“A Hitchcock opera of world-class” – Sydsvenskan

NOTORIOUS

A new opera based on Hitchcock’s spy thriller. A story about love. The love that blinds us, yet is the elixir that makes life worth living. The main role has been written especially for Nina Stemme.

Watch the trailer for Notorious

We’re writing operatic history with this newly composed opera, based on Hitchcock's spy thriller. Notorious has been composed by opera composer Hans Gefors and librettist Kerstin Perski, and will be staged by one of the most compelling contemporary opera directors, the British Keith Warner, and sung by an impressively powerful team of Swedish singers. 

A vocal quartet of world class that produces probably one of the most brilliant, and at the same time dramatically convincing performances ever heard and seen on a Swedish opera stage.
– Dagens Nyheter
An interview with composer Hans Gefors and librettist Kerstin Perski. (Click on the “CC” icon for subtitles in English.)
Nina Stemme. Photo: Mats Bäcker

Nina Stemme is the leading dramatic soprano in the world today. Following her performance of Isolde in London in 2014, The Independent’s reviewer exclaimed that “we will never see a more perfect Isolde than this”. The only thing that has remained for Stemme is to have a role tailor-made for her – which she now has with Alicia Hauser.

Nina Stemme is dazzling in the principal role.
– Kulturen
Nina Stemme talks about her role in Notorious. (Click on the "CC" icon for subtitles in English)

The other principal roles have also been written especially for their singers: Katarina Karnéus, who recently received the Swedish royal medal Litteris et Artibus, John Lundgren, Knight of the Order of Dannebrog (Denmark’s honorary title for singers, equivalent to the Swedish title hovsångare, or court singer) and Michael Weinius, court singer. The internationally popular Patrik Ringborg will conduct. He received the Svenska Dagbladet Opera Prize in 2014.

...the other characters are shining diamonds in their own right, Katarina Karnéus (Madame Sebastian), John Lundgren (Devlin), Michael Weinius (Alex Sebastian), whose roles were specially written for them
– Il giornali della musica
Conductor Patrik Ringborg talks about the music in Notorious. (Click on the “CC” icon for subtitles in English.)

The music for Notorious infuses life into the characters – it is lyrical, emotional and dramatic with extensive chorus sections and arias.

The plot of Hitchcock’s film has definite operatic qualities: during World War II, the CIA agent Devlin persuades the American Alicia, daughter of a notorious Nazi, to become a spy in Rio de Janeiro. They grow attracted to each other, but the mission compels Alicia to seduce a man on the enemy side. Blinded by jealousy, Devlin is forced to watch Alicia give herself to another man.

What is true, what is an act? How much of a person is merely the role that they play?

The extravagant and yet enigmatic Notorious is proof that Swedish musical drama is thriving at the moment.
– Sydsvenskan

The performances on 15 and 21 October will be filmed by Sveriges Television

Keith Warner. Photo: Mats Bäcker

Notorious is Keith Warner’s first production in Sweden. In close collaboration with David Fielding (set and costume design) he will create an epic production where Hitchcock’s presence is very palpable...

Notorious is a story about love,  how it blinds us yet is also the very elixir that makes life worth living.

Director Keith Warner reflects on the creative process – interpreting Hitchcock’s film and delighting in Hans Gefors’ orchestration.

Hans Gefors and Notorious 

Article by Göran Gademan, The Göteborg Opera’s dramaturgist   

Hans Gefors, the most prominent composer of his generation, is among the exclusive cohort of writers that has received international commissions. After studying under Per Nørgård he made his debut in Stockholm in 1982 with the chamber opera The Poet and the Glazier, for the libretto by Lars Forssell based on a poem by Charles Baudelaire. Christina at the Royal Opera in 1986 was a major breakthrough for him. The work was hailed as a new Swedish “grand opéra” and a triumph for Swedish opera in general. With its historical theme and Lars Forssell’s libretto based on his own play about the life of Christina, Queen of Sweden, it was almost regarded as a new national Swedish opera. The role of Christina was shared between three performers: Christina the child, as an adult and in old age, and under the direction of Göran Järvefelt all three performers sometimes found themselves on stage simultaneously. Gefors separated his music into traditional arias and ensembles, shifting between intimate chamber music settings and grandiose choral scenes. 

Margareta Hallin (older Christina), Andreas Unge (Christina as a child) och Birgitta Svendén (Christina as an adult) i Gefors’ Christina at Kungliga Operan 1986. Photo: Enar Merkel Rydberg

His success led to a commission from Wiesbaden, which became Gefors’ 1992 opera Der Park (The Park), based on the play by Botho Strauss. The composer wrote the libretto himself, in consultation with the playwright. The play is a warped fantasy based on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in a modern, ordinary setting. The inspiration for Gefors’ next opera came from reading a newspaper article about a man who had taken children and a teacher hostage at a nursery in France. His interest was piqued when he read that the nursery teacher had kept the children calm by pretending that the man was “hunting wolves”. Kerstin Perski wrote the extensive libretto based on the event and brought the wolf theme to life. In the opera she discusses who the real hunters are and who is the prey; roles that gradually interchange. Nursery teacher Lollo and criminal Lyckos step out of their respective roles and have a strong impact on each other. 

