30 July 2019
The Madness and Music of King Hjarne in "The Thirteenth Child"
By David Leigh
When I was 22 and still trying to be a composer, I went to hear a very famous contemporary composer named David Lang speak about his music. During the question and answer segment, he was asked about writing his Little Match Girl Passion, which had recently won the Pulitzer Prize.
“Writing for singers is a bit like being a cobbler,” I remember him saying, “Yes, you’re designing a shoe, but a lot of your job is to fit it to a singer, so it feels great to walk around in.”
If this is true, then walking around in the shoes Poul Ruders has crafted for us in his new opera, The Thirteenth Child, is a bit like walking in a perfectly fitting pair of shoes, on the planet Mars.
I first saw the vocal score for this piece about fifteen months ago, when I was hoping that it would get me a coveted Santa Fe Opera debut. For young singers, new works are often an exciting way into a major debut at an important opera house, because in the more standard repertoire those houses often look to older singers who have sung the roles before. In a new piece, since nobody’s done the roles before, the playing field is leveled for younger singers. At that point, I was just about to graduate from the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program.
Normally, my job is to sing all the lowest bass roles in opera: villains and wise men and giants and sorcerers, which is why I was sent this score: King Hjarne, my role in The Thirteenth Child, is a mad king, something I’ve never done before, and is significantly lower than any role in the standard operatic repertoire. As if that weren’t jarring enough, it also requires a few very exposed moments of falsetto singing—that is, singing in an unnaturally high register for a male by using only part of one’s vocal cords—which is something I’ve never done or dreamed I would do.
So my first step, after singing through everything excitedly in my apartment, was to go to my teacher and see how to make it all sound good. Because of the unusual demands in places, I found some moments fit almost effortlessly, and others required lots of experimentation.
For opera singers, working on a new piece is often an exercise in comparison. “This moment reminds me of Mahler,” you’ll find yourself saying in a coaching, a year before arriving at Santa Fe Opera to start a new piece. In this case, the opera made me think strongly of Handel, punctuated by moments of insanity akin to Gesualdo—a great but literally insane Renaissance composer—with a coda that reminded me of Leonard Bernstein. But The Thirteenth Child, maybe more than any 21st-century opera I’ve heard, is its own thing, and defies easy comparison to anything other than perhaps Poul Ruders’s other works. In a way, this is a hugely liberating thing.
An opera without clear analogues is both an astonishing opportunity and a huge risk for operatic artists; we usually perform the same twenty or thirty standard roles over and over again in a decades-long career, so this kind of unknown is extraordinarily rare. In the months leading up to the premiere, I remember thinking, “This could be one of the best artistic experiences of my life, or a total disaster, but it will all depend on the creative team.” I had never worked with either the director, Darko Tresnjak, or conductor, Paul Daniel, though both had intimidatingly impressive reputations as important artists. I was exhilarated and overwhelmed by the thought. And more than a little scared.
I began to joke, over the last year, that my personal fears in taking on a role like this reflected that of my mad king. The madness King Hjarne experiences is a kind of regal imposter syndrome: he has gone insane with power and paranoia that his small children will set out to overthrow him. My music is jagged and violent, hurling itself fluidly across my vocal range. The words I sing are frequently wise and vulnerable, heavy with vivid imagery but unmoored from linear rationality. The lucidity of Hjarne from moment to moment stands in stark contrast to the absolute incoherence of his worldview; he is convinced that if his next child, the thirteenth, is a girl, everything will be right with the world.
There is something truly captivating in the experience of inhabiting all of that, first as a musician and then as a performer. In my first coachings on the piece, I was perplexed by the differences between Hjarne’s music and every other piece I had ever sung; I found myself trying to make it feel and sound like other music with which I was more familiar. This just didn’t work—I remember my first breakthroughs in the singing of the piece not coming until I approached it dramatically, not musically. As I imagined myself in Hjarne’s position, threatened by sons who were clearly no real threat, the brooding, mocking, injured core of this music came to the fore. Hjarne’s music, which seemed fragmented on the page, is splintered by deep injury, and when I ignored that injury to focus on the technical challenge of the fragmentation, I missed the point.
I have found this to be even more true as the process has developed, working with Darko and Paul on bringing it to life. I have never worked on a piece where I feel such literal integration between the technical demands and the subtext of the words. The moments of falsetto that were so scary to me at the outset exist in mockery of these small children who threaten me; they’re not just a technical exercise, but rather a visceral outburst. Even the way Paul works as a conductor has been analogous in the context of the piece: every facet he brings out exists to heighten the drama or highlight the text.
Early in the process, Darko began talking to me about child royalty, and the madness of kings who assume their thrones extremely young. I often find that the madness of Hjarne regresses him in a way, pushing him to think of himself as too limited to justify his massive power. The obvious question of Hjarne’s arc is: what kind of man is so scared of his twelve children that he would threaten them with violence? The answer, it seems to me, is one so reduced by insanity that he believes them to be his equal.
The result, so far, has been a kind of transcendent experience of madness on stage. I walk on at the beginning of the opera, chasing my twelve children, literally weighed down by the trappings of royalty in the form of a costume that weighs at least twenty percent of my body weight. I receive the worst news of my life. My body and voice contort, and my wife and children suffer for it. I have never felt less like myself in performance before, and it’s been one of the most holistically rewarding experiences of my career.
A former Santa Fe Opera Apprentice singer and recent graduate of the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program at the Metropolitan Opera, bass David Leigh has drawn acclaim throughout the United States and abroad for his visceral voice and intelligent singing. You can learn more about him at davidleighbass.com.