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Luka Venter
on their new chamber opera Lanternfish

Luka Venter on their new chamber opera Lanternfish

Composer Luka Venter had their new chamber opera Lanternfish premiered in London in July as part of the Guildhall School's 'Opera Makers' programme. The opera has since garnered interest from further afield, including proposals for the creation of a film of the opera. SOUNZ caught up with Luka to find out more about Lanternfish.

Can you tell us about the initiative that helped this opera come into being?

As part of my MA that I've just finished at the Guildhall (the MA in Opera Making and Writing) you get put through a proper professional pitching process, where my collaborator/librettist and I developed three separate premises for a new chamber opera and a panel of industry leaders and Guildhall staff green-lit the premise that became Lanternfish, which the Guildhall then commissioned as part of my practice-based MA. It's all set up to give us a real taste of the profession, and despite being for our programme, it's not a given that they'll greenlit a pitch! 

Credit: Opera Makers

It was an article that planted the seed for this opera - can you tell us a bit about that and how it inspired the concept behind your creation?

Absolutely. The very first contact we had with the material that we eventually developed into the chamber opera was an article in the Guardian by the wonderful marine biologist and writer Helen Scales; an extract from her book The Brilliant Abyssthat focussed specifically on lanternfish. On a primal level, my librettist David Bottomley and I were struck by the images in the article, and in particular, one of a scintillating shoal of lanternfish against the black backdrop of the deep sea.

I'm a deeply visual composer, and for me the latter image immediately sparked a sonic idea of scintillating, skittering patterns of sound, which then part to reveal the voice of a solo singer. We pried this idea apart and quite quickly developed a rough narrative for what became our opera, in which a marine biologist is processing her grief at the loss of her partner in a diving accident. For us the titular shoals of lanternfish took on a semi-spiritual, heightened quality, and even from our earliest discussions about the work, we felt the two worlds of the bioluminescent deep and the human world on a research vessel offered us incredibly interesting (and useful) possibilities for contrast between the concrete human world and the more poetic, metaphysical world of the deep sea.

Credit: Opera Makers

You even worked with a team of marine biologists from the British Antarctic Survey during the process of composing this work. How did this influence the narrative of the opera and also the musical composition itself?

Yes, this was fascinating! While in the initial stages of creating the work we began a conversation with BAS and with Jennifer Freer in particular. We had long conversations about myctophids (lanternfish), the ecosystems they form part of, their crucial role in carbon sequestration, and crucially, had many interesting conversations about balancing act of safeguarding these ecosystems and also working collaboratively with commercial fisheries to explore safe and ecologically sound ways of managing the ocean's resources.

In terms of our narrative, these conversations with the team at BAS clarified and reinforced our desire to connect our central character's experience of her own personal grief into a broader theme of ecological grief, with each pressing on the other. We were very interested in creating a piece that explored the messy process of grieving and acceptance, and also the messy entanglement of human 'progress' and environmental degradation, but in a way that wasn't moralistic or black and white.

Musically, our conversations with BAS were fascinating, because I came with such an exhaustive list of questions about lanternfish ("How do they move?" "Are there observable patterns or rhythms in how they communicate with their bioluminescence" etc.) only to repeatedly be told that they're still really mysterious and difficult to observe; partially because their incredible delicacy means they often disintegrate when they come into contact with anything firm. The changeability of their movements, and their intense delicacy made its way into the instrumental writing which often has a strangely disembodied character with skittering lines of activity. Their bioluminescence also played a crucial role in determining the unique colour of this chamber opera, which often ripples with string harmonics and a pulsating bass flute.

Luka Venter - Lanternfish - Scene 7

The most striking interconnection between our narrative, the science of myctophids, and the eventual musical language, is the crucial importance of breath in each of these. Our central character is going through quite a confronting experience and resultantly, her the intensity and velocity of her breath rises and falls in conjunction with the narrative, but scientifically, lanternfish undergo a colossal daily migration up from the deep sea towards the surface, where they feed at night, before descending again, and the means by which they rise and descend through these great stretches of water is their respiration, their intake and release of oxygen. The parallel between their rising and falling and our central character's own breath rising and falling created a beautiful poetic link between the two, but also became a crucial musical device, with the music often woven together from these wave-like structures, with this sense of breath amplified by the flute, clarinet, and the horn.

