Himmelsscheibe / Disc del Cel
an opera oratorio
Idea and libretto by Rebecca Simpson
Music by Ramon Humet
Sky Disc (Himmelsscheibe / Disc del Cel) is an opera–oratorio with music by Catalan composer Ramon Humet, and libretto and idea by Barcelona-based British dramatist Rebecca Simpson. It was commissioned by Bühnen Halle, with additional financial support from the Government of Catalonia. The duration of the work is approximately one hour and fifty minutes. The world premiere took place on October 2nd, 2013, in Oper Halle (Germany), with musical direction by Andreas Henning, stage direction by G.H. Seebach, costumes by Ragna Heiny, choir direction by Jens Pete Montar, stage design by Hartmut Schörghofer, dramaturgy by André Meyer, video by Anke Tornow. The soloists were Gerd Vogel (Fierket), Sandra Maxheimer (Guueren), Maria Petrašovská (Estria), Robert Sellier (Pyrpi), Hiltrud Kuhlmann (Tamar), Ulrich Burdack (Boatman), Ki-Hyun Park (Priest), Julia Preußler (boy soprano) and Kaori Sekigawa (solo soprano).
The inspiration for the work is the Nebra Sky-disc (die Himmelsscheibe von Nebra), a remarkably beautiful bronze disc studded with gold stars and other devices. This Bronze Age instrument contains codified information which enabled the calendar alignment of the solar year with lunar cycles, in relation to the Pleiades; knowledge that was crucial for effective agriculture.
Sky Disc contemplates the archeological object –so closely related to time– from a modern perspective, in the oratorio sections, while in the opera sections it tells the story of a fictional drama set in the Bronze Age. The opera scenes take place on a single day in the region where the Nebra Sky-disc was found: in the Bronze Age village where it belongs, on a river by night, and on the Mittelberg hilltop (a prehistoric observatory). A smith intends to add two gold arcs to the precious object. These arcs will indicate sections of the horizon as seen from the Mittelberg, thus converting the disc into a portable solstice calendar in addition to its original use. But lack of sufficient gold, and the arrival of a woman the smith had met on a recent journey, complicate the day.
Towards the end of Sky Disc, time stretches and its treatment becomes more symbolic as opera and oratorio –text, music and singers– meld together. The disc is returned to the earth, and the work is brought to a powerful yet delicate close.
The sharply drawn characters are: a smith, his apprentice, this same boy’s grandmother, a woman who is travelling, escaping danger, and her cousin who translates and mediates; other figures are a mysterious boatman and a priest. In the oratorio sections, solo voices sometimes emerge from, and interact with, the choir, which has its own strong presence and personality. The protagonist of the work is ultimately the Sky-disc, given voice by the choir at a central moment of the work.
Three of Europe’s modern languages are used, in a relationship with place that is unconnected to modern geographical usage: English by the Sky-disc villagers, German by the woman who brings gold from the island in the west, and Catalan by the young woman from a region in between and by the Boatman. Furthermore, carefully chosen works or fragments by writers in each language are incorporated into the libretto.
The orchestral instrumentation is 2 (II=doubling piccolo). 2 (II=doubling English horn). 2 (II=doubling bass clarinet). 2 (II=doubling contrabassoon).- 2. 2. 2. 1. – perc (2): timpani / crotales set / suspended crotales (F, F#, G, G#, A) / 2 anvils / 3 temple blocks / 2 crash cymbals / 3 toms / 2 metal chimes / Tibetan bowl / rainstick / flexatone / marimba / large tamtam / tambourine / whip / ocean drum / bamboo chimes / sleigh bells – harp – strings (18.104.22.168.4.)
Background to the object, the Nebra Sky-disc
In the explosively creative period at the end of the Early Bronze Age in central and northern Europe, remarkable cultures were connected by trade and travel. Prized bronze workers were the elite technology experts of the time. The Nebra Sky-disc, unearthed in 1999 near the village of Nebra, Germany, and retrieved from black market dealers in 2001, is the world’s earliest clear representation of the night sky. As mentioned above, it encodes information that enabled the alignment of the solar and lunar calendars, permitting more effective agriculture. Its decipherment has revolutionised the understanding of the Bronze Age in Europe.
