Monique Krüs: ‘The story always comes first’

Monique Krüs (1959) gathered fame as a soprano excelling in ultra-modern repertoire, then started composing and has since taken up conducting as well. ‘Everything I do is about communication, I want to move people, tell a story.’ This summer she composed new works for both cultural capitals of Europe: for Leeuwarden she wrote Gloria ad Isidea choral composition inspired by Verdi’s triumphal march from Aida; for Valetta she wrote the opera Corto Maltese

Although Krüs was already singing and writing songs as a child, it didn’t occur to her to pursue a career as a musician. This only started to germinate when she became a member of a student association during her psychology studies. She took singing lessons and within six months she was enrolled at the Utrecht Conservatory. ‘Until then I had been a fan of Ella Fitzgerald and Joni Mitchell, but as soon as I sang opera I felt this was my destination. I love the large gesture, communicating with the public, conveying emotions.’

She learnt composing without the help of a teacher. In 2007 she presented her highly acclaimed first large-scale opera, God’s Videotheque, composed on commission for Opera Spanga, which she had co-founded. Seven other operas followed in rapid succession, culminating in 2015 in Anne & Zef, a youth opera inspired by Anne Frank. This was an international success, and has since been translated into German, English and Italian. It was the only Dutch entry to be selected for performance at the renowned ISCM World Music Days in Beijing in 2018.

In addition to singing and composing, Krüs took up conducting. In 2013 she led the world premiere of her chamber opera The Tsar, his Wife, her Lover and his Head, a commission from the Peter the Great Festival. That tasted of more: ‘By conducting my own music I can get my message across optimally. From my experience as a soprano I can give practical tips to the singers, as a composer I have learned to write down my musical ideas clearly, so that as a conductor you don’t get lost in the tracks.’

Her communicative approach speaks strongly from all her compositions, in which she does not hide her love for jazz and pop either. ‘My style is fluid and intuitive, ranging from highly dramatic to very delicate. It is my aim to incorporate a certain light-footedness, even in tragic subjects. – But only when it really suits a scene, the story always comes first.’

Anne & Zef, for example, is about two young people who died as a result of violence. Anne Frank was killed in a concentration camp, Zef Bunga became the victim of a blood feud; they meet each other in heaven. Krüs: ‘After a deeply serious aria by Anne, Zef sings a kind of Motown song. Or take God’s Videotheque, about three people who are confronted with less pleasant videos of their lives in a kind of purgatory. Unexpectedly a piece of gospel pops up, placing the scene in a different perspective. With one simple little twist you create a completely different world, giving the audience some breathing space. Thus they can experience the tragic aspects even more poignantly.’

For Krüs, singing is essential: ‘It is the basis of everything I make. Whether opera, orchestral or chamber music, my music springs from melody, from breath. Language is also important, I endlessly tinker with a text to make it fluent. In 2017 I composed the compulsory work for the International Vocalist Competition in ‘s Hertogenbosch, Lunam, ne quidem Lunam. The text is a Latin translation of a poem by Pé Hawinkels. It is inspired by the vague moon you see in ‘hell’ on the triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch. There are only five lines, but I have placed these in a different order to tell my own story, of hell on earth. To capture the inherent melancholy I use a typical blues chord.’

Krüs composes intuitively, often playing on a keyboard connected to the computer. She is averse to preconceived compositional methods, especially those common after the Second World War. ‘Great pieces have been written according to atonal and serial principles, but I want to move my listeners emotionally. And a story is easier to tell with tonal means. I compose in a non-linear way, always starting with the scene that appeals to me the most and continuing from there, searching for the right colours, melody lines and harmonies. I often think: this may be a line, but in the end it will be something completely different. That’s the mystery of creation: how does something come about, where does it come from?

The sometimes limited range of instruments is challenging, as in the four youth operas Krüs composed. ‘For my children’s opera Apenootje, set in a zoo, I only had one singer and six instruments, a seemingly random ragbag including trumpet and harp. For Soeraki, about a girl who dives to the bottom of the sea to find something for her beloved, I had seven instruments. It’s appealing to squeeze a panoply of orchestral colours from these limited means.’

Krüs likes composing for young people: ‘I can adapt to their world very well. I find the age group of 12 plus particularly interesting, wrestling with their identity, discovering themselves, challenging their parents. By luring them into my world, I hope to give them something valuable. I consider it an important task to open doors for them. Youngsters are the public – and the musicians – of the future, after all.’

This article was originally written for Deuss Music, publisher of Krüs’ music. 

About theaderks

Thea Derks is a Dutch music journalist, who studied musicology at Amsterdam University. She' specialized in contemporary music and always has an eye open for women composers. In 2014 she wrote the biography of Reinbert de Leeuw and in 2018 she published 'Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht'.
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