"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Wired MAY 14, 2012 - by Linda Gomez and Emilia Spitz
SUM: WHERE NEUROSCIENCE AND CHAMBER OPERA COMBINE
"An asynchronous meeting of minds" - that's how neuroscientist and New York Times bestselling author David Eagleman describes his collaboration with The Royal Ballet's Associate Choreographer Wayne McGregor and composer Max Richter for SUM, a new production from ROH2, the contemporary arm of the Royal Opera House.
Eagleman is referring to the creative experiment that McGregor and Richter are undertaking in adapting his 2009 book of the same name - which McGregor defines as "a moving, funny and spiritual spin on what might happen in the afterlife" - into a chamber opera.
Written over the course of seven years, Eagleman initially considered SUM a private, intimate work. His 40 Tales were very personal, but he is now comfortable seeing his creation out in the world. Invited by Richter and McGregor to co-write the libretto, Eagleman thought it would be far more interesting to allow the creative team to experiment with his collection of short tales.
"I did my part years ago and they are doing all the hard work now," Eagleman told Wired. "It is very interesting for an artist, to put something out in the world and let it become its own thing. The lyrics are just my words unchanged, which is very interesting because making an opera out of SUM is a real creative challenge".
SUM has previously been shaped into several musical adaptations, including a collaboration with Brian Eno for the Sydney Opera House (2009), later reprised at The Brighton Dome (2010), but as Eagleman explains, "this is the first time somebody is using the words in the book to make lyrics, as opposed to what Eno did, which was to make musical landscapes about it."
The work premieres later this month at the Linbury Studio Theatre in the Royal Opera House and will be a good example of the "Third Culture", where the boundaries between science and art become increasingly blurred. In the hands of McGregor, who is well known in the arts world for his extensive research with neuroscientists, human and technological elements will combine to create an intimate experience for an audience of a hundred and fifty.
More "installation than opera", says the director, each tale "drops in and vanishes like a cloud" while singers and video projections inhabit the moody layers of Richter's music (typically consisting of ambient sounds, electronics, strings and piano).
Eagleman's SUM has already proved itself a work that can transcend into other fields, finding new audiences in the process. It is no surprise SUM can cross over into different art forms. As Eagleman explains: "The themes in SUM are deeply universal. These are themes people care about, it is not just a story in suburbia about a midlife crisis, they are something everyone is involved in".
Eagleman is thrilled but, at the same time, not quite sure about what to expect: "That's the beauty of it for me as an artist. When one is first writing the book, one spends so much time trying to craft every word, and the shading of every sentence to make things perfect. And here is an opportunity for me to say 'I've already done that and now it is going to somebody else'. Not unlike when your kid asks you 'what should I major in?' and you go: 'whatever makes you happy'."