The opera house in Gothenburg, on the rocky west coast of Sweden, sits docked like a galleon in the harbour.
On its facade, a banner advertises cheer for the impending long, dark Scandinavian winter: Gershwin’s Crazy for You, billed as “en feel-good Musikal”. But the company’s most important current project – a new opera based on Alfred Hitchcock’s 1946 thriller Notorious – is more likely to perturb, frighten and creepily excite its audiences (which is another way of making them feel good). Notorious was composed by Hans Gefors for Nina Stemme, whom he describes as “our great Swedish dramatic soprano”, acclaimed everywhere for her blazing performances as Wagner’s superwomen. Coincidentally, the opera commemorates another national heroine: the Hitchcock film starred Ingrid Bergman, whose centenary it is this year, so her ghost too has been on the prowl in the theatre, where Gershwin’s spangled tap dancers collide in the corridors with the cast of solidly built and funereally attired Wagnerian singers cast in Keith Warner’s production.
Hitchcock’s title refers to the loose-living Alicia (Bergman), whose father is a convicted Nazi spy. Under the influence of the American agent Devlin (Cary Grant), she makes amends for his crimes by agreeing to infiltrate the Brazilian lair of some German scientists who are working on an atom bomb, and as proof of her commitment to the mission, she marries their leader, Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains). Devlin, by now in love with her, is disgusted; so is Alex’s domineering mother, played by the glacial Leopoldine Konstantin – imagine Mrs Bates from Psycho in her pre-mummified state. When Alicia’s deception is discovered, Alex and his mother slowly poison her. Devlin overcomes his jealous rage and miraculously rescues her, and the Nazis turn on the duped Alex as his mother gasps in dismay.
Assigning voices to Hitchcock’s quartet was easy for Gefors, a gnomic fellow whose previous operas include one that is written to be heard on a car radio. Stemme is Alicia, armed with a fusillade of the B flats that are the heroic soprano’s money notes; mezzo-soprano Katerina Karnéus is Madame Sebastian, whom she describes with relish as “a coloratura bitch”; baritone John Lundgren plays Devlin; and the heroic tenor Michael Weinius is Alex. A more pressing concern, said Gefors, was how to justify the adaptation. “I did not wish to write film music,” he said. “People joke that I am competing against Bernard Herrmann, but his music for Hitchcock’s films lasts for only as long it takes to stab a woman in the shower; in opera, music is continuous, it must provoke a drama and sustain it for two and a half hours.”
Producing his phone, he played me excerpts, which he called “opera minus one”: the orchestral score of Notorious as synthesised by his computer – explosively powerful in parts, yet ravishing in its sensuality when it responds to the Brazilian setting, and above all unsettling, especially with the intrusion near the end of a musical saw, which howls like the theremin that Hollywood composers once used to express extremes of nervous distress.
Gefors and his librettist Kerstin Perski felt the need to go beyond or behind Hitchcock. “In opera the emotions are so strong, the stakes had to be higher than in the film,” said Perski. “I am always asking ‘Why do they sing?’ To start with, I needed a different motivation for Alicia. I didn’t like the gender roles in the film – the way the men are always criticising her morals and keeping her in subjection – so I made her father much more of a presence: he is the authority from which she must liberate herself.” Stemme achieves that freedom in the violent opening moments, when in defying her father she outsings the full orchestra – a homage by Gefors to the initial scene between Wotan and Brünnhilde in Wagner’s Die Walküre, with the valiant soprano impelled at once into delivering an uproarious battle cry.
Perski also had doubts about what Hitchcock called “the MacGuffin”, a jokey plot device such as the wine bottle in Notorious that contains uranium ore. “In opera we can’t have MacGuffins; the danger has to be real.” She has given Devlin a desolate aria about the nihilistic prospect of nuclear war, unimaginable when Hitchcock made the film in the mid 1940s. Thanks to such additions, the action becomes metaphysical, a combat between devils – which is what Perski’s Alicia calls Devlin – and irreligious angels, such as Alex’s “mystical Alicia”, who, as in Wagner’s Ring, are fighting about the fate of the world. Hitchcock enjoyed torturing the characters in Notorious, but in the opera their moral trials seem closer to tragedy than to the thriller’s playful sadism, and there is no replica of the film’s happy ending.
