘I know everyone in opera wants to have surtitles, and that’s OK. But I wanted to communicate with emotions, and I wanted anyone in the world to understand this even without understanding the words.’ And there’s no doubt Svadba gets much of its strength from Sokolović’s Joycean-like experimentation. Words are made of sounds first.
Based on her experience seeing her work performed in a place like Ireland, she believes she got her point across: ‘It was very touching to see the people in Ireland, who are not geographically close to the Balkans at all, gave it a standing ovation. They were so touched, and it was very touching for me that people understood. It was the same thing in France and in Toronto.’
She was very nervous about how a Serbian audience would respond to her contemporary interpretation of their traditions. She worried, ‘How will they perceive in Serbia an opera inspired by Serbian tradition but not in a Serbian context?’
Compounding her anticipation was the fact that the Belgrade performance on October 17 would be the first time her music would be performed in Serbia. She says she passed the test, and the audience was especially surprised to learn that the six Canadian women in the cast weren’t, in fact, Serb speakers.
One of the singers, Edmonton-based mezzo soprano Elizabeth Turnbull, wasn’t part of the original cast, but she did sing in Europe and is on the Canadian tour. Turnbull believes that despite all the Serbian influences in Svadba, it is a Canadian composer’s work.
‘What makes it quintessentially Canadian is that you have a Canadian company creating new works for Canadian stages, first and foremost, mounted in Canada first, with a Serbian composer who lives in Montreal and who now mostly speaks French. We’re an amazing sum of all of our parts.’