A master of winter writes his first opera: 'The Snow Queen'

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A master of winter writes his first opera: 'The Snow Queen'
The composer Hans Abrahamsen, right, during a rehearsal for “The Snow Queen” at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, on Dec. 4, 2019. Abrahamsen’s work, starring the fearless soprano Barbara Hannigan, is opening in Munich. Mustafah Abdulaziz/The New York Times.

by Joshua Barone

MUNICH (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- You could be forgiven for assuming the composer Hans Abrahamsen has an obsession with winter.

He did, after all, once write a piece called “Winternacht” (“Winter Night”), and perhaps his most famous work is “Schnee” (“Snow”). His song cycle “let me tell you” evokes a landscape as wintry as one in a Bruegel painting. And there is no metaphor more apt to describe Abrahamsen’s music than a snowflake: pleasantly soft and simple from a distance, mathematically precise and complex under a microscope.

But, Abrahamsen said during a recent interview, he’s actually inspired by all the seasons. And despite its title, winter is not the focus of his first opera, “The Snow Queen,” which has its English-language premiere at the Bavarian State Opera here Friday. (It will be livestreamed on Dec. 28.)

He said that in Denmark, where he lives, people truly experience the seasons in equal measure. And the progression from the chill of winter to the warmth of summer and the maturity of autumn is one way to read the story of his opera, taken from the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale that also loosely inspired “Frozen.”

Children’s stories, though, are meant to be read in any number of ways, and though it’s brand-new, Abrahamsen’s “Snow Queen” has already been filtered through the sensibilities of two directors. Rarely does this happen, but the opera is being rolled out in different languages, and different stagings, in quick succession. A commission from the Royal Danish Opera in Copenhagen, it premiered there in October, in Danish, directed by Francisco Negrin.

Nearly simultaneously, an English-language version has been prepared in Munich. But the Bavarian State Opera, which rarely imports productions from elsewhere, started from scratch, with its own director and conductor. And a new star: Barbara Hannigan, a reigning soprano of contemporary music, for whom the opera was originally written.

The fairy tale concerns a mirror that reflects only the world at its worst and, once shattered, shoots dangerous splinters. A boy named Kay, the friend of a girl named Gerda, gets one in an eye and his heart; he is also abducted by the Snow Queen and presumed dead. Gerda, hopeful he’s alive, searches for him, a journey that brings her from innocence to experience.

Knowing that Hannigan, 48, would be singing the role of Gerda, Andreas Kriegenburg, the director in Munich, has taken a radical view of the story. “I told Hans at our first meeting,” Kriegenburg recalled, “that I can’t imagine credibly casting Barbara as an 11-year-old girl.”

So Gerda and Kay, in Kriegenburg’s production, are a middle-aged couple. The mirror splinters have always suggested psychological trauma; here, Kay’s condition is an actual mental illness. Being taken away by the Snow Queen is rendered as being admitted to an institution — where Gerda remains by his side, physically close yet at an unbridgeable distance. One day she falls asleep, and the adventure of the fairy tale — meeting crows, a princess and prince, and an old woman on the way to the Snow Queen — unfolds as a journey deep into Gerda’s subconscious hopes and fears, blurring fantasy and reality.

This reading of the story also reflects Abrahamsen’s take on the character of the Snow Queen — whom he said he doesn’t view as a villain so much as a natural force that everyone encounters at some point in their lives, hopefully coming out on the other side with more wisdom. (Every artistic undertaking, he suggested, is a visit from the Snow Queen.)

When talking about the opera early on with Hannigan, they agreed the Snow Queen wouldn’t be an “agitated soprano” like the Queen of the Night from Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.” Maybe, to put it in “Magic Flute” terms, she would be like the high priest Sarastro, and would thus make sense sung by a mellow bass (in Munich, Peter Rose).

So it was clear from the start that Hannigan wouldn’t be playing the title character. But Abrahamsen did want to give her the biggest role, especially after their collaboration on “let me tell you,” which traveled the world and won ovations, critical acclaim and the prestigious Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition, in 2016. The Bavarian State Opera wanted to work with her again, too; she had starred in Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s “Die Soldaten” there in 2014, in another production by Kriegenburg.