Made perhaps as early as 1800 BC, with copper from the Alps in Austria and tin and gold from Cornwall in south-west Britain, the Nebra Sky-disc was twice modified with further inlaid forms. It was dismantled, probably ritually when it ceased to be of use following a natural disaster, and was buried between 1600 and 1550 BC. It is now believed that the eruption of Thera (Santorini) caused the skies of northern Europe to be covered with clouds of volcanic ash for twenty to twenty-five years, thus leading to the previously unexplained disappearance of the Unetice people (Aunjetitz in German) who created the Sky-disc.
In June 2013, the Nebra Sky-disc was included in UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register.
Fierket, the smith, has returned from a six month visit to the Western Islands (Britain). He has brought gold from the same source as the Sky-disc’s original gold, for the horizon arcs he intends to add. However, having had to leave in a hurry, he lacks sufficient gold. Meanwhile Tamar, a woman who became pregnant by Fierket, travels to find him. She is accompanied by her cousin Guueren who acts as interpreter on the journey. The apprentice, Pyrpi, is fascinated by the beautiful enigmatic Sky-disc, usually kept out of sight and under guard. Estria, Pyrpi’s grandmother, becomes hostile to Tamar and Guueren when they prove, on arrival, to have some knowledge of the Sky-disc, suspecting them of wanting to steal its secret. The encounter between Fierket and Tamar, the completion of Fierket’s work and its testing on the Mittleberg are followed by celebration for the birth of the child.
Oratorio sections have occurred throughout, including a “Dream of the Sky-disc” where the object itself is given voice at the heart of the Mittelberg scene. Oratorio and opera then merge, as the effects of a distant volcano interfere with the celebration-turned-game of life. The Sky-disc is modified, but to no avail. All voices now join to sing of time and disaster. However, the Solo Boy’s voice that earlier sang the child’s birth (with a William Blake poem for the text) is heard again, in defense of humanity as an expression and inhabitant of Time rather than simply its victim. The other voices take up this affirmation. A brief Mezzo solo, which achieves a sense of communion with the audience, brings the opera-oratorio to a close.
Sky Disc is Ramon Humet’s first opera. However, the composer has always conceived his instrumental music in the form of scenes from life. As in his ‘Escenes del bosc’ (Forest Scenes), he considers a scene to be a particular delimitation of time and space in which different elements exist, having their own vital evolution and independent processes but which, in combination with one another, comprise a scene that can be contemplated. In Sky Disc, aspects of the music from each scene penetrate the next, drawing an imperceptible thread through the work from beginning to end.
The music of Sky Disc revolves around a mixed choir (SATB) which serves as a musical allegory of the 32 gold-encrusted stars on the surface of the bronze disc. This choir is the protagonist of the oratorio sections. Divisi and other vocal resources are used to build the musical framework for the work’s reflective moments, and to link the dramatic action of the operatic scenes.
The sound-world created for the oratorio sections coexists with those of the opera, interrelating musically as well as dramatically on various differentiated, parallel levels. The openings and closings of each scene dissolve, so as to bathe and flood the adjacent scenes, creating the time framework of a sound continuum. This flux provides the substrata from which the initial questions of the opera-libretto are generated: What? Why? Who? How?
The harmony is built from a collection of 32 resonant chords, of seven notes each, which evoke once again the 32 stars that include the Pleiades constellation of seven stars, depicted on the Nebra Sky-disc. Coherence and unity, therefore, are provided throughout the work by the harmonic material which acts as a common nexus.
At the same time, instrumental differentiation creates the specific quality of sound, and indicates the human focus for oratorio and opera. For the oratorio, which represents a community of voices, a mixed choir and an orchestra with a symphonic sound are used, while in the opera sections, the solo and orchestral instruments are used in a more individual fashion so that the personal and dramatic content is emphasised.
The continuous movement of the act of breathing is another key element that traverses the work. Sky Disc opens with an oratorio that is structured as waves of “audible air” –breathing on a large scale, cosmic breath– which carry with them the fundamental questions raised by the archeological object found at Nebra. And a latent systole and diastole exists throughout the work. Finally, in a moment of great intimacy, the individual breathing of Guueren, one of the opera’s main characters, merges with silence and with the audience’s own breathing. By means of these formal processes related to breathing and the vital breath of living beings, the music develops structurally throughout the entire work, pursuing organic curves and outlines.
Silence is important to both authors. Ramon Humet defines it as the substrata, the basis on which life is constructed and on which music is also built – a form of life in sound. Thus, the opera-oratorio Sky Disc begins in silence and ends in silence. In silence all music is latent, as, too, are all voices.
* * *