Operatic Mysteries

“I have dreamed of a great deed on Earth”, says Johan Nilsen Nagel, the main character in Johan Kvandal’s opera Mysteries, thereby putting the main theme of the opera into works. Kvandal started working on Mysteries at the beginning of 1990. The novel is about strong characters who are well suited for musical drama, says Kvandal.

– When I was asked by the Norwegian National Opera to write an opera based on a Hamsun novel, I had already been wanting to compose a large dramatic work for some time. But you don’t start writing a full opera in this country without having a commission first.

Mysterier was completed some time ago, the singers are well into rehearsal and Kvandal himself is already working on a new commission. This time it is a concerto for two pianos and orchestra, to have its premiere at the Lincoln Centre in New York on 7th November this year. Johan Kvandal was born on 8th September 1919. His first teachers were Geirr Tveitt and Per Steenberg. Later he studied under Lars Erik Larsson in Stockholm and Joseph Marx in Vienna. However, it was Nadia Boulanger who had the greatest influence on his musical development, perhaps the most sought-after composer-teacher in this century.

Prior to the period he spent in Paris, Kvandal was already interested in Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Shostakovitch. He also had close ties with contemporary Norwegian composers such as Øistein Sommerfeldt, Finn Mortensen and Edvard Fliflet Bræin. After his studies in Paris, the neo-classical character of Kvandal’s music was even more pronounced than before. But to classify Kvandal as a neo-classicist would be just as wrong as to say that he is a folklorist, or give him any other label, for that matter.

Johan Kvandal has composed a wide range of works: solo concertos and orchestral pieces (Sinfonia concertante, op. 29, 1968; Antagonia, op. 38, 1973; Oboe Concerto, op. 46, 1977; Triptychon, op. 53, 1979), chamber music and music for solo instruments, television film music, and not least vocal music, where he shows a strong sense of loyalty to the text, whether it is taken from the Bible (as in Lord God My Saviour, solo cantata no. l, op. 10, 1953), Norwegian folk songs (Norske stevtoner, op. 40, 1974) or contemporary Norwegian literature (The Miracle to a text by Arnold Eidslott, op. 69, 1986).

Mysterier is a full-length opera in two acts. Mozart and Verdi have had the greatest influence on Kvandal’s dramatic and theatrical design. Their works have particularly influenced the structure of the orchestral score: the orchestra must not be “overdone” – the singers must be allowed to express themselves. At the same time, the choir plays an important role as representative of the local community.

Johan Nilsen Nagel is the opera’s central character, and the role makes great demands on the performer. Although Kvandal has given him certain necessary breaks, he is on stage for most of the performance. In his opera, Kvandal has emphasised the dissolution of Nagel’s personality. He moves between genius and insanity. He represents the struggle and rebellion of the individual against society. Nagel’s past is unknown, his future is doomed.

The action, which takes place in a small Norwegian coastal town, concerns the collision between the visionary dreamer Johan Nilsen Nagel, who turns up in town one spring day, and the local community. Nagel’s relationship with the two women Dagny Kielland and Martha Gude is a central theme. Kvandal has particularly emphasised his relationship with Martha. The bazaar scene, which is the dramatic climax of the novel, therefore has a particular significance in the opera. “I believe I am right in saying that I have put a lot of emotion into this scene,” says Johan Kvandal, who with this opera confirms his position as one of Norway’s most significant contemporary composers.

By Øyvind Nordheim, Norway Musical Review 2 – 1993: Olympic Music, translation: Virginia Siger