Eyes staring, mouth open, wings spread

In the middle of writing a review of Liza Lim’s The Navigator, I’ve been obsessively watching and becoming increasingly awestruck by this video of Deborah Kayser’s performance as The Angel of History. It seems only fair to share:


Many of the voice effects are achieved with the aid of a Wacky Whistle, and I love the vocalisation of the Angel as a composite animal-insect-human-divinity (which taps into so many darker, more believable, images of how angels might be). Lim and Kayser have been working together for 20-odd years now, and this is aria is a pretty remarkable State of the Union address on that relationship, something that is even more apparent when one looks at the score, which is detailed enough but only alludes to the range of nuances, allusions and effects that Kayser draws out of her part.

4 thoughts on “Eyes staring, mouth open, wings spread

  1. I remember seeing this video when Lim gave a talk some months ago and being utterly floored. It’s one of the wildest performances of contemporary vocal music I’ve ever seen.

  2. The angel of history has been sentenced to observe and report on history, unable to change the flow of the tide, so to speak. In the context of Lim’s opera, this ‘aria’ unfolds out of a procession of virtuosic solo tracts from the rest of the cast, and amplifies the notion that the opera inhabits a geography of time or history.

    Here’s Walter Benjamin’s ‘definition’ of the angel of history (courtesy of Wikipedia):

    His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

    Here’s the text (by Patricia Sykes), set for baroque mezzo-soprano, from the opera:

    the red current swells and speeds
    soon it will mouth their two feet
    in a terrible hunger
    my one wing alone
    is useless the other, trapped in
    the human storm, can free nothing
    to watch and report is my curse
    the cloth is all their care
    bathed in moon-silver, one
    shadow within another
    they go forth to eat wind
    —the eye’s ruby is witness
    to the blood it makes weep

    Sykes and Lim develop Benjamin’s (not to mention that of Paul Klee) vision into a turbulent blood-red scene in which time is capable of giving birth to something organic (in this case, arguably, the twins/lovers of the opera, The Beloved and The Navigator). The Angel of History, deprived of a wing (therefore wretched and flightless), almost vomits forth the narrative, being cursed to “watch and report”, unable to abate the “storm blowing in from Paradise”.

    The techniques employed by Lim were selected in an attempt to give the angel a multi-layered vocal quality, transmitting its anguish through folds of reality, as well as invoking the idea of the angel of history being a kind of flightless bird-human-spirit creature.

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