The Turkish-Dutch composer Meriç Artaç (Istanbul, 1990) often writes music for theatre projects and opera. In 2016 she addressed the topical theme of asylum seekers in Zonderland, now she zooms in on feelings of suspicion and fear in Madam Koo. The production will be premiered on 3 November in CC Amstel by the AKOM Ensemble, with the Uzbek-Dutch mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Levental in the title role.
On Thursday 1 November I will moderate a meet & greet with Artaç and director Ingrid Askvik after the first try-out in CC Amstel. Though extremely busy with rehearsals the composer was kind enough to answer some questions.
In 2016 you and Ingrid Askvik created ‘Zonderland’, about asylum seekers who are being crushed in bureaucracy. ‘Madam Koo’ deals with suspicion and fear, what is the link?
This lies mostly in certain words that trigger Ingrid and me, making us curious to explore them. In Zonderland the concept of ‘waiting’ was a starting point, in particular the idea of individuals not knowing how long they would find themselves in this waiting position. In Madam Koo the focal word is ‘suspicion’. Feelings of suspicion and fear are very much interrelated.
I created the character of Madam Koo two years ago and when I told Ingrid about it she was at once interested. We started exploring the meaning and implications of the word ‘suspicion’ in our present world. We found it interesting that once you start feeling suspicion it is really difficult to control, and it easily unbalances you, developing more and more into feelings of fear.
We try to show this in the way Koo tries to keep her balance in her home, where she has developed several rituals. From a deep need to stay in control she counts her pearls, her belongings, preciously putting them into place, organizing them meticulously so she can feel safe with them and maintain her inner balance.
House like a see-saw
Madam Koo and her neighbour Mr. Oak live in the same building, but are each others’ opposites. It’s as if they are on a see-saw, therefore we call it a ‘balance house’. Mr. Oak lives underneath Madam Koo, in the basement. He is an inventor and has big dreams. He is building ‘a staircase that goes to a place, a place where there is nobody yet, for a clear horizon’. We don’t know much about his background. He says he witnessed everything, saw ‘all the legs during the war, they were taken one by one’. Perhaps he was a persecuted Jew, perhaps he simply feels guilty for not doing anything. Most important however is that he is motivated to create a better world.
Both characters have their own motivations and are completely different. Mr. Oak is extremely noisy with his inventions and his apartment is an unorganized mess, Madam Koo is very organized. They are trapped in their own world, within their own thoughts, in their apartment which they never leave, it’s their safe zone. Mr. Oak builds up fear over many years: fear of the street, of the unknown. Last time he went out was so many years ago he only has recollections of the war.
There’s also a third character, the child Miku. She is a friend of Mr. Oak and wants to become friends with Madam Koo, too. I call her ‘Big Question Mark’ because she only asks questions, as children will. The way grown-ups see her changes throughout the piece, Miku is their trigger point.
Who wrote the libretto?
I did. Ingrid and I developed the concept together and then I started writing the libretto and developing the other characters. In that sense the piece is really different from Zonderland, for this time there was no input from the performers. I like to write my own texts for my music theatre/opera productions, but I got supervisory support from Ingrid. This helped to create smooth scene connections and a good flow. Flow is very important for the piece. Because I really wanted Ingrid to be involved from the beginning I sent her my drafts every week.
Who is Madam Koo and what is her story?
Madam Koo is a character I drew some years ago. I always first sketch my protagonists and then give them voice with my composition. When I first imagined Madam Koo, she had huge suspicions about her husband, who she feared was cheating on her; it was the only thing she could think of. Then I dug more deeply into her character and tried to find out what caused these feelings. Gradually our direction changed to a rather more general concept of suspicion, and how this influences Madam Koo and others – though not Miku. Madam Koo’s intense relationship with her cat Pitsi could be a sort of subcutaneous jealousy of her husband.
The press text calls your play absurdist and humorous. What can we expect?
In a sense this is not a truly dramatic opera. We wanted to approach it in the style of opera buffa, talking about serious things with humour and lightness. The subject is quite charged, so we use symbolic ways of expressing the terror and fear. Absurdist elements are Madam Koo’s exaggerations and misunderstandings. We place the wide-ranging topic in a small environment, because said feelings start at our own place and spread out into the world.
Basically the character of Miku is the absurd element in the play. Miku’s only interest is to become friends with Koo, who however sees her as a potential terrorist, somebody who might destroy her home. Thus the word ‘perspective’ comes into play: what we interpret as good or bad may differ when viewed from different perspectives.
How have you chosen the instruments and why?
I tend to choose colours for each character and for the overall sound. I also like to create contrast within the composition and its relation to the stage. The flute and bass clarinet represent the contrast between Koo and Mr. Oak. Miku is light and playful, therefore her part is doubled by piccolo and vibraphone. Strings represent the balance house. Each time something happens they create a glissando or some other effect, to reflect what is happening on stage.
Gongs represent time and the seasons. Each time a season changes this is marked by three beats on the gongs. Thus they are really connected to the story and are in dialogue with the play. The ensemble is part of the action, that’s why we placed them in the heart of the stage, like the singers. Mr. Oak has pitched hammers to build his inventions, Miku plays with those hammers and all kinds of toy instruments. The ensemble also sings, reacting to the scenery.
Sometimes they are even conducted by Madam Koo, as the musicians are her belongings she cares so much about!