It wasn’t actually written in the stars that brothers Axel and Henrik Hellstenius would write operas together. By each developing their own metier, Axel as a script writer and Henrik as a musician and composer, they were finally able to join forces in a project entitled Sera, a fable about the situation of sound in an increasingly noisy world first performed in autumn 1999.
The brothers’ path to cooperation has been long and tortuous. Big brother Axel wrote scripts for several successful films, including one on the theme of the assimilation of the new urban youth culture; in other words strong, visual, mass communication culture. Henrik, on the other hand, after completing his composition studies at the Norwegian State Academy of Music, chose the apparently far more withdrawn arena of contemporary music. He had also been one of the foremost representatives of the “Pling-plong” generation whose rebellion became public in the mid-1990s when a group of younger composers released a joint CD, a manifesto and an attempt at formulating an aesthetic platform. Although their teachers had been Olav Anton Thommessen and Lasse Thoresen, people like Gerard Grisey and Salvatore Sciarrino were spiritually closer to them, partly influenced as they were by both French spectral composition and the aesthetic of transparent extremity of which Sciarrino must be said to be a proponent.
That is why Sera was such a natural project for the Hellstenius brothers to work on together; it was a mythological treatment of the thinking of both sectors – the concentration of modern art music on the aesthetic and sometimes ethical relevance of sound as opposed to the industrial significance and influence on sound images of the entertainment culture.
Sera was also an interesting production because it tried to unite new elements in music theatre. On the one hand, the composer’s sound world was based on the use of electronic sounds elegantly integrated into the orchestral part while, on the other hand, the sets had become a movable element of the production, with video images and computer-generated animations replacing much of the traditional scenery.
I suppose this is a natural consequence of the fact that the movable media have trained audiences to read visual forms of expression but have had little impact on the theatre. Sera was one of the first attempts to use film techniques in modern theatre in Norway and was, as such, an interesting joint venture between Opera Vest, the multinational computer company Silicon Graphics and the Trondheim-based software company Systems in Motion. In the midst of all this stood the Hellstenius brothers, watching their work become a living multi-media production, a genuine Gesamtkunstwerk, the purpose of which was to allow all forms of expression to become movable elements that affected and were at the same time independent of each other.
So was this project successful? The reviews were certainly mixed, but what does “successful” mean in the case of a modern art work? A work is successful if it releases something new, starts a new process. The artists involved and the opera scene in Norway have a long way to go before they can maintain that a living opera tradition has been established among the country’s creative artists. Sera is a necessary step in this direction, the first necessary step, taken by two brothers from Oslo at the threshold of a new millennium.