Carriageworks, Sydney
March 28, 2018

The lights dim agonisingly slowly, a gradual immersion into what will become sensory deprivation levels of darkness in Bay 20 of Sydney’s Carriageworks. From this blackness the sound of amplified breathing emerges, a deliberate, stylised respiration that in the flexing time of the void allows the audience to hear every nuance of the breath, the dry, shifting harmonics of the resonant mouth-cavity and the wet sound as the singer swallows. Subsonic effects periodically filter through the electronics. The audience is engulfed in this soundscape, as if listening from inside the singer’s throat or head. The opening sequence of Sydney Chamber Opera’s The Howling Girls plunges the audience into a liminal world that evolves so slowly the slightest sonic or visual shift reverberates with unexpected power.

Sydney Chamber Opera, The Howling Girls, Howling GirlsSydney Chamber Opera’s The Howling Girls. Photo © Zan Wimberely

A collaboration between composer and former Ensemble Offspring co-artistic director Damien Ricketson and director Adena Jacobs (who last worked with Sydney Chamber Opera on Exil), The Howling Girls takes as its jumping off point an anecdote from the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks. In the weeks following the destruction of the World Trade Center, five young women presented at hospitals unable to swallow, convinced that debris from the attacks had lodged in their throats, but when they were examined, the doctors found no obstructions.

But the dreamlike world of Ricketson and Jacobs’ opera, which has no libretto, is more a deeply felt response to ideas of trauma, powerlessness, grief and communication, than straight story-telling, though there is an arc that builds slowly throughout the piece through both the evolution of vocal sound and Jacobs’ visceral staging.

Shapes emerge so subtly from the darkness, under the virtuosic ministrations of Jenny Hector’s lighting design, in tandem with a spare but cleverly crafted set, that it’s difficult to tell what is real and what is simply the mind playing tricks as it tries to impose order. So much of the power of these early moments comes from this uncertainty, Jacobs offering a glimpse into the unknowable.

Howling Girls, Sydney Chamber OperaJane Sheldon in Sydney Chamber Opera’s The Howling Girls. Photo © Zan Wimberely

Soprano Jane Sheldon, a fearless exponent of new music and a long-time Sydney Chamber Opera collaborator, provides the voice that emerges from the darkness, growing from breath to vocalisation in a slow-burn that moves through rasping tones to drone-like, ritualistic incantations – the voice engaged in both the inhalations and exhalations, leaving little room for silence – and ultimately to her trademark shimmering bell-like timbre. This opera is no mean vocal feat and Sheldon’s “choking cadenza”, a brutal interruption to the broader arc, is a strange and affecting moment.

Sheldon is joined by a chorus of young women from The House That Dan Built, who beautifully halo or augment her sound – though this musical relationship is far from simple – throbbing voices mingling with Ricketson’s electronics (crafted in collaboration with sound designer Bob Scott) and Jack Symonds’ theremin, which weaves seamlessly into the vocal tapestry. Sparingly used drums, cymbals and Aztec death whistles add further colour to the building sound world.

As The Howling Girls evolves it plumbs ideas of ceremony, ritual, and language, with touches of horror, science fiction and even a hint of Japanese Noh Theatre emerging as it takes the audience on an often surprising journey. But as surreal, wraith-like effects coalesce into something more tangible, the work loses some of its magic, building to what might be catharsis or transcendence. Ultimately it is the immersive mystery of the long opening sequence that lingers in the mind, like some vivid but half-remembered nightmare.

Sydney Chamber Opera’s The Howling Girls is at Carriageworks until April 7