Otherwise, there are little compositional/scientific easter eggs dotted throughout the score. At one point there's actually a transcription of a recording of a pulsing hydrothermal vent in the instrumental writing. One plan for a future revision is to incorporate more electronics into the score, which will subtly magnify some of these strange, poetic, and beguiling deep sea sounds in order to reinforce the somewhat ambiguous porousness in our narrative between the human and oceanic worlds.

Credit: Opera Makers

Environmental concerns are thematic throughout current contemporary composition. What role do you think contemporary composition, or more broadly art, has to play in raising awareness of and addressing climate issues?

I think this is a very subjective question, and depends on the work one's making and on the person one is. My own view is that contemporary music, with its teeming expressive possibilities can be an extremely strong vehicle for work about the environment, and I think this is heightened when we step into interdisciplinary work (e.g. with film, or in a form such as as opera), but that being said, I think we have a responsibility as artists to really scrutinise our materials and our aims when making work about this issue to make sure that what we're contributing to the creative discussion is rigorous and inspiring, so that it provokes discussion instead of just being an artistic product that can be consumed.

A work that I keep coming back to is Amitav Ghosh's The Great Derangement, which explores many things pertaining to the climate crisis, including its inextricability from colonialism. But one of the things Ghosh suggests is that the climate crisis is the defining, crucial struggle of our times, and passionately questions why, with the severity of its impacts and the urgent need to curb emissions etc., why isn't our media reflecting this overwhelming urgency. Why isn't every novel, every film, responding to this crisis and calling attention to it or in some way about it?

At any rate, I'm thrilled that with this chamber opera, its environmental concerns are also embedded into its narrative, and on quite a deep level it explores the utter inextricability of our species from our environment. So for us it wasn't just a hot button topic we wanted to weave in, which done wrong I feel can be desensitising instead of necessarily galvanising some kind of critical and emotional engagement with the issue at hand, but instead, these environmental concerns are fundamental to the piece on a deep conceptual level, as well as on the surface of what our characters think, feel, and verbalise.

I think this is such an interesting discussion with opera in particular, because its supporters can often be the most reactive and conservative about, for instance, directors heightening certain political themes in new productions, but in fact opera is and always has been an intensely political form, from Mozart to Verdi, to the operas of Luigi Nono and many others. I think it's an ideal subset of music for exploring important issues, because it's an intensely direct form where the sung voice literally penetrates your body, and so you have the potential for this intense sense of expression with voices and instruments, which can then heighten, counterbalance, or reinforce some deeply human but also deeply political concerns.

My own hope is to create work that imparts a sense of the intense beauty of the natural world, and thereby create work that relishes in the intense beauty of sound as a natural phenomenon, but I also then aim to be lucid and rigorous with how my work engages with the political and environmental issues I'm engaging with. My aim is to develop my material in such a way that its musical and conceptual logic connects into the broader environmental or political concerns of my work. Certainly the case with my orchestral piece Primeval Light and definitely the case here with the chamber opera.

Credit: Opera Makers

Are there any plans for future stagings of Lanternfish? 

Essentially immediately after the première of LanternfishI went into a very busy stretch of conducting over here in London, which I think has offered me a healthy period of considering what works and what perhaps doesn't in the its current form (bearing in mind the timeframe of our commission for the work was intensely compressed). There are possibilities for future stagings of it as part of a festival of contemporary opera in London, but at the moment we're exploring the option of just continuing to develop and expand the piece a bit.

In particular, there are some human relationships within the opera we're interested in deepening, and I'm interested in recomposing a few sections of the work, re-jigging its structure somewhat, and have been sketching material for a few purely instrumental sections I'd like to add, which I think could frame the narrative in a more suggestive way, and allow the structure to breathe a bit more dynamically.

Crucially, with lanternfish predominantly populating the Southern Ocean, the piece is particularly resonant and relevant to our place in the world, and so my aim is lay some tracks for the opera to make its way to Aotearoa in the next few years.