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Unsuk Chin interview about Alice in Wonderland opera

Unsuk Chin discusses her first opera, opening at the Munich Opera Festival on 30 June.

How did you discover Lewis Carroll’s Alice books?

I discovered Carroll’s books in South Korea, as an adult rather than as a child, before I moved to Europe. My interest was piqued when I read so much about them, especially in books about science. Most notably it was through Douglas Hofstadter’s volume, Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid: A metaphorical fugue on minds and machines in the spirit of Lewis Carroll, in which Alice played such a prominent role, that I became curious.

What makes Alice in Wonderland a universal story, with ongoing relevance?

It is amazing that people – regardless of age, education, profession or nationality – are so fascinated by it. I guess it’s because the book has so many layers - it can captivate experts and laymen, children and adults as well. That is also an artistic ideal for me.

Your opera emphasises the dreamworld of Wonderland. Why is this?

Already, when I read Alice for the first time, I was fascinated and wholly amazed because I recognized much of what I had seen in my own dreams. However, I was never fully satisfied with the beginning and the end – they were so much more conventional than the rest of Alice, which is totally surreal. I wondered if Carroll had perhaps made this concession to public taste, as otherwise the book would have been too daring for its time? I wanted the dreamworld to be the reality in my opera. So, I decided to replace the beginning and the end - with their references to everyday life - with two dream scenes.

How did you work with David Henry Hwang on reducing the text of the book?

We have used the sequence of the book quite faithfully – apart from the opening and closing scenes – though it became necessary to create a couple of additional texts. Of course it was quite a challenge to fit Alice into an operatic evening, so I’ve been very happy to work with David Henry Hwang, who is a fantastic playwright and librettist. He has the amazing ability to write texts which have instant appeal but are also profound.

Has creating your first opera raised practical performance issues, so that the vocal and orchestral writing is simpler?

Every genre has its own aura, so to speak. When writing an opera I have to write in a very different way than if writing a more abstract piece for a specialized contemporary ensemble. I think in this opera the music is much more direct and immediate than in my other pieces. However, I wouldn’t call it necessarily simpler. A foretaste to its style is given in snags&Snarls for soprano and orchestra, which is a kind of sketch for the opera.

How does your soundworld characterise the whimsical humour of the story?

I play with musical meanings through references to different styles and the parodistic musical underlining of the different characters. Deciding on voice parts is an instinctive process which is difficult to analyze. Reading the text I already had vivid aural images - ie how to depict the characters - in my mind, and it became clear that one character should be a non-singing role, being represented only through an instrument. Overall, the musical mode I am searching for is black humour.

What is the musical equivalent to ‘nonsense’ in the text, and does it have to be carefully controlled through notation?

For me, using free aleatoric approaches to describe the nonsense is not an option, as it could become too exaggerated. On the other hand, I also try to avoid providing rigid interpretations of the book  – whether psychoanalytical or otherwise. Let the story and its dialogues speak for themselves. Susan Sontag rightly deplored how “the effusion of interpretations of art today poisons our sensibilities. To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete… in order to set up a shadow world of meanings.” Rather, I am interested in the effortless and unconscious way in which Lewis Carroll expresses deep philosophical questions. Alice is not solely a matter of dreams – it is also about a clash between the different ways in which we communicate and experience reality.

Unsuk Chin
Alice in Wonderland (2005-07)
Libretto by David Henry Hwang and Unsuk Chin after Lewis Carroll (E)

Achim Freyer  Director
Kent Nagano  Conductor

Sally Matthews  Alice
Piia Komsi  Cat
Dietrich Henschel  Mad Hatter
Andrew Watts  White Rabbit/March Hare
Dame Gwyneth Jones  Queen

30 June 2007 (world premiere)
4/7 July
15/17/20/23 November
Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich

For tickets at the Bavarian State Opera, please click here

>  Further information on Work: Alice in Wonderland

Photo: © Eric Richmond/ArenaPAL

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