Hans Gefors at work during rehearsals for Notorious. Photo: Tilo Stengel

Gefors received a commission from Paris to mark the centenary of the Opéra-Comique at the Salle Favart in 1998. This became the opera Clara, with an original libretto in French by screenwriter and playwright Jean-Claude Carrière. He created a story in a Mediterranean setting about the young Clara, who grew up in a secure, upper-class environment and whose parents are shot in an attack. Clara is determined to find out the truth behind the murder. Her decision results in a lengthy journey through the criminal underworld, where she stumbles upon truths about her father that she had never imagined. Clara was a huge success in Paris and received a positive response in several newspapers in France and beyond. But when the work was staged in Stockholm in 2001, it was not a success. The performance was also marred by the intervention of the Swedish film censors, as a brutal film sequence was shown. It was the first time in Sweden that an opera was deemed unsuitable for children. 

The music expresses what they cannot – in other words, a textbook example of an apt subject for a musical drama. 

After a break of several years from writing major operas, Hans Gefors was approached by the Göteborg Opera’s artistic director at the time, Lise-Lotte Axelsson, regarding whether he had any ideas for a new opera. Hans submitted two suggestions for the opera’s dramaturgy and we (Anders Ottosson, Finn Rosengren, Mia Ringblom Hjertner and Anders Wiklund, besides Lise-Lotte and myself as dramaturgist) were particularly taken with one of them. The second was a modern twist on The Magic Flute, but Hitchcock’s film Notorious felt like it hit the mark. The action centres on the main characters Alicia and Devlin, who almost throughout the entire piece are unable to bring themselves to admit they love each other. The music expresses what they cannot – in other words, a textbook example of an apt subject for a musical drama. 

According to the minutes, this happened in June 2009. After that things moved fairly rapidly: first we had to find out about the rights and seek permission to use the film as an opera libretto. It turned out that the rights were owned by Disney/Buena Vista, who demanded quite detailed information, but once they had been given all they needed they granted permission surprisingly quickly. Meanwhile the project had progressed: the librettist was Gefors’ former collaborative partner from Cry Wolf, Kerstin Perski, who accepted following initial hesitation. Her reservations related to the film’s portrayal of the female character Alicia. They found that they could emphasise the theme of Alicia’s shame over her father’s actions and her need to cleanse her conscience by taking a stand against him. By Alicia doing something she believes in together with Devlin during the ongoing war, Kerstin felt that they could get rid of the idea of Alicia as the “bad” woman who is merely seeking love. Instead it’s the love itself which gives Alicia the courage to take a stand. Now Kerstin felt comfortable with the story and she could begin work on the libretto.

Right from the start, Ingrid Bergman’s role was intended to be played by Nina Stemme. As a leading international dramatic soprano she had to be engaged far in advance, and when the internationally renowned Keith Warner was also taken on as director, we felt we’d really made progress. Patrik Ringborg as conductor felt like just as much of a catch, and when John Lundgren, Michael Weinius and Katarina Karnéus joined the cast, we knew that the project was not only gilt-edged; it was solid gold right the way through. 

Nina Stemme and Keith Warner during rehearsals for Notorious. Photo: Tilo Stengel

Kerstin submitted the first draft of the libretto in February 2012. Apart from Hans, I was the first person to get to read it, and I wrote back to her, stunned, comparing her with Verdi’s librettist Piave, who was described as being able to capture the sea in a spoon (i.e. he was able to condense a relatively large original down to a manageable opera libretto). Kerstin immediately responded that it was the most wonderful reaction she’d ever had to a text. Finally Hans could start composing, and both authors were equally disciplined – no delays! During the composition process he invited the singers in the four lead roles to his Stockholm-based studio. Katarina Karnéus in the role of the mother-in-law described her mezzo voice to Hans as being quite high and fluid, which is why the composer moved away from the long lines that are a feature of Nina Stemme’s part and took a more modern approach, allowing the character to spew forth her malice in the form of fiery coloratura. Thus a new vocal range was coined: “coloratura bitch”.   

Now that more than six years have passed since Hans submitted his first proposal and rehearsals are in full swing, with fine tuning and sets under construction in every corner of the opera house, it’s incredibly exciting to see the final result within reach. There has been an unprecedented level of international interest and the production is also set to be recorded for television. I can only say that time really does fly when you’re having fun. 

#GOnotorious

The Sten A Olsson Foundation for Research and Culture made a donation in 2015 to The Göteborg Opera for the first performance of Notorious.

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