In 2013 Mathilde Wantenaar (Amsterdam, 1993) participated in the project Boom|Amsterdam is an opera, two years later she wrote the mini-opera Personar for the first edition of the Opera Forward Festival. In March her family opera Een lied voor de maan (A Song for the Moon) was to have its world premiere in that very festival. Like all concerts in the Netherlands the performances were cancelled because of the outbreak of Covid-19. Let’s hope the planned performances in Madrid, Munich and Aix-en-Provence in May and June will proceed. Here’s the interview I conducted in February.
Mathilde Wantenaar’s love for music was instilled by her parents. Her mother teaches singing, her father plays the accordion, piano and bandoneon, and as long as she can remember she was surrounded by music at home. She played the guitar and cello herself, accompanied her mother’s students and sometimes sang along with them. She also composed her own pieces early on. – Something she initially considered to be her ‘own crazy little thing’; the idea of becoming a composer only arose when she took part in a composition project by Asko|Schönberg at secondary school.
In 2011 she enrolled for the preparatory course at the Conservatory of Amsterdam, where she subsequently studied composition, with cello, piano and singing as secondary subjects. Already during her studies she won several prizes, among others in the Alba Rosa Viëtor Composition Competition and the Princess Christina Competition. After graduating in 2016 she applied for a follow-up study in singing at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague.
From early childhood Wantenaar has had a great affinity with the human voice. In recent years this has led to a series of successful vocal works for renowned Dutch musicians and ensembles such as the soprano Johannette Zomer, the quintet Wishful Singing, the Netherlands Chamber Choir and the Dutch Radio Choir. It was obvious that one day there would be a sequel to her 20-minute opera Personar with which she concluded her composition studies.
‘As a child I regularly went to operas with my parents’, says Wantenaar. ‘I secretly dreamed of composing one myself, even though I initially considered my children’s pieces and rumblings at the piano to be a private thing. In that respect I lived completely in my own fantasy world. – Until I started thinking about what I would become when I grew up. When I auditioned for the Conservatory of Amsterdam, I was asked where I saw myself in ten years’ time. I answered I hoped to write an opera for Dutch National Opera. – For the big stage.’ She smiles furtively, as if she were ashamed of her youthful hubris.
That’s why she immediately accepted when Dutch National Opera offered her to take part in the workshop ‘composing for a youthful audience’ of the European Network of Opera Academies. The idea of creating a fairy-tale opera originated in 2017, during a workshop conducted by dramaturge Willem Bruls at La Monnaie in Brussels. ‘We formed a team, in which this idea bubbled up. But the question was what kind of fairy-tale exactly? So we started reading a lot of books and someone from the team tipped A Song for the Moon by Toon Tellegen, which she had read to her children herself.’
‘I’ve known Toon Tellegen’s work for a long time, my parents used to read his stories to me when I was little. I still enjoy them. – Occasionally I read them to my boyfriend before we go to sleep. During a period when I was out of my depth at the conservatory I read the collection Misschien wisten zij alles (Maybe they knew everything) in one go. The stories are at the same time comforting, uplifting, wonderful and above all very beautiful. They lifted me above my grief and made me calm.’
However, she did not yet know A Song for the Moon when it was proposed. ‘When I read it, I was immediately touched. It appealed to me that Tellegen broaches themes like loneliness, identity, disappointment and friendship. I especially like the fact that music plays a central role in it, ideal for an opera. The Mole, the main character, undergoes a true development. In the beginning he is a bit shy and insecure, but in the end he crawls out of his shell thanks to the music, makes friends and goes out into the wide world.’
Cheering up the Moon
Wantenaar wrote the libretto herself, together with Willem Bruls, keeping as close as possible to the original: ‘Toon Tellegen’s language is already very musical and imitable. There are five singers and six instrumentalists and the opera lasts about an hour.’
‘In the first act, the Mole is on stage alone. He is lonely and seeks contact with the Moon, but when he greets it he gets no response. He wonders why. Can’t the Moon talk, doesn’t he want to talk, or doesn’t he know what to say? All those things of course also concern the Mole himself, but he doesn’t want to face his own loneliness. He decides to write a song to cheer up the Moon. This proves not to be easy, but in the end he succeeds and shows it to the Grasshopper, who is a conductor.’
‘Together they form an orchestra in the second act, with singing mice and Frog, the diva-tenor. This act is a somewhat comical counterpart to the quiet and sad first movement. They rehearse the song and perform it for the Moon, but when they look up expectantly afterwards, it looks rather sad. Everyone is deeply disappointed and the Mole crawls back into his little hole defeated. He wonders if the Moon is angry now, and may come down to shine straight in his face.’
The power of music
‘In the third and final act the Mole receives composition lessons from the wise Cricket. He looks at the song and says: “I know! It’s a beautiful song, but gloomy.” He changes a lowered tone (a flat tone is calles “mol” in Dutch) into a sharp one (a raised tone), upon which the song suddenly becomes cheerful. Yet the Mole doesn’t quite dare to believe in it yet. He needs the courage of the Grasshopper to present the new version to the Moon.’
‘This time the Moon does looks happy afterwards, he even glows! For a moment the Mole still has doubts about himself, but then he realizes he is good as he is: “I am the Mole and I remain the Mole. Sometimes I’m gloomy, but sometimes I’m cheerful.” He finds the courage to step up to the Earthworm and make his first real friendship. So everything turns out all right at the end of the opera.’
‘The great thing is that the story is easy for children to follow, but at the same time has so much philosophical depth that it is also interesting for adults. The Cricket sings: “With music you can achieve anything”. To me, that’s the core of this opera.’
More info and playlist here.
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