The mysterious Johan Kvandal

– Why do I think ‘Mysteries’ is suitable as an opera? Well, this distinct cast of carachters lends itself brilliantly to the stage! Johan Nilsen Nagen – ” in an eccentric yellow suit and with a wide velvet hat”,  Dagny Kielland – “with a thick blonde braid down her back”, Martha Gude – “her hair is white; her eye hair is terribly black, and appear to make the eyes smolder”, and Minutten – “his walk was so troublesome it was conspicuous; and yet he moved so quickly around”.

Commisioned work

In the middle of the 80s, Johan Kvandal was commissioned by the former opera director Bjørn Simensen to compose “something with Hamsun”. But the composer thought the theme was to wide. Especially if Hamsun’s own destiny was to be included. Kvandal began thinking about “Mysteries”, one of his favorite novels since his teens – and the fact that Barthold Halle already had dramatized the novel for Oslo Nye Teater in the 70s. Halle turned out to be interested in writing a libretto, and the project was approved by the opera. When The Norwegian Opera had a new opera director in 1990, Kvandal’s work had progressed so far that the score was available in piano version. Sven Olof Eliassen enthusiastically gave his final approval.

– What is the essence of the opera “Mysteries”? Hamsun himself felt that love was the central theme of the book.

– The opera has become a love story, but it also portrays the tension between the four main characters. Nagel is of course the main person, and his relations to the outside world is the key element – turning from ecstatic to downcast, arrogant and humble. Kvandal describes his musical language as modern tonality. It is tonal, but moves beyond the major-minor pattern. He calls it functional. Dissonant chords are not dissolved into consonant, they are raised to independence, have their own value.

At this point in our conversation, Kvandal goes to sit down by the piano. He will demonstrate the mystical and the irrational from the depths of Nagel’s subconsious. The score consists of 921 pages. He bends over the keyboard, sets two chords and looks up at us – one of our greatest contemporary composers. It is charming until the moving. Suddenly he strikes. The virtuous, melodical beginning leads us musically into the heart of Hamsun’s universe.

– I asked Halle to give room for the main characters to unfold in terms of singing, whereas the remaining soloists will have to settle for remarks and shorter features. It has led to adjustments along the way. In order to give Martha a greater part, I let her tell Dagny about Nagel’s famous chair purchase, for example. The soloists are Nagel (baritone), Dagny (soprano), Minutten (tenor), Martha (soprano), the hotel maid Sara (mezzo soprano), the hotel host (bass), doctor Stenersen (bass), the doctor’s wife (mezzo), miss Andresen (mezzo), adjunct Holtan (tenor) and superindendent Reinert (baritone). The opera choir with it’s 40 members constitues the village’s inhabitants. Kvandal underlines the vital importance of the choir for the composition, since it works like a commenting choir of fate. Especially in the final scenes, Kvandal employs the choir in an untraditional way.

Earlier, Johan Kvandal has explored most musical genres; orchestral works, chamber music, vocal works, music for solo instruments – and even music for television. Aften finishing the score in May last year, he wrote ‘Concerto for to pianos and orchestra’ (opus 77). The work was performed in New York in November – with great success.

– But composing one’s first opera must be something quite different?

– First of all, you mobilize a greater apparatus. Take the orchestra part for example, where my experience immediately tells me if it’s going in the wrong direction. The voices have to be treated as soloist parts, and I am excited to see if the red thread remains, if the context is unbroken. However, Halle has arranged it so that the scenes merge smoothly into one another. But I admit that thinking about the premiere gives me heart palpitations.

Not idyllic

Hamsun is never a typical idyllic writer. Love always ends with loss and defeat. Nagel’s love for the engaged Dagny is doomed from the beginning, but it may resemble an idyllic scene when he proposes to Martha.

– I have attempted to express this in the duet between Nagel and Martha, where the voices overlap, whereas Nagel and Dagny sing more on the side of each other, against each other. Otherwise, the focus is on emphasizing the essential: Nagel’s intuition, mirages and visions, the contrast between the blind rationality of the the doctor and Nagel’s perspicacious irrationality, the true reality behind the small village’s trivial role play, the masculinity theme when Nagel saves Minutten from the claws of the superintendent and Nagel’s final dispute with Minutten. For this scene I have created a bit ‘scary’ music – no ordinary duet! For Nagel’s bazaar performance I have created a violin solo and something ‘bazaarish’ for the tableaus. Many modernists will definitely cringe here!

– And the finale: Nagel’s dissolving personality, dimise and death?

– At this point I leave tonality and create a new movment, which is spreading to the whole orchestra. The music in general is modern and it is not particularly ‘Norwegian’ music.

– I guess it was natural to employ modern tonality in an opera which is based on one of modernism’s gateway works?

– Yes. But I wonder if modernism will not soon be superseded by a new romantic direction. There has been lot of focus on the Wiener school of music, and in this century many different musical directions have seen the light. But actually, there has only been two lines: Schönberg’s break with tonality – and Stravinskij’s renewal of it.

by Terje Stemland, Aftenposten, 9th January 1994