A new bird opera takes flight in the Dolomites

Hylozoic/Desires’ new artwork features the Arctic Tern as its winged protagonist.

by Rosalyn D`MelloPublished on : May 31, 2022

Mid-way through Hylozoic/Desires’ bird opera, I propped my three-month-old onto the light blanket I had laid on the grass. We were facing the music. The conductor, David Soin Tappeser, who was dressed in a fluttering yellow block-printed cotton kurta-like costume and a stunning blue-sequinned head piece, had his back to us. Two voices, that of Himali Singh Soin and Cairo Clarke, performed the libretto—an echoic trailing of the Arctic Tern, a bird with the distinction of being the only creature to make the longest migration, from the Arctic to the Antarctic and back. The opera embraced this bird’s-eye-perspective, imagining its witnessing of the horizon while embodying within its narrative the poet, Himali Singh Soin’s own memories and perspectives. Hylozoic/Desires comprises Himali Singh Soin and David Soin Tappeser. As I played with my child, I imagined him glimpsing, for the first time, the Dolomites, coral reefs that gradually became mountains. The ground upon which his head was nestled was perhaps once an ocean bed. It was during the folding of the Alps that the Dolomites were lifted up. As I inhabited my twin-consciousness as a writer and mother, I dwelled on the anti-speciesist undertones of the opera. I was reminded of a travel story by birder-writer Jonathan Franzen I had read years ago in The New Yorker, an account of a three-week Lindblad National Geographic expedition to Antarctica, South Georgia island, and the Falklands, thanks to an inheritance from a relative. He had described the thrill of sighting an Emperor Penguin. “It’s true,” he writes, towards the end of his account, “that the most effective single action that most human beings can take, not only to combat climate change but to preserve a world of biodiversity, is to not have children.” It had sounded, even back then, in 2016, like an anti-natalist perspective, conflating human speciesism with female reproductive agency. But he was attempting, in fact, to make a point, “that penguins, in their resemblance to children, offer the most promising bridge to a better way of thinking about species endangered by the human logic.” He then concedes—“And yet to imagine a world without young people is to imagine living on a Lindblad ship forever.”

As the wind instruments and the libretto took turns punctuating each other’s line-breaks, half-thoughts and alliterative silences, it seemed obvious to me that Himali’s approach was the infinitely more empathic one. Franzen’s gaze throughout his expedition account feels systematically informed by the White (M)anthropocene. Himali’s poem, on the other hand, and the opera as an art work, is invested in the aesthetic conventions of the feminist counter-apocalypse, locating itself within a system of relations. Her point of arrival and departure was Farid ud-Din Attar’s 1177 poem, Conference of the Birds, which is infused with a Sufi worldview. “The home we seek is in eternity;/ The Truth we seek is like a shoreless sea,/ Of which your paradise is but a drop./ This ocean can be yours; why should you stop/ Beguiled by dreams of evanescent dew?/ Which matters more, the body or the soul?/ Be whole: desire and journey to the Whole.” She told me later that the opera, titled “an omniscience: an atmos-etheric, transnational, interplanetary cosmist bird opera spanning seven continents and the many verses,” is a continuation of her polar research. The piece, which she began writing last May, was conceived to be an epic opera performance on a fjord in Norway as part of a show about the Atlantic Ocean. “The pandemic came in the way, and we felt even more compelled to do it, given the isolationism of the past years, the state of the lives of migrants, and the state of performance itself. David and I very much identify with the life of the bird, constantly on a move, and think about transnationalism a lot as a missing part of the intersectional puzzle,” she said in a Whatsapp text. “I wrote the proposal looking out at the thin, brooding sparrows of New Delhi.”

David Soin Tappeser composed and conducted the music for the opera, “an omniscience: an atmos-etheric, transnational, interplanetary cosmist bird opera spanning seven continents and the many verses.”|Tiberio Sorvillo| STIRworld
David Soin Tappeser composed and conducted the music for the opera, “an omniscience: an atmos-etheric, transnational, interplanetary cosmist bird opera spanning seven continents and the many verses” Image: Tiberio Sorvillo; Courtesy of Biennale Gherdëina

During the first lockdown of the pandemic, Himali and I would have seen the same brooding sparrows. We were neighbours in East of Kailash, New Delhi. In the first week of June 2020, I unintentionally migrated to the Italian Alps to settle into what would become my marital Heimat. Himali would go on to spend three lockdowns in Delhi. Seeing her emerge from behind trees in my neck of the woods with her accompanying musicians and partner, David, all dressed in recognisably Indian fabric with wing-like arms, wearing bird-beaks and exaggerated make-up, felt oddly like a homecoming. The performance was part of the series of events marking the opening of the 2022 edition of Biennale Gherdëina, taking place in Val Gardena/Gröden, in the Dolomites, titled Persones Persons, and curated by Lucia Pietroiusti and Filipa Ramos, who locate personhood across more-than-human species. “Dialoguing with the Alpine valleys, mountains and skies of Ladinia and celebrating the multitude of living forms—human, animal, vegal, mineral, mycological persons—that populate them, the stories of Persones Persons are told in many manners. Through exhibitions, encounters, performances, songs, storytelling, books and other streams of exchange. And in many languages too: English and Ladinia’s idioms: Ladin, Italian, German,” they write. “The Biennale also follows the ancient and future memories of pathways of people, animals, plants, narratives and matter across systems of migration, seasonal movement and transhumance, in the region and resonating landscapes. We look at how these lines were shaped by these movements and defined these fluxes through reciprocal processes of influence and attunement.”

