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A CHORUS OF ME: OPHELIAS IN LET ME TELL YOU


This is a story about opening text up and letting light in.

let me tell you: a story about Ophelias. 


The story of this Ophelia was dreamt up by Paul Griffiths, set to music by Hans Abrahamsen, and sung by Barbara Hannigan. Shakespeare’s Ophelia, or other versions of her, have been played by young boys; cast on the silver screen as a ghost, as a folk singer, in a straitjacket; painted drifting orgasmic in gauze and moss and blossom. One of the smallest moons in the solar system was named after her. 


let me tell you’s Ophelia is retold in her own words, scored and given a voice. “In her own words” – the paradox at the heart of Griffiths’ conception: that this new Ophelia should have her own voice, yet only be able to use the words allowed her Shakespearean predecessor. Let me tell you: these are the first words she sings, and the piece’s central concept is to tell what has been left untold, so Ophelia can make herself new. 


The Ophelia we know is water. This Ophelia is glass, and then snow.


The Ophelia we know is eroded by melancholy. This Ophelia is ecstatic in hers. 


The Ophelia we know is owned. This Ophelia is her own. 


Where does this new Ophelia come from? No part of her creation can be considered in isolation, for let me tell you is a wholly collaborative work: Shakespeare-Griffiths-Abrahamsen-Hannigan, chronologically speaking. This Ophelia belongs to all of them. In his play Shakespeare gave Ophelia a mere four hundred and eighty-one words, more than four hundred years ago. Griffiths gave Ophelia a first-person novel in 2008. In 2013, Abrahamsen gave Ophelia a song cycle in seven parts. Hannigan gave – and is still giving – Ophelia her voice. Indeed, Barbara Hannigan’s interpretation cannot be separated from the piece: it was written for her, with her extensive participation, and is dedicated to her. She is its performer: time after time, she participates in this Ophelia, witnesses this Ophelia, lends her her voice.


Hannigan’s ambition and faith in the project—it was originally intended as a simple birthday surprise for Griffiths—led to a commission and premiere by the Berlin Philharmonic. In November 2015, it won the prestigious Grawemeyer Prize. The ripples of this particular expansion aren’t finished – since December 2013, it has toured in Munich, Helsinki, A Coruña, Copenhagen, Toronto, New York…


So: this is a story about retelling and repetition, about narrowing and expansion. 


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Published July 2016. Buy the issue and read the whole piece in print: http://www.musicandliterature.org/no-7