Liza Lim’s “Out There” Operas

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LIM: The Oresteia, Memory Opera in 7 Parts after Aeschylus / Jeannie van de Velde, sop; Julie Edwardson, mezzo; Deborah Kayser, mezzo/cello; Andrew Muscat-Clark, ctr-tenor; Tyrone Landau, ten; Grant Smith, bar; various instrumentalists; Sandro Gorli, cond / Moon Spirit Feasting: Chang-O Flies the Moon / Deborah Kayser, sop; Paula Rae, bs-fl; Ruseanne Hunt, cel; Satsuki Odamura, koto; Peter Neville, perc; Simon Hewett, cond / Mother Tongue, Song Cycle for Soprano & 15 Instruments / Plia Komai, sop; various instrumentalists; Jean Deroyer, cond / The Navigator, Opera in 6 Scenes / Andrew Watts, ctr-tenor (The Navigator); Talise Trevigne, sop (The Beloved); Philip Larson, bs-bar (First Siren/The Crone); Omar Ebrahim, bar (Second Siren/The Fool); Deborah Kayser, alto (Third Siren/Angel of History); various instrumentalists; Manuel Nawri, cond / Huddersfield Contemporary HCR25CD

Liza Lim (b. 1966) is an Australian-Chinese composer. Her parents, both doctors, sent her to private schools; at age 11, she was encouraged by her teachers to switch from playing the piano and violin to composition. Lim earned her Doctor of Philosophy from the University of Queensland, her Masters from the University of Melbourne (1996), and her Bachelor of Arts from Victorian College of the Arts (1986). She studied composition in Melbourne with Richard David Hames and Riccardo Formosa, and in Amsterdam with Ton de Leeuw.

First up is The Oresteia, a “memory opera” after Aeschylus. The music emerges in spurts and stutters; there are little or no words here, and the few that are are mixed in with strange vocal effects. The instrumental music is also bizarre, mostly very bright and piercing and clearly atonal. In a nutshell, Kim’s music put me in mind of Meredith Monk in a bad acid trip. Yet the music, strange as it is, calls for an enormous amount of technique and perfect vocal control; no wobbly-voiced singers need apply. The second scene, titled “Memory spills from the split skulls of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon,” is particularly psychotic-sounding, but you’d almost expect that, wouldn’t you? (I would.) In the third scene, “The Banquet,” everyone is grunting and occasionally screaming; they sound like my idiot family all trying to grab the turkey at the same time at Thanksgiving. Parts of this scene reminded me of Peter Maxwell Davies’ Eight Songs for a Mad King.

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A fun scene from one of Lim’s operas.

Oddly enough, I found the music very funny; it’s almost as if Kim had written an outrageously outré spoof of Elektra, making her score so psychotic-sounding that you almost can’t take it seriously. And if she is serious, I’d recommend some psychotherapy. Or perhaps shock treatment.

Seriously, though, there seemed to me to be much more of an influence here from Chinese than from Western music, and this always sounds strange to Western ears (like mine), but it is certainly effective theatrically if nothing else. I’m not sure, however, what her influence was in using muted glissando trombones; these sounded to me like the ersatz-“jazz” style that many white musicians (and some black) used in the late 1910s on recordings. Despite the use of a tenor and baritone, her music is all pitched very high, focusing on the sounds of the sopranos, mezzo and countertenor. In “Athena’s Trumpet,” Lim has the soprano virtuosically competing with a trumpet for superiority in the high range.

Equally bizarre is Chang-O Flies the Moon, starring soprano Deborah Kayser (as Chang-O, the Moon Goddess). Apparently the Chinese have some seriously psychedelic moon phases that we as Westerners never get to see. This one is set to a lot of police whistles. Chang-O must carry then around to ward off would-be attackers in place of pepper spray. This, too calls for some extraordinarily virtuosic singing.

By the time I reached Mother Tongue, a song cycle for soprano and 15 instruments, I began to realize that Lim’s biggest weakness is that she is a one-style composer. Each piece sounds bizarre and different until you hear a number of them in succession; then you realize that it all sounds pretty much alike.

Liza Lim

Our surprisingly normal-looking composer

And yet, surprisingly, The Navigator begins with a lovely flute solo, at least until buzzes and some fast, atonal figures move it outside the realm of normal. But then we get the sound of screaming electronic something, and things take a turn for the bizarre. Then we get an electric rock guitar (what is it with these modern composers and their crappy rock guitars??? Someone tell me, please!) and it just got ugly—really, seriously ugly.

My assessment of Liza Lim is that she has skill but not real talent. A truly talented composer would realize that one has to vary one’s approach and nut just keep assaulting the ears with bizarre stuff over and over and over ad infinitum. Immersing one in screaming banshee sounds can be invigorating and interesting, but not continually. It’s like a poet who just keeps repeating over and over, “My head is exploding! My head is exploding!” OK, so it’s exploding. Let it explode, and then what? But there is no “then what” with Lim, and that is the weakness in her music.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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