The Dolomites were the backdrop against which the opera “an omniscience: an atmos-etheric, transnational, interplanetary cosmist bird opera spanning seven continents and the many verses” was performed|Tiberio Sorvillo| STIRworld
The Dolomites were the backdrop against which the opera “an omniscience: an atmos-etheric, transnational, interplanetary cosmist bird opera spanning seven continents and the many verses” was performed Image: Tiberio Sorvillo; Courtesy of Biennale Gherdëina
Recorded in 2017, Himali Singh Soin reflects on her then-recent travels to the Artic Circle while walking us through her sunlit live-work space in London. In her own words, Himali talks about "using metaphors of the natural environment, as well as cosmic interstellar imagery to think about alienation, to think about culture, flight, nativity, migration, decolonisation". At the end we are treated with a reading of one of her poems Image: Courtesy of Material Girls

an omniscience… has seven movements that, while seamless-seeming, theoretically encompass a range of perspectives, beginning with ‘The Bird’s Eye View’ and ending with, ‘The Collective Movement.’ The two “voices” are located on opposite ends of the musicians, so that their vocalisation sounds like both a call and response as well as an echo, conjoined by the force of wind. In the booklet that was distributed to audience members, the two vocal parts occupy two ends of the page, thus centring, stylistically, both left and right margins. Because I was also playing with my infant while listening, instead of following the poem textually, I heard its various intonations without any sense of anticipating the next word, which is the best way to listen to poetry. Each line felt like a statement that had been arrived upon, thus endowed with a poetic urgency. Syntactically playful, yet visually and metaphorically dense, the poem is animated by a force that is generous in spirit, while also being rooted in intersectional feminist theory, which comes through most vociferously in the final section that advocates collectivity. Its performance within the landscape of the Dolomites reminded me of yet another beautiful artwork presented in book form, a wondertale by Futurefarmers, Livia Cahn, Amy Franceschini and Lode Vranken, titled The Chestnut, the Sea Urchin & the Tuning of the Bells, which I had the honour to edit and proofread. It’s launch took place at Hotel Amazonas, following a hike through a chestnut forest. As I journeyed through the bird opera’s suggestions about gravity, pausing over delicate lines such as

‘If movement is stillness over time
Then wind is what happens when air begins to breathe’

The opera, “an omniscience: an atmos-etheric, transnational, interplanetary cosmist bird opera spanning seven continents and the many verses,” performed at Biennale Gherdëina|Tiberio Sorvillo| STIRworld
The opera, “an omniscience: an atmos-etheric, transnational, interplanetary cosmist bird opera spanning seven continents and the many verses,” performed at Biennale Gherdëina Image: Tiberio Sorvillo; Courtesy of Biennale Gherdëina

I thought about the notion of feminising gravity. In The Chestnut… Gravity is depicted as a bearded lady, who, in the Alps, is called Donna Barbuta. “She always walks around backwards,/ on her elbows, since her feet are so light. / Other times, she walks upside down,/ on the strings of her beard,/ like the sea urchins and chestnuts do. / Everywhere she goes/ things start to fall/ -(in place).” I wondered if one could theorise about the feminisation of gravity, its appropriation within feminist discourse as a source of exception, as the opposite of its original Latin, meaning gravitas. For that is what the Arctic Tern in the bird opera and Donna Barbuta in The Chestnut… have in common, a celebration of flight and magnetism. The opera ends with these lines,

The feeling of--
We will be able to name it again
This exception to gravity.
The music.                
The music.

The opera, “The opera, “an omniscience: an atmos-etheric, transnational, interplanetary cosmist bird opera spanning seven continents and the many verses,” performed at Biennale Gherdëina|Tiberio Sorvillo| STIRworld
The opera, “an omniscience: an atmos-etheric, transnational, interplanetary cosmist bird opera spanning seven continents and the many verses,” performed at Biennale Gherdëina Image: Tiberio Sorvillo; Courtesy of Biennale Gherdëina

Which takes me back to Simone Weil’s posthumously published book, Gravity & Grace, which was resurrected into feminist scholarship through Chris Kraus’ explorations of her eponymously titled ‘failed’ film, the subject of her auto-fiction works, I Love Dick and Aliens and Anorexia. Weil equates gravity with baseness. “Gravity makes things come down, wings make them rise: what wings raised to the second power can make things come down without weight? Creation is composed of the descending movement of gravity, the ascending movement of grace and the descending movement of the second degree of grace. Grace is the law of the descending movement.”

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official position of STIR or its Editors.)

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