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Commentary

15 May 2019

Thomas Larcher's The Hunting Gun at the Aldeburgh Festival: in conversation with Peter Schöne

‘Aloneness’ does not immediately seem a likely or fruitful subject for an opera. But, loneliness and isolation - an individual’s inner sphere, which no other human can truly know or enter - are at the core of Yasushi Inoue’s creative expression.

The Hunting Gun: the first UK performance of Thomas Larcher’s opera, at the Aldeburgh Festival

An interview with Peter Schöne, by Claire Seymour

Above: Peter Schöne

 

And, when the operatic adaptation of the Japanese writer’s 1949 novella, The Hunting Gun, by Austrian composer Thomas Larcher and librettist Friederike Gösweiner, was premiered at Bregenz last summer, it was praised for its “clear, powerful text, some striking imagery and a luminous score of great beauty and originality” (The Observer) and its combination of “lyric beauty” and “explosive intensity” ( Financial Times).

Next month, the Bregenz production, directed by Austrian film director Karl Markovics and designed by Katharina Wöppermann, travels to the Aldeburgh Festival. Peter Schöne will perform the role of the elusive Josuke Misugi - a cold, remote but self-assured man who declares his hunting gun indispensable to him, no matter how successful his public and private affairs - and I spoke to the German baritone about the forthcoming production which will mark Peter’s debut in England.

I began by remarking my surprise that Inoue’s sparse, poetic style and introspective narrative have proved apt for operatic setting. In their translation of The Hunting Gun, for the Tuttle edition, Sadamichi Yokoö and Sanford Goldstein describe the loneliness that Inoue depicts as peculiarly ‘oriental’, “related to the weariness of life and its negation”. Certainly, silence and suicide pervade The Hunting Gun, which is dominated by two recurring images. Shoko’s painful vision of a love “unlighted by the sun, flowing from nowhere to nowhere, and buried deep in the earth like an underground stream” is crystallised by her memory of a glass paperweight, its petals “frozen immovably in glass, petals that could not stir if it was spring or autumn, petals put to death”. Then, there is the “snake” which Josuke observes each individual has within themselves, and which his lover Saiko imagines as one’s egotism, jealousy and destiny: “an unbearably sad thing that we carry inside us.”

The Hunting Gun recounts a tragic love triangle through the medium of three letters addressed to Josuke. Penned by wife Midori, his lover Saiko, and her daughter Shoko, the letters take us into the minds of these women as their reflections form a layered dialogue of opposing perspectives and narrative gaps are slowly filled. Midori, bold and rebellious, has kept her knowledge of her husband’s affair secret for thirteen years, but now reveals her awareness of Josuke’s deceit and demands a divorce. When she finally confronts her cousin Saiko, the latter commits suicide by poison after first asking her daughter to burn her diary. The bereaved Shoko, however, reads the journal and, learning of her mother’s affair, feels betrayed and bewildered.

We become privy to the women’s painful private reflections when the letters are sent by Josuke to a poet. Via a framing device, we learn of the unnamed, self-deprecating poet’s journey to the Amagi mountains where his attention had been drawn to a man, gun on his shoulder, pipe in his mouth, who had a strange contemplative air about him: an impression of loneliness. Recognising himself in the poem that the author published about this encounter, Josuke contacts the poet, enclosing the three letters which he trusts the poet will burn.

Despite his pleasure in the poet’s representation of him, and his admiration for “the uncommonly sharp insight of a poet”, Josuke reflects, “It seems to me that a man is foolish enough to want another person to understand him.” And, ironically, the poet explains that the details in the poem - such the type of gun, a Churchill, the finest gun in England - were selected by chance, declaring that “the real Josuke Misugi, the source of my poem, was still unknown to me.” All we have of Josuke are his brief words of address, his calligraphy - “huge characters”, “robust and gorgeous and flowing that threatened to jump off the page” - and the women’s enigmatic and frustrated wonderings. Can such a man be ‘brought to life’, made ‘real’ and ‘knowable’ by the music?

