Opera. A Flowering Tree is an opera full of dance, written by one of today's most celebrated operatic composers: American John Adams.
“Luminous, lyrical, accessible” Chicago Tribune
“...alive with innocence and magic” New York Times
Watch an interview with director Nicola Raab
A Flowering Tree is an opera full of dance, "alive with innocence and magic" (New York Times), written by one of today's most celebrated operatic composers: American John Adams and with libretto by the composer and Peter Sellars, reciever of the 2014 Polar Music Prize. The opera was first performed in Vienna in 2006. With its sensual music, the opera tells a 2,000 year old Indian folk tale.
The young Kumudha has a magical ability: she can transform herself into a tree. By selling the flowers from the tree, she is able to help her poor family. The love-sick Prince witnesses the transformation. Captivated, he proposes to Kumudha. His jealous sister, however, tricks Kumudha into transforming herself – just to be able to cut off her branches and roots. Half tree-stump, half maimed person, Kumudha flees from the palace. The remorseful prince does everything in his power to find his bride and win back her heart.
Taking the role of Kumudha, Julia Sporsén is making her first appearance in Gothenburg, while American Eric Fennell is making his Swedish début in the role of the Prince. The Narrator is performed by Brittish baritone Omar Ebrahim, who has been involved in many contemporary operas. Nicola Raab is responsible for the direction – she was the director behind our internationally acclaimed Thaïs. In 2009, Portuguese conductor Joana Carneiro succeeded Kent Nagano as music director for the Berkeley Symphony – with which she has staged A Flowering Tree in Cincinnati.
Set design model for A Flowering Tree, by George Souglides
John Adams and minimalism
Influences in American art music initially came from Europe. However, with minimalism, it was the Americans themselves who initiated something new and significant. Minimalism developed as an art movement within painting and sculpture in the 1960s. It emerged in reaction to the ideas of subjective expressionism and was soon also picked up by art music. The concept is sometimes misunderstood as being about something very simple or small, but in fact it refers to making use of minimal material that can grow into something much greater.
The building blocks of minimalism
When Andy Warhol began with pop art, he could, for example, mass-produce a photo of Marilyn Monroe or Campbell's soup cans. The expression was often similar among the minimalist composers: a musical pattern could be repeated again and again, taken over by several voices or other groups of instruments and gradually altered one note at a time, as a kind of phase shift. The main impression was of something very repetitive. One of the first minimalist composers was Steve Reich. During the following decade the minimalists also began to take inspiration from Indian and Indonesian music. The later minimalists, Philip Glass and John Adams, wrote several operas but were reluctant to call themselves minimalists, even if they definitely worked in that tradition.
Among the early works of prolific composer Philip Glass was an opera trilogy, each with a historic figure at its centre: Einstein on the Beach (Albert Einstein) 1976, Satyagraha (Mahatma Gandhi) in 1980 and Akhnaten (the ancient Egyptian Pharaoh) in 1984. Glass, who had spent extended periods in Europe and India, had an enormous impact internationally. Many European composers were deeply impressed by the Minimalists, among them the British Michael Nyman and the Swedish Jan Sandström, who has composed two operas for The Göteborg Opera.
Other operas by John Adams
Glass was later to be eclipsed by John Adams, ten years his junior. He has become one of the most frequently performed operatic composers internationally. Adams also continued along the theme of selecting topics for the libretto from events in contemporary history, and two of his most important partners were the librettist Alice Goodman and director Peter Sellars. For the setting of Nixon in China, first performed in Houston in 1987, they chose President Richard Nixon's state visit to Mao Tse-tung in Beijing in 1972. The work quickly spread to other stages.
Few operas have caused a stir such as Adams' next opera, The Death of Klinghoffer, first performed in Brussels in 1991. Goodman's libretto depicts the event in 1985 when Palestinian terrorists hijacked a cruise ship and a wheelchair-bound American Jew was murdered. The first performance and all future performances have met with demonstrations and strong reactions. The authors have consistently responded that they tried to give equal voice to both Jews and Palestinians, respecting their respective political backgrounds. Musically, Adams here began to shift away from the minimalist aesthetic, toward a more reflective style.
Adams' next opera was the opera oratorio El Niño (2000). In the libretto, Peter Sellars retells the birth of Jesus, Herod's murder of male children and the early years of Jesus' life, but also includes Spanish-language poems by the likes of Gabriela Mistral. This is the only opera by Adams that has been played in Sweden to date, having premiered in Malmö in 2004. The next opera project, Doctor Atomic, focused on the anxiety that the workers at the nuclear laboratory at Los Alamos experienced during the test of the first atomic bomb in 1945. It was first performed in 2005 and has been performed at several European opera houses, including Helsinki.
A Flowering Tree - a collaboration
The opera which is currently showing in Gothenburg, A Flowering Tree, came into being as a major collaborative project between several cultural institutions and was first performed in a concert hall in Vienna in 2006. Peter Sellars' libretto is adapted from an Indian folk tale about an impoverished girl who can transform herself into a tree. In this way she can sell beautiful flowers to help his poor mother. There is a conscious connection to Mozart's The Magic Flute as the two main characters, the girl Kumudha and the prince, undergo trials to discover one another more earnestly.
A Flowering Tree is fastidiously composed with only three singers – besides the two main characters, there is a storyteller who carries the entire work forth to an epic level. All other roles in the story are performed by dancers, where the chorus at times takes on lines for the various characters. The text is written in English, with chorus sections in Spanish, since they were penned for a chorus from El Sistema, the music training programme from Venezuela. In this stylised story, Adams has moved one more step further away from minimalism in his musical expression. Although there are traces of the repeating patterns, he has embraced a more reflective, introspective musical flow. Not least in Kumudha's score and her transformations, with their lyrical, delicately orchestrated sections.