Interview: Venables on Denis & Katya

Interview: Venables on Denis & Katya

The English composer Philip Venables, who achieved international success with his chamber opera 4.48 Psychosis, based on a play by Sarah Kane, has created another award-winning stage success, Denis & Katya. At the Hanover State Opera, the piece will be performed for the first time in a specially prepared German translation and version. In this interview with Regine Palmai, Philip Venables talks about his opera and the specifics of the German version.

What gave you the idea of composing an opera on the tragic story of Denis and Katya, two Russian teenagers?

A week after the incident in November 2016, Ted Huffman read the news on Facebook and sent me the link on WhatsApp. The story captured the media’s attention and soon was all over the internet and in international newspapers. When we then talked about it, we quickly realized that it was eminently suitable as an opera subject. The entire genesis of the work – how we discovered the news story online and our discussion of turning it into an opera – then actually became part of the composition in the form of projected WhatsApp chats. 

How is this true story recounted as an opera?

There are six characters who appear in the opera, but all are played by just two actors. Numerous highly diverse scenes are either sung or spoken depending on the constellation. The situations, perspectives and roles change very quickly, like “hard cuts” in a film. The “talking heads” of TV talk shows were an inspiration. Musically, each of the six roles is characterized very differently and has his/her own sound world: the neighbour sounds panic-stricken, the journalist stays calm and composed, the teacher is cautious etc. An opera inherently has to be dramatic, “operatic”, as I hope this one will be regarded! 

Who were your collaborators?

We developed the six roles for the Philadelphia world premiere together with the two American singers, the team of librettist/director Ted Huffman, co-author Ksenia Ravvina and sound designer Rob Kaplowitz, and the cellists. The textual material was derived from various sources: interviews, TV talk shows and newspaper articles. We played around with these in the workshops. In fact we did a great deal of experimenting and trying out with vocal characterization, text and sound design.

What made you decide on four cellos as the musical instruments?

Four cellos have a muscular, robust sound. But the cello is also very close to the human voice – it almost exactly spans the baritone/ mezzo-soprano range. Strategically positioned at each corner of the stage, the four cellos also interact theatrically. I like this symmetry and have carried it over into the music. But along with the four cellos one also hears beeps and other electronic sounds. There are many different layers in the overall sound.

What’s new for the Hanover State Opera in the German premiere?

A new German version of the text was commissioned specially for the German premiere in Hanover. This meant that in several places we needed to alter, revise and re-arrange the music to fit the German language. The text videos with the WhatsApp news between Ted and me also had to be newly recorded, and new sound material was also necessary for that.

You wrote the opera together with Ted Huffman. How do you and Ted collaborate?

Ted Huffman and I have worked closely together for a number of years on several different projects, and so we often speak or write several times a day. Ted comments on my composition, I comment on his text and staging. Our collaboration is really very close. We talk a great deal and discuss everything imaginable, and we still have many ideas for the future.

The interview was conducted by Regine Palmai for the Staatsoper Hannover. Published with kind permission by the author and Staatsoper Hannover.

Photos: Harald Hoffmann