Calliope Tsoupaki writes ‘Odysseus’, an opera without voice: ‘The dramaturgy is in the music’

At the request of Asko|Schönberg, Calliope Tsoupaki created Odysseus, in collaboration with visual artist Awoiska van der Molen. What happens when we are in danger of losing control, when an action leads to irreversible consequences? The full-length piece premieres on 10 November in November Music Den Bosch and will have three more performances in Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ Amsterdam, TivoliVredenburg Utrecht and De Doelen Rotterdam.

In recent decades, Calliope Tsoupaki (Piraeus, 1963) has become one of the most important composers in the Netherlands country. From 2018 she was Composer Laureate, on 10 November 2021 she will hand over the baton to her successor Martin Fondse. In this capacity, she wrote several – free downloadable – compositions in response to the corona pandemic. For instance the frequently performed solo Thin Air for random instrument, for which she received the Matthijs Vermeulen Prize this summer.

Calliope Tsoupaki (c) Michiel van Nieuwkerk

Although she studied composition with Louis Andriessen, Tsoupaki did not embrace his percussive style based on contrasting musical blocks, which caused a furore as the ‘Hague School’. She creates her own language, fusing elements from musical traditions of Greece and the Middle East with early and new European music. For subject matter she often seeks inspiration in her background, too, as in her successful St. Luke’s Passion from 2008 and her Bosch Requiem Liknon, which she composed for November Music in 2019. 


The full-length Odysseus is inspired by Homer’s epic of the same name (Ulysses in English). ‘I have read it thoroughly several times’, she says. She was attracted by the non-linear form of storytelling. ‘We hear the same stories over and over again, from three different levels: the world of the gods, the world of man and the underworld. We all know the overall story, so I didn’t have to retell this: Ulysses sets off on a journey and returns after an endless voyage of adventure and misfortune.’

While reading, she noticed that the events are always told second-hand: ‘We are never on the spot, so you lose track of time. And despite all his adventures, Ulysses is actually just standing still, he is empty inside. We are witness to this, I call this viewing the void. He – but also his crew – moreover incurs his own misfortune by invariably doing the opposite of what is sensible. Against his better judgement he goes to the Cyclops; his men, despite his explicit prohibition, open the bag of headwinds.’

In this Tsoupaki discerns a parallel with our present times: ‘For decades, scientists have been telling us how to prevent a climate crisis, but we refuse to listen and are deliberately heading for a catastrophe.’ She is convinced that nature will win in the end: ‘Despite all human intervention, wind, sea, mountains and rocks have remained themselves for millennia, since long before the emergence of our sense of time. In my mind’s ear, this prehistoric, cosmic emptiness has a primal sound. It is a metallic kind of noise that embraces us, as it were, and runs through my piece like a keynote.’


The percussionist therefore plays an important role in Odysseus, she says: ‘He represents the world of the gods. In addition to that metallic primal sound he also creates raging storms and gentle breezes. He stands apart from the other musicians and has no rhythmic part, but gives space and breath to the piece with his buzzing singing bowls. The percussionist sets the music in motion or makes it stop; in essence, he determines the fate of Ulysses.’

Calliope Tsoupaki: ‘Ulysses is actually immobile, he is empty inside. We are witness to this, I call this “viewing the void”. The listener must get the feeling of having encountered him personally.’

She explicitly avoided a linear structure herself: ‘My piece does have two parts, ‘The Journey’ and ‘The Return’, but despite some vague points of recognition, both lack a sequential line. That was an exciting experiment in form. In music, you can say many things at once and I made lavish use of that. Not in the sense of associations with Homer’s epic, such as “here we hear the Cyclops”; “now he is with Circe” or whatever; it is more abstract. Different compositional layers are constantly sliding over each other.’

These act as signals or formulas, which she has given names in her mind (though not in the score): ‘For instance “The High Song”, a kind of lamentation, or “The Rising Sun”, which refers to the dawn of day.’ They are emphatically not meant to be illustrative: ‘The lament is not bound to one person, but applies to the whole of the voices; there may also be several sunrises in succession. Mind you, they are not leitmotifs, I have deconstructed the elements in the story and turned them into sound. Just as in Homer’s epic, you have to distil your own story from all that information.’

(c) Awoiska van der Molen


While composing, she had a photograph of a rock by Awoiska van der Molen in mind: ‘The rock is very imposing and evokes many emotions: will it destroy me or protect me? At the same time, the image has something ambiguous about it: we look at it, but we don’t know exactly what we see, it could also be something else. The picture forms an inseparable part of the piece and will be projected during the performance.’

Van der Molen adds: ‘At a chance meeting, Calliope told me about a boat trip on a Greek sea, where she saw the rocks glide past in the dark. I then showed her a snapshot of a shimmering Greek rock that I had just taken with my smartphone. This image touched her so deeply that she suggested we work together. I returned to the rock in question and used my professional camera to make variations on the first photo. This gave rise to the idea of projecting them into and over each other during the concert.’

When Tsoupaki presented her first musical sketches, she explained that the sea plays an important role in her piece as well. That triggered Van der Molen: ‘In my archive I had a series of swirling black water, photographed near a Greek island. We decided to make a combination of the rock and the liquid water surface, which move and come together in the projections.’


(c) Awoiska van der Molen

Van der Molen emphasises that her images are not illustrations of the music: ‘I don’t believe they can be, but as artists Calliope and I are soul mates. Right from our first meeting we found each other in the intense connection with the invisible, but tangible forces of nature, in this case on Greek soil. My images arose from this bodily experience of being in this nature, and are in line with Calliope’s musical imagination.’

Just as Tsoupaki had the photographs in mind during her work, Van der Molen listened to the music: ‘As a midi file, admittedly, but it certainly inspired me. While listening, I tried to let the images breathe, either on their own rhythm or with the intensity or the drift of the moving and living Ulysses. Like Calliope, I did not work in a narrative way; the images overlap each other, layer upon layer. Sometimes they look like skins, sometimes like feelings or pieces of meat that have been torn open.’


Odysseus is the final part of a trilogy of musical theatre pieces without song or dance. In 2010, Tsoupaki created Medea, a melodrama without voice, for the MAE Ensemble; three years later she composed Narcissus, Play for Music and Scent, for Nieuw Amsterdams Peil. Tsoupaki: ‘My intention is to realise the grand feeling of an opera or ballet with a (relatively) small ensemble. The dramaturgy is in my music.’ That demands a lot from the performers, she acknowledges: ‘My notes are not difficult in themselves, but the musicians must completely immerse themselves in Ulysses’ introspective journey. They should play as if they were undertaking this trip themselves on the spot. Ideally, the audience should go home with the feeling of having encountered Ulysses in person.’


About Thea Derks

I am a Dutch music journalist, specializing in contemporary music, and a champion of women composers. In 2014 I wrote the biography of Reinbert de Leeuw (3rd edition in 2020) and in 2018 I published 'Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht'.
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4 Responses to Calliope Tsoupaki writes ‘Odysseus’, an opera without voice: ‘The dramaturgy is in the music’

  1. Pingback: Wo ist das Weib? – De vrouw in Het Concertgebouw 1888-2022 – Klassiek van nu

  2. Pingback: ODYSSEUS - Calliope Tsoupaki

  3. Rain Worthington says:

    Yes, agreed, my curiosity is piqued as well and sending wishes for a terrific premiere. Thanks Thea for this interesting post about Calliope Tsoupaki’s approach to dramaturgy through music.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. shoreclaregmailcom says:

    Thank you for this post, Thea! My curiosity is piqued. I wish Calliope well in the Nov. 10 premiere of Odysseus.

    Liked by 1 person

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