“People are wrong when they say Opera is not what it used to be,” Noel Coward once complained. “It is what it used to be. That is what’s wrong with it.” While I’m not sure how Coward would have reacted to a production like Tomorrow, In A Year, an “electro-opera” concerning the life and work of Charles Darwin, he’d be hard-pressed to call it old hat.
Conceived by Danish experimental troupe Hotel Pro Forma with music by Swedish brother-sister duo The Knife and avant-disco Berliners Mt. Sims and Planningtorock, it’s pretty clear from the first blips, drips and clicks of the overture (such as it is) that this isn’t exactly going to be another soaring Donizetti retread. Yet at the same time, more club-minded fans of The Knife expecting another electropop record along the lines of Silent Shout, or perhaps Karin Dreijer Andersson’s solo material as Fever Ray, are likely also to be left scratching their heads. A project like this has the potential to piss everyone off.
But as ‘Epochs’ lifts off and the spectral voice of mezzo-soprano Kristina Wahlin glides in above spine-tingling clang and buzz, the good news is that Tomorrow, In A Year demands your attention, and earns it. When Hotel Pro Forma first approached The Knife’s Olof Dreijer with the commission, he claims not to have known what the word “libretto” even meant. Dreijer, his sister and their collaborators may be innocent of operatic tradition, but The Knife (and those Venetian masks often worn in public) have always had a wonderfully theatrical streak. That serves them well for the grandly tectonic gestures required for a jolting passage called ‘Geology’, for example, or the gorgeous but tragic ‘Annie’s Box’, a sorrowful aria about Darwin’s relationship to his daughter who died at age 10.
Perhaps Wahlin’s assuredly powerful vocal presence helps (she is an accomplished mezzo in more traditional opera), but for self-confessed rookies, the Dreijers and their partners have acquitted themselves well–so well that by the time the double album concludes with ‘The Height Of Summer,’ a relatively straightforward Knife track that wouldn’t sound out of place in a Gothenburg disco, the spell is almost broken. It’s by no means a bad song, but a palate cleanser is not what one wants just then. All the same, this is sure not how opera used to be. The Knife, bringing their own dancefloor vernacular to a classical setting, have done something pretty exciting.