On 10 May, the Opera Ballet Flanders presents the world premiere of The Convert by Wim Henderickx. The libretto was written by Krystian Lada and is based on the book of the same name by Stefan Hertmans. At the time of the First Crusade, a young Catholic woman converts to the Jewish faith and finds herself torn between two worlds.
‘It was love at first sight’, enthuses Wim Henderickx during a Skype conversation. ‘I was working on a play about Hadewych when The Convert was mentioned in a television programme. I had been searching for a suitable opera-subject for ages. I bought the book, read it in two days and sketched my entire opera on the third.’
The theme of someone who burns their boats behind them has preoccupied him all his life: ‘It touches on essential questions about the human condition that are typical of my humanity, my being a composer. How far can you go as a person before you capitulate? Why do people commit suicide, when and why do they finally give up? Vigdis, the main character in Hertmans’ novel, keeps going until the bitter end and eventually breaks down both mentally and physically.’
But this is not the only appeal of the book, which is based on historical facts: ‘A second theme is the religious question, which is still very topical today. Replace the Taliban with the Crusaders and you have a reverse jihad, perpetrated by the West from our religious point of view. At the same time, it touches on a current cultural problem: what if you fall in love with the wrong person? When a Moroccan girl falls for a western boy, or vice versa?’
Henderickx regards this as a timeless theme that lies at the core of opera: ‘It is about impossible love, a human drama. As a young, naive girl, Vigdis is attracted to David, a somewhat exotic boy from another culture, the son of a rabbi. She recklessly converts to his faith, without considering the consequences. Her Catholic surroundings cannot accept such a step, so she has to flee from certain death for the rest of her life.’
Wim Henderickx on his opera The Convert: ‘During the first Crusade, Vigdis recklessly converts to the Jewish faith of David. Her Catholic surroundings cannot accept this, so she must flee from certain death for the rest of her life.’Tweet
Henderickx feels compassion for Vigdis, who changes her name to Hamoutal at her Jewish baptism: ‘She comes from a well-to-do Viking family, but realises fairly quickly that she has irrevocably lost all her privileges and the respect and love of her relatives. She is happy with David and is lovingly accepted into the Jewish community, but must hide from the ruthless wrath of her parents. This makes her doubt her faith as well, hence the subtitle Praying to whom?’
TORN BETWEEN TWO WORLDS
The young couple make a long and harsh hike from Normandy to a village in the Provence, where they find shelter through a befriended rabbi and will have two children. On the way, they are constantly harassed by people who think they recognise them and threaten to report them to her parents. In such anxious moments, Vigdis at times lapses into reciting her familiar Catholic prayers, to David’s slight annoyance.
Still, we should not be too hard on him, Henderickx says: ‘David belongs to a dominant culture and simply cannot help himself. After all, Vigdis was neither requested nor required to convert, but once she has taken that step there is no way back: she must from then on abide by Jewish laws.’
‘I myself live in the Jewish neighbourhood in Antwerp. It’s my experience that their religion is not driven by a missionary urge as are Christianity and Islam, so I can understand David’s reaction. But despite everything he is a gentle and caring man. He does try to reassure Vigdis, but finds it difficult when she prays to her Christian God. Of course you can wonder why he didn’t convert to her faith, but in the end David too must pay for his choice of Vigdis with his life.’
FROM NAIVE TEENAGER TO CARING MOTHER
When Crusaders pass through the village where the family is hiding, they carry out a bloody pogrom. They kill David in front of Vigdis, who is pregnant with their third child. One of the knights recognises her and spares her life, but takes her children with him. Again she has to flee. Ever fearful of discovery, she loses her new-born baby on the way. After much wandering, she ends up in Cairo, where she marries an older man, with whom she has another child.
Henderickx: ‘Vigdis is an incredibly strong woman. In the beginning, she is still a somewhat thoughtless young girl, but she develops into a loving mother who never gives up. When her new husband finds out that her children are living with her parents in Normandy, she immediately returns to France, determined to retrieve them. She takes her son with her, but when the infant dies on the way, she loses her mind. Broken, she returns to the village where she once lived with David. She hides in a cave, where she neglects herself and lives like an animal.’
