The ambitious Agder Theatre has managed to create a unique tradition in an abandoned quarry near Grimstad, performing a version of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt that requires mountaineering skills. Central to the project is composer Håkon Berge.
Grimstad is an attractive small town on the road from Oslo to southern Norway. The town has certainly not played an influential role in Norwegian cultural life, although it can pride itself on the fact that Henrik Ibsen’s father was the local chemist. Today, even the main road has been re-routed around Grimstad, leaving it a protected idyll more open to the sea than to the mainland at its back.
People used to go to Grimstad for summer holidays rather than to experience cultural events, but attitudes can be rerouted too, as evidenced by the successful development in recent years of one of Norway’s most spectacular outdoor theatres in a quarry on the outskirts of town. Far from public transport and a few kilometres into the forest along a dusty country lane, it suddenly emerges – something that might have been mistaken for a grain silo from the outside had it not been for the entrances and lighting – a fully modern summer theatre, suitable for opera, musicals or acrobatics, a spectacular backdrop for creative visions.
Agder County is aware of its attraction and potential but takes the long term view and wants to develop a profile that gives the theatre an artistic identity. That is why Peer Gynt has so far been performed in the quarry three years in succession, visually the most dramatic Peer Gynt imaginable. Nature has created a backdrop that is challenging and brutal and lifts Ibsen’s drama to titanic dimensions. Here the Mountain King and his retinue throw themselves off sixty-metre cliffs, here Peer Gynt wanders through life via long staircases and hidden passages down to the pool at the bottom of the set, and here the Button Moulder watches him the whole time from his vantage point high up on the rock face until the two enter into a clinch down in the rocky scree.
Not only Grieg
As the reader may know, almost seventy years passed before anyone dared to challenge Edvard Grieg’s divine right to the music for Peer Gynt. When Harald Sæverud finally took the plunge in 1948, he caused a national trauma that lasted until far into the 1970s. Duke Ellington thought he was on safe ground with his jazz version of Grieg, but was rewarded with haughty rejection by cultural élite in the mid-1960s. Others finally dared to challenge the master, and in the 1990s many composers have been brave enough to write new music for the epic that has meant so much for our understanding of the unique features of our national culture in the mid-1880s.
The latest composer to try his hand is Håkon Berge, born in 1954 and probably the country’s leading theatrical composer in the past twenty-five years, whether you consider his comprehensive production from a qualitative or quantitative point of view. Since he began as a nineteen-year-old house composer at the Rogaland Theatre in his home town of Stavanger, he has composed music for some hundred productions at the most prominent theatres in the country. Berge has worked closely with many of the country’s leading directors and in recent years has concentrated on his cooperation with director Bentein Baardson. But Berge is not “only” a composer. For five years, he was a very dynamic, extrovert chairman of the Norwegian Society of Composers and an important contributor to the Norwegian Artists’ Council, a cooperative organisation for artists in all disciplines of the creative and performing arts. Nor can we avoid mentioning Håkon Berge’s important work for Norwegian television at the end of the 1980s in connection with VOX, the most experimental programme series the NRK music department has ever made on the theme of music.
“When I was given my first professional assignment, in Sam Besekow’s production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night at the Rogaland Theatre, I was in the second year of upper secondary school and my only background was as a pianist and musical director for the school theatre. In many ways, it was a formative experience. The famous Danish director created a magical artistic space that, for me, was an important starting point; I could actually tell a musical story and fell in love with the theatre. My knowledge of instrumentation, appropriateness and technique come from practising composition rather than studying it.”
“But fifteen years after this on-the-job training, you chose to go back to school again. Why?”
“It would have been easy to continue in the same vein. Again, actually encouraged by the musicians in the theatre’s production of Peer Gynt in 1978, I wrote my first work, a string quartet based on the theatre music. I had serious problems with form, progression, etc. My intuitive, autodidactic knowledge proved to be inadequate. Moreover, I understood the danger of getting stuck in one place and was curious enough to move on, first to the Music Conservatory in Copenhagen, where I studied for six months, and then to Stavanger and Oslo to study under teachers like Finn Mortensen and Olav Anton Thommessen.
Gagarin – a space opera
Berge has written several works on the theme of recent historical events, such as an opera about cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin and music for a film about Knut Hamsun’s life.
“I haven’t chosen these topics because they are historical events, but because both stories are modern fables that inspire musical narrative. The idea for Gagarin arose as a direct consequence of my work on the VOX TV series with Christian Eggen (LTN 3/99) and Morten Thomte. In the course of a couple of years, we made a series of programmes about music that attempted to approach both music and the television format from what were then new angles. This process convinced me that television is an extremely good medium for musical narrative. The inspiration for Gagarin was a simple train of thought:
On the one hand, space travel is a TV universe. It does not exist in people’s “reality” but only on TV. The idea of a moon landing is still impressive, of course, but the story of Gagarin, his first space voyage and subsequent death in a MIG 15 crash, is a more “genuine” Greek tragedy.
On the other hand, opera is musical narrative technique in its purest form and also has room for drama. Moreover, television eliminates the need for a linear narrative. I found this a good starting point for an opera. It further underlines the libretto and is a criticism of the dissolution of the whole of post-war solidarity thinking and the rough ego-culture that has overrun us in the last ten years; Gagarin’s work was one man borne up by the many, by the community, by combined forces, and this work represented something that for me, in many ways, ended up in Bakkantinnene at Den Nationale Scene in Bergen in 1996, in which Bentein Baardson and I tried to create another musical-dramatic work where song, dance and actors tell the story, not so much along a temporal axis as through the uniqueness and expression of the moment.”
“How did your cooperation with Bentein Baardson begin? What do you two have in common that inspires you to move from one project to the next?”
“When you have worked as much in the theatre as I have, you gradually become fairly aware of directors’ musical ability. They rarely give any conscious thought to the use of music except as a means of concealing something, arousing emotions or sweetening a performance – what you might almost call “Düsseldorf Music” – a brown varnish that creates a separate reflection on top of the image, the performance. When you find directors who have an intuitive understanding of the qualities of music, who dare to use it and also dare to stand up to it, it is liberating. Bentein Baardson is that kind of director. His dramatic method also appeals to me; he manages to operate in several different formats – from the magnificent opening of the Winter Olympics to the small Christmas tale. Theatre is an art form that is very dependent on personal chemistry and consequently alliances are sometimes formed, as in the case of my current cooperation with Baardson and, for many years before that (1976-86), with Kjetil Bang-Hansen.”
“But why tackle Peer Gynt in a quarry?”
“The Peer Gynt production at Fjæreheia is, in many ways, a musical-dramatic work. Since this version was intended to be a long one-act play (the performance lasts for one hour fifty minutes without an interval) it requires a special narrative technique. In this production, I hope and believe that the music plays spatial, aural and narrative roles. You have to paint with fairly large brush strokes in an outdoor arena of that size, so in this respect our common understanding of the dramatic and historical function of the music is valuable. Moreover, the set itself is an enormous inspiration and cries out for music. In the music I have incorporated the paradoxical fact that this enormous quarry also has its own spatial intimacy, for example through the large auditive leap from the intimacy of the string quartet via percussive elements to the raw electro-acoustic force that becomes the rock itself,” says Håkon Berge, who in many ways feels that the Peer Gynt production is only the first of innumerable possibilities for utilising this unique arena, both in purely musical terms and in relation to theatre and opera. And Peer Gynt’s fate is sealed by the Button Moulder as the darkness of night sinks over the quarry.