The aim of the new opera house is to transport the audience to another place, suspension of disbelief. All the work that has been and will be going on here has only one aim: to take us somewhere else, to other realities, to give us new experiences, thoughts and emotions. Hundreds of people are working to achieve this.
Jonas Norsted has seen the insides of the reality factory.
The building from the outside. So far that has been the strongest image of the new opera for many people. The roof with all the people walking on the white marble. A huge, white sea mammal basking in the sun at the edge of the fjord. After a while other elements have stuck in people’s consciousness as well: the organic timber wall, the main hall, the white foyer, the stage curtain and the chandelier. The Ole Ivars dance hall band has already been on stage. But even if most people seem to like being in or around the building, it has not been designed by popular vote…
There are no sausages and mashed potato here. Oh no, there will be canapés and croissants, champagne and caffe latte in the white marble surroundings. Good taste all around. Almost like a project to cultivate the Norwegian people. It is easy to forget that it began with opera and ballet.
"We are the music-makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams." (Willy Wonka, in the hallway with the lickable wallpaper).1
When I was little, on one of those rare occasions when there was opera on telly, I used to think: Please please disappear, I’ll give you my whole candy bag. It mauled your eardrums and the screen was a flicker of large grimacing faces, sweat and suffering, done up in strange clothes and pompous stage sets.
However, I now see it differently. There is something old fashioned, liberating and very human taking place in that strange format. Is there anywhere else where you can express grander emotions than in opera? The singers are sprawled on the floor in emotional ecstasy, shrouded in rolling fog. Their nostrils… vibrating with the purest sensation. Could you tear your clothes off? Yes! Frrratsch – there goes the shirt. The audience jump to their feet in spontaneous acclaim. Tears flow freely… But in the most impeccable taste. Of course.
But what is actually happening behind the stage curtain of the new opera in Bjørvika? Because if your look at the sheer size of the building, there is much more building behind the scenes than in front. And what does it actually take to make opera? I feel like I’m entering Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory as I walk excitedly towards the staff entrance. To the part of the opera where people are working.
"If your look at sheer size, there is much more building behind the scenes than in front."
When I finally enter the back-of-house area it is like entering a mid-size office building. There are no oompa-loompas, just ordinary people. Glitter and finery is conspicuously absent. There is little of the extravagant atmosphere in the foyer. Is this it, I’m thinking as I walk down the linoleum floor of one of the corridors. But then, PANG, around the first corner I am suddenly surrounded by a swarm of tiny ballet dancers. It is the ballet school passing by… There is a school in here as well? I begin to understand that I have really no idea of what to expect. Behind each of the closed doors there is another surprise. It is like a village in here, where everyone is working on something different and quite specific. Behind one door they are making wigs, behind another there is make-up, and then costumes, laundries etc. etc. Granted, there is no river of chocolate carrying you from place to place in a candy ship, like in Wonka’s place, but there is no doubt that I am in a strange and unique universe of functions and activities.
"I am in a strange and unique universe of functions and activities."
By and large, the design in here is modest, apart from some very nice rehearsal spaces for dancers and musicians. Even if most of these workspaces either have a view into the wide, black atrium or of the spectacular expanse of the fjord and the city, this part of the building is pretty labyrinthine. If it wasn‘t for all the strange people I keep bumping into, these corridors could be running through pretty much any building. But here, I meet ballet dancers with this clear, glassy, melancholy look in their eyes that only ballet dancers have. I meet rounded, smiling musicians. Singers gargling behind half open doors. Clowns. Costume ladies weaving around with a wardrobe on wheels, shouting and laughing. A little man with a large instrument case running as fast as he can – late, again! The dancer in pointe shoes looks like she’s lost. From time to time the people working here trip over workmen, lurking in corners fixing the final few screws. But people still look happy – happy and busy.
The stage areas are a world of their own. Here, the technicians in the hoodies rule. They swear and show off. It occurs to me that all the machinery, with computer controlled lighting rigs and stage sets are like a gigantic toy. There, yes, up a bit. Turn it, ahead 10 cm, back 5 cm. Hollering and garbled messages in a walkie-talkie. They steer the lifts and the rigs and try to look all serious and indifferent, like proper people doing an important job. Well, they are, but they can’t hide the fact that they are also having a fantastic time. The premiere is tomorrow, a lot of things have to be in place and it all depends on them.
There are exciting things behind the doors on most floors. Rooms full of sheet music, musicians’ dressing rooms with tailcoats and bow ties. Messy workshops, costume storage, woodworking tools. Some of the doors have glass in them. On the top floor you can see Willy Wonka himself, opera manager Bjørn Simensen, bent over some important papers. Around him there is a whole entourage of information- and administration workers, smartly dressed. Beside his office is the canteen. This is where they all meet: Kings, knife throwers, accountants, clowns, wig makers, ladykillers, ticket clerks, flautists, oopa-loompas, painters, prop managers, witches, choreographers, angels, children, weight lifters and everyone else, thinkable and unthinkable – hungry and thirsty. What a place to work, I think. To an outsider it looks suspiciously like too much fun. A lot of stress and backbreaking work, of course. Late nights and all that. But what amazing richness.
"Invention, my dear friends, is ninety-three percent perspiration, six percent electricity, four percent evaporation, and two percent butterscotch ripple» (Willy Wonka mixing a concoction in the Invention Room). 2
I walk around, enviously spying on people rehearsing. In one room there are two tired types. A man and a woman. Exhausted from trying to conjure a non-existent love? Some strange music is plinking in the background. Pling plongo plong plongo pling. It is not helping. GO HOME. Joyful singing comes out of room 2. «Kovvi kovvi mooone.» What does it mean? Three Balkan men are circling a fourth, a completely white man who is singing in some incomprehensible language. Are they singing of peace? Of the love that is to save us from all evil? But, guys, why not look a little more cheerful? One of the men looks about 75. After a few intense dance moves it becomes obvious that the main singer is also a bit long in the tooth. This will take practice. On, on, next room. Oh my, a fig leaf costume! The singer is twittering away, until she sits down at a tiny piano and takes a break with the classic «Old MacDonald had a farm». This cheers me up. Opera does not appear out of nowhere, I think, maliciously.
Finally I am left in the main theatre, letting all the experiences settle. There is a tree hanging upside down on stage. But of course. This is where you could do such a thing. It feels almost as if I have been to a long festival, I am numbed by impressions. Numbed, even if I have only seen and talked to a few of the more than six hundred people involved in the day-to-day running of this place. The inhabitants of the worlds beyond the curtain. The workers of sugar and chocolate.
From the movie ”Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” (1971). Director: Mel Stuart, script: Roald Dahl. (In the hallway with lickable wallpaper) WONKA: ”We are the music-makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.”
From ”Ode” by Arthur O’Shaughnessy (1844–1881):
”We are the music-makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams.
World-losers and world-forsakers,
Upon whom the pale moon gleams;
Yet we are the movers and shakers,
Of the world forever, it seems.” ↩
From the movie ”Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” (1971). Director: Mel Stuart, script: Roald Dahl. (Mixing a concoction in the Invention Room) WONKA: ”Invention, my dear friends, is ninety-three percent perspiration, six percent electricity, four percent evaporation, and two percent butterscotch ripple.” After Thomas Edison (1847-1931): ”Genius is one percent inspiration, and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” ↩
Some of the pictures in this article are taken from the book Operaen, ed. Oddbjørn Monsen. Reproduced with permission from the photographers and from Skyline publishers.