Opera inspired by young girls’ experience of September 11

26 March 2018
The Howling Girls, a new chamber opera composed by Sydney Conservatorium of Music's Dr Damien Ricketson, is inspired by the unusual medical experience of a group of young women affected by September 11.
image of woman with face covered in lipstick and with pantyhose balls over eyes

Image: Polly Borland, courtesy Murray White Room, Melbourne

The Howling Girls explores the medium and metaphor of the voice, its loss and attempted reconstitution,“ said Dr Damien Ricketson, an award-winning composer and lecturer in composition and music technology at the Conservatorium.

The world premiere of the work is presented by Carriageworks and Sydney Chamber Opera (SCO). Dr Ricketson created the work with director Adena Jacobs in collaboration with soprano Jane Sheldon.  

In the weeks following September 11, five young women presented separately to hospitals in New York with identical symptoms. They were unable to swallow and believed that debris from the destruction had lodged in their throats. The surgeon who examined them found no obstruction.

The Howling Girls investigates the way in which trauma, hysteria and heightened emotional states are inscribed upon the human voice. The music is a kind of protolanguage, an attempt to communicate in a mode beyond the rational in a sensory spectacle that bypasses the brain to work directly on the body,” said Dr Ricketson.

Drawing on emerging feminist discourse, hysteria is positioned not as a medical condition but as a cultural one: a subversive force, a space of resistance which can disrupt and undermine familiar systems. The near-wordless libretto, performed by soprano Jane Sheldon is accompanied by a chorus of teenage girls from The House That Dan Built, a music and theatre collective for women.

This world premiere celebrates this collaboration by two of Australia’s most innovative and original creative minds
Artistic Director of SCO, Jack Symonds

The highly amplified voices are augmented by an all-electronic orchestration. A major component of the immersive work is an advanced electro-acoustic realisation of a huge range of sounds created by the throat. The sound design, by Bob Scott, places the listener in a cocoon of resonance, almost like an inner ear.

Artistic Director of SCO, Jack Symonds says, “This work uses cutting-edge sound technology to create a score unlike any opera. The musical language is a wholly original blend of acoustic and electronic sound; the space will be transformed. The score is quite primal in accessing the range of sounds that we make: everything from breathing, wailing and choking to very refined singing, expressed in dizzyingly inventive solo and chorus writing.”

“This world premiere celebrates this collaboration by two of Australia’s most innovative and original creative minds: in pairing Ricketson and Jacobs we anticipate that audiences will be astonished at this sublime aural and perceptual encounter.’”

The Howling Girls is presented at Carriageworks from 28 March until 7 April.

Verity Leatherdale

Manager, Faculty Media and PR

Related articles