“She is what Wagner calls the Gesamtkunstwerk,” Nikolaus Bachler, the company’s director, said in an interview. “I wouldn’t say Barbara Hannigan is a soprano singer. She’s everything.”

Hannigan’s career has become synonymous with fearless repertoire choices and countless premieres. (Even as she prepares “The Snow Queen,” work is underway on another opera for her: a new version of “Salome” by Gerald Barry, planned for next year.) When she met Abrahamsen before he wrote “let me tell you,” they sat for several hours and discussed the history of vocal music, from Monteverdi to Mahler. She felt like it was “a meeting of souls.”

Then they barely spoke again until Hannigan received the score. She was in a hotel in London, and opened it on her bed. Tears started falling from her eyes. “I never cry when I look at a score,” she said. “But I felt like I was looking at myself in a way that I’d never seen before.”

Abrahamsen said he had wanted to write an opera since the 1980s. But it was only after “let me tell you” that he felt ready to fulfill a commission from Royal Danish Opera. Although “The Snow Queen” was written with Hannigan in mind — and although Abrahamsen had wanted the libretto to be in English — that company insisted on it being in Danish. But the language, Abrahamsen said, is difficult to sing, with “words in the back of the mouth, and the vowels very near each other.”

Hannigan wasn’t comfortable with the prospect. “If I join a Danish production, there’s going to be so much focus on whether I can sing in Danish or not,” she remembered thinking. “It would be distracting.” Sofie Elkjaer Jensen ended up singing Gerda for the premiere, in October.

When Bachler got word of the opera’s development (and language issues), he offered for the Bavarian State Opera to produce an English-language premiere, with Hannigan back in the starring role. And now, for the past month, the company’s musicians have been easing into the difficult world of Abrahamsen’s music — what Hannigan called “a beautiful struggle.”

The coming premiere has set off a miniature Abrahamsen festival around town. Recently, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Franz Welser-Mst, presented Abrahamsen’s left-hand piano concerto, “Left Alone,” with Alexandre Tharaud. And the opera company hosted a concert featuring early Abrahamsen solos at the Deutsches Museum’s collection devoted to antique transportation.

“His music is really difficult to play,” Welser-Mst said, “but he knows how orchestra colors work. And the stillness in his music, I find extremely powerful. I can’t think of anyone else who so interestingly captures quote-unquote silence. It’s quiet, with substance.”

Most challenging in Abrahamsen’s music is the rhythm. In “Left Alone,” the tempo oscillates from measure to measure between two speeds that are nearly the same. On the page, the directions seem comically controlling. But if they’re ignored, the piece doesn’t work.

“You have to pay an enormous amount of attention to detail,” Welser-Mst said, “and then all of the sudden his music starts to flourish.”

In “The Snow Queen,” singers and instrumentalists are given hyperspecific tempos and time signatures, as well as ratios that indicate each part’s meter compared with the rest of the orchestra. At times, the score calls for two conductors.

“I have learned a new Danish word,” Cornelius Meister, who is leading the Bavarian State Opera production, joked. “‘Meget svrt’: very difficult.”

But the complex architecture belies the score’s beauty: The vocal and orchestral writing, as inextricable as Gerda and Kay, unfurls with deceptively cool simplicity and lyrical warmth. Some ornamentation recalls early music, especially an almost stuttering vibrato style that’s also present in “let me tell you.”

Here, that type of vibrato sounds like shivering in the snow. Abrahamsen said he had been experimenting with the effect since before even “Schnee,” he said. He described it as “a friction” that comes from his body: He was born with cerebral palsy and walks with a limp, relying heavily on his left side.

“In my right side, I have this tension all the time,” he said. “So if I have to do something, I have to move very slowly, and then I feel the tension in myself. And then of course when I do it very slowly, gradually it becomes a long note.”

Satisfied with how that ornamentation — and other hallmarks of Abrahamsen’s style — have scaled to the level of opera in “The Snow Queen,” he is already considering another project. “Frozen 2” has been a huge box office hit so far; could there be another snow-themed opera on the way?

“I have sketches,” Abrahamsen said, preferring to keep more details to himself for now. “But I’m not finished with opera.”

2019 The New York Times Company

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