“Movies are naturalistic,” said Gefors, “but that is just what life looks like on the outside. Music takes you into the mind. Hitchcock told Truffaut that he varied the size of the image for emotional reasons: I do the same when writing arias, which are opera’s equivalent to closeups. Music lets you listen to the stream of consciousness – all our obsessions and secret thoughts.” Alex’s mother, for instance, blurts out her hatred of Alicia in a series of obscene neologisms, prudently blurred by the dizzy coloratura that Karnéus sings. Perski’s verbal inventions may eventually enrich the urban dictionary; they’re certainly remote from opera’s customary la-di-da diction. “Meatcunt,” shrills the hellish matriarch, then “Fuckluck”, “Skunktart” and other such endearments.
“We decided that Madame Sebastian was suffering from Tourette syndrome,” said Perski, grimly chuckling. “First Hans wanted her to curse in macaronic Latin, but for me that made no sense emotionally. Her words are foul, but they are nonsensical, almost like baby talk, which makes them even nastier.” Another poetic inspiration in the libretto had grubby prosaic origins. Perski laughed when I complimented her on a sultry chorus about the fireflies in Rio de Janeiro. “That was suggested by a plague of moths in some flour I had at home! My kitchen and pantry had to be fumigated, so I have the moths to thank for that lyrical image.”
Perski had been pondering an essay by the Slovenian Marxist savant Slavoj Žižek, who refers to certain Hitchcock images, like the key to the cellar door that is a recurring emblem in Notorious, as “the ontological entrance points to the nether world”. “I wanted to do the same with those four-letter words,” she said. ‘They open into the ugliness in Madame Sebastian’s head.”
Gefors, equally intrigued by Žižek’s formulation, said “If you really get involved in an opera, you have the experience of being led into somewhere that is underground, a sort of underworld.” For that reason, a scene in the film when the characters meet during a day at the races has been changed to a night at the opera, where they attend a performance of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice – a scene in which Warner’s otherwise monochrome production will suddenly flare into a zany carnival of colour.
Opera, for Perski, always requires “some mythic resonance”, and Gefors pointed out that the story of Orpheus – the divinely endowed singer whose voice placates the Furies and persuades them to release his beloved – is “the super-myth of opera”. Gefors has re-orchestrated Gluck, making the Furies who at first debar Orfeo sound hair-raisingly malevolent. When I heard the passage, I remarked that Gluck’s demons sound like pussycats in comparison. “Yes,” said Gefors, “my Furies are lions!” The quotations from Orfeo suggest that Notorious is another retelling of the myth – though it remains unclear whether the operatic Devlin is able to resurrect Alicia, or even whether she wants to be saved from death.
Warner encouraged Perski to explore this mythic substratum, and he found something similarly archetypal in the figure of Madame Sebastian. At the end, this castrating monster delivers Alex up to certain death in her own domestic underworld: Karnéus sang for me the terrifying phrase in which, lunging into an octave drop, she orders “Take him to the basement!” “It’s like The Bacchae,” said Warner, “when the Dionysian women tear Pentheus to pieces. The opera begins with Alicia sacrificing her father - she rejoices when she hears he has been executed – and it ends with Madame Sebastian sacrificing her son to the Nazi fatherland.”
Warner has added what Perski calls a “meta-text”, introducing allusions to Hitchcock’s manipulative, infatuated relationship with Bergman. “Hitch the director wanted to control his actors, to punish them for being sexy, and we’re making connections to the way that Alicia is bullied by her father and all the other men in the opera. We’ve even given Hitch a walk-on in the opera, like those momentary appearances he made in his films.” Warner had his own precocious brush with Bergman: as a schoolboy he attended a matinee of a Shaw play in which she was appearing in London, went to the stage door to beg an autograph, and was invited up to her dressing room, where – in a hair net, behind a mask of gooey white facial cream – she made him tea on a primus stove. “I told her I wanted to be a director, and I remember her saying ‘Ah, like Mr Hitchcock!’” I asked if Warner, rotund and jolly, might be volunteering for Hitchcock’s cameo in the opera. “No,” he said, “but maybe that’s why they hired me to direct Notorious – because I look like him in profile!’
At the end of a long rehearsal, I caught up with Stemme, who was urgently imbibing a glass of lemonade. “My brain needs sugar,” she explained. “It’s a big, big sing: I’m in 20 out of 22 scenes, and so far I have eight costume changes.” When I suggested that Alicia was the real traitor in the piece because she betrays the adoring Alex, she considered the point, debated it, then agreed. She let slip that she too had been reading Žižek’s riddling tract on Hitchcock’s ontology. “I love exploring the dramatic possibilities in this piece. On stage we are free, unlike poor Miss Bergman who was edited by Hitchcock. And we have the chance to indulge these enormous emotions with the orchestra, when you just open your mouth and go for it.”
• Notorious is at Göteborg Opera from 19 September. en.opera.se.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010