October 12, 2003
Haus der Festspiele

Barbara Hannigan sings with her splintered self

Michael van der Aa's One at the Berliner Festspiele


Michel van der Aa


Michel van der Aa - Music, stagedesign and libretto
Barbara Hannigan - Soprano
Erik van Raalte - Lights
Marc Schots - Sound

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Barbara Hannigan sings with her splintered self

Michael van der Aa's One at the Berliner Festspiele

by Nancy Chapple

The multi-lingual capacity crowd, dressed mostly in black, was led into the bowels of the theater to view an intense performance of Michel van der Aa's One, here given its German premiere at the Berliner Festwochen. The piece starts slowly: one soprano on the stage singing one note, attempting time and again to light a match. She is joined by a second voice - also her own but captured on a soundtrack. The disembodied voice then becomes a video image, and the two sing together: sometimes unisono, sometimes alternating sentences or even words that combine to form one line. The sung lines fit the rhythms of the English language well.

Though the text is well articulated, it is difficult to describe what it is about. A woman is trying to define a space. Her actions, including weighing her head in her hands, show she's trying to slow a process down, get a grip on what's happening. Long passages at the upper end of the voice are sometimes almost painful. The accompanying soundtrack repeats the sound of striking a match, or later breaking twigs in two.

The stage itself is spartan: Barbara Hannigan barefoot in a simple black dress, a table and chair that she pushes into different positions, two screens on which videos are shown, at first videos of Hannigan in the same dress at the same table, later an astonishing panoply of older women. On the lefthand video screen, close-up shots of five older women, one after the other, each radiating great personal dignity, who tell one story of feeling disoriented and ill at ease, being in a dark and cold place where "the branches were warm in the sun and there was a most peculiar sound, like insects eating the inside of a tree." First one screen, then the other, show the protagonist breaking quantities of twigs in two, forming piles grouped by size, tallying them up in a timeworn book. The video image of shelves and shelves of twigs in glasses interspersed with candles glowing red is strikingly beautiful.

Barbara Hannigan

The vocal acrobatics demanded of Hannigan are quite astonishing: lines of great rhythmic complexity sung in close alternation by the singer on the soundtrack and the live singer; alternation between high sung notes and low spoken words, sputtering with the intensity of the confused thoughts about identity that wrack her body. In fact, the composer has said that the piece was written around this particular singer and that, as far as he knows, only she is capable of mastering the part.

Having soaked up individual impressions for a while, intrigued by the components but not quite sure what it was all about, this listener reached a point where the whole thing suddenly meshed, ceased being disparate elements and became about identity, about one woman's fight to maintain her identity, to keep the pieces together.