Peter begins by noting that despite the ‘strangeness’ of the novella, in which the characters do not actually speak to one another, there is a strong energy in the text, one which - having travelled in Japan, beyond the cities and into the countryside - he feels is distinctly Japanese: a balance of lightness and blackness, which brings back memories of Mount Fuji to Peter, and which he feels is sustained throughout the novel. One thinks of Buddhist teaching which asserts that pain and passion are inextricably entwined: “To love, to be loved - our actions are pathetic,” writes Saiko, moments before she takes her own life. It’s a dichotomy that Peter finds, too, in Larcher’s music, the post-Mahlerian tonality of which captures both the intense cruelty of the characters’ suffering and the delicate beauty and freshness that one might associate with Japanese sakura.

There is a resilience about Josuke Misugi, Peter notes; he is a strong character, and has had a successful business career, yet the private man has flaws, as do we all. Thus, we can relate to Josuke when, despite have a new, young wife, he loves another woman and succumbs to temptation. He makes a decision which brings the outside world into his own inner life. Larcher’s music is beautiful to sing, Peter says: the legato line enables one to show the strength and shine of one’s voice but there are dark moments too - a wide emotional and expressive bandwidth. Does the music encourage us to sympathise with Josuke, who seems so distant and ineffable in the novella, I wonder? Peter agrees enthusiastically!

When I mention that The Hunting Gun will mark Peter’s debut in the UK, he corrects me: he has actually performed in Scotland twice previously, first in a Youth Orchestra as a teenage violinist, and then at the 2011 Edinburgh Festival, singing songs by Hugo Wolf. Does he still play the violin, I ask? Peter explains that he began playing as a five-year-old, when living in East Berlin. When the Wall came down, many of the musical contexts in which he studied and performed disappeared. His mother looked for other possibilities for Peter to continue his musical development and her attention was caught by a television programme about a boys’ choir.

When she asked the then fifteen-year-old Peter if he wanted to join, he was adamant that he did not! But, she encouraged him to begin singing alongside his ongoing violin studies. As his voice became stronger, it was necessary to make a decision: it would not be possible to do the necessary seven-hours-a-day practice on both violin and voice, so Peter decided to audition for conservatoires in both disciplines and see what the results were. Ten offers to study voice against one for violin determined the future, and he completed his vocal training with Harald Stamm at the University of the Arts Berlin, though Peter did also graduate as a violinist, following studies with Valerie Rubin at the Academy of Music Nuremberg-Augsburg, and still plays violin for pleasure.

Interestingly, he remarks that he thinks that his training as a violinist helps him to read and learn music quickly, and is especially beneficial when he is learning the contemporary music to which he is dedicated, having performed in several world premieres such as Moritz Eggert’s Helle Nächte, Johanna Doderer’s Der leuchtende Fluss and Ichiro Nodaira’s Madrugad.

Peter will spend three weeks in Snape rehearsing The Hunting Gun, but before that he performs in another epistolary-related opera [pi:ps] by Swiss composer Luca Martin, based on the diaries of Samuel Pepys, at the Grand Concert Hall in Solingen. He joined the ensemble of the State Opera House of Saarbrücken last year, and recently took the role of Faninal in Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier at Saarländisches Staatstheater. But, he explains that a house contract of this nature is both a blessing and a potential problem. There is the ‘luxury’ of regular work, but a company singer’s plans are made for them and sometimes one needs to feel free to listen to one’s inner self about what projects to take on next. Peter seems to be getting the balance right: he will soon dip his toes for the first time into Wagnerian waters, tackling the role of Wotan; and next year will travel to and Theater St Gallen, St Gallen, Switzerland to sing in George Benjamin’s Lessons in Love and Violence.

But, before that there is love and violence of a different kind, in the form of the secrets, sins and inner snakes of The Hunting Gun. What song could be more sad, or perhaps more truthful, than the song of human aloneness?

The Hunting Gun will be performed at the Aldeburgh Festival, 7-9 June.

Claire Seymour

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