BREAKDOWN AND REDEMPTION
‘I wrote her to pieces at the end’, says Henderickx, almost apologetically, ‘I really let her break down completely’. This is in line with Hertmans’ novel, in which Vigdis dies witless and ragged, after eating poisonous mushrooms. Krystian Lada’s libretto follows the original closely, but in consultation with Henderickx he sometimes made minor changes to the original. ‘I found Vigdis’ inglorious death a little too desolate; I didn’t want to end my opera like that. But how then? In the end I opted for a twofold finale.’
Wim Henderickx on his opera The Convert: ‘Vigdis almost literally loses her voice. Towards the end it is ripped apart by electronics, and she only utters incoherent, desperate sounds.’Tweet
‘The horror of her fate is expressed in Vigdis almost literally losing her voice. She descends into a very low register, where she switches from a half-sung Sprechstimme to a spoken voice. This is manipulated and, as it were, ripped apart by electronics. Thus her voice becomes a succession of incoherent, desperately emitted sounds. But I needed a catharsis, to overshadow this intense drama. That is why the choir sings the Kaddish at the end, a Jewish prayer for redemption and peace.’
Just as the opera ends with a Jewish prayer sung in Aramaic, it begins with the Catholic Magnificat, sung in Latin. ‘In the extremes of the opera, the two great cultures at issue stand side by side, or if you like, opposite each other’, says Henderickx. These different worlds are also reflected in the music: ‘I was inspired by Catholic and Jewish chants, but never used literal quotations. Open fifths and the ringing of church bells evoke associations with the world of Vigdis, while sliding microtones refer to David’s oriental background.’
COEXISTING SOUND WORLDS
The orchestra also includes three instruments that are characteristic of the Middle East: an oud (a plucked instrument akin to the lute); a qanûn (a trapeze-shaped plank zither strung with three-stranded strings) and a duduk (a double reed instrument with a muffled sound, akin to the oboe).
Henderickx did not use a church organ, which could function as a typical western counterpart to the eastern instruments. He does however make frequent use of clarinets: ‘There are three clarinettists, the third of whom also plays bass clarinet and contrabass clarinet. In this way I can suggest various organ registrations. Like the more oriental instruments, this gives me the opportunity to add extra layers of sound that recall the world of Vigdis and David. After all, the sound universes of both parties, both religions and cultures coexisted.’
Even more important, he believes, is to make the universal, timeless aspect of their story tangible: ‘By spicing up the somewhat archaic sound textures with modern dissonances, I draw the story into the modern age. Thus, right at the start, the Magnificat is accompanied by the sounds of duduk, qanûn and oud. These different musical worlds are encompassed by a large melodic line. For it is all about Great Emotions! I am not at all afraid to underline them in my music.’ To illustrate this, he sings in flowery coloratura: ‘Ma-hag-ni-hi-fi-cat’.
TIME BECOMES SPACE
He consciously avoided the use of leitmotifs: ‘I have tried to transcend that, it’s not about whether the music follows the story or vice versa. It all belongs together, it is one trip. There are recurring elements, such as ostinatos, drones and a kind of empty sound in which time becomes space. Vigdis literally sings about this. It is an idea that fascinates me as a composer: music is an art of time, but what if that time becomes space and comes to a standstill? We translate this thought into the concert hall, where we place speakers around the audience so that the sound comes from all sides.’
‘This concept of time becoming space is more important to me than whether Vigdis is accompanied by a horn or a trumpet or a melodic motif. I have tried to express her emotions along the way – from young girl to caring mother to half-wild woman. One problem was that from beginning to end she is on the road, fleeing from one country to another. First with David, then alone.’
Henderickx feared The Convert might become an opera about travel: ‘To avoid this, I have created different musical layers. First there is the dramatic stratum, in which the pace must be maintained. Take for instance the pogrom at the end of the first act. That has become an impressive war scene, with screaming people, an “exploding orchestra”, and an animalistic howl from Vigdis when David is killed.’
MEDIEVAL STORY HIGHLY TOPICAL
‘On the other hand, moments are needed to create inner peace. For example, at the beginning of the second act Vigdis sings a lament, while cradling her new-born baby. Krystian and I have also included a few dreams that act as a counterbalance to the hectic nature of travel. In these, a different type of music can be heard, in which everything seems to come to a standstill. These moments also give the audience a chance to catch their breath.’
‘For, once again: the story may be set in the Middle Ages, but it is more topical than ever. That is what I want to make palpable with my opera.’
This article first appeared in the April issue of the Dutch music magazine Luister. I translated it at the request of Norsk Musikforlag, Henderickx’ publisher.