In 2017 I was fortunate enough to attend the world premiere of Chaya Czernowin’s third opera, Infinite Now, at Opera Vlaanderen in Ghent, Belgium. It was a remarkable experience.
The opera’s libretto is based on and amalgamates two stories: the novel Homecoming by the Chinese avant-garde writer Can Xue (born 1953), and the play FRONT by the Belgian director Luk Perceval, itself based on Erich Maria Remarque’s famous novel Im Westen nicht Neues. In Homecoming a woman returns, in darkness, to a house she believes she knows, only to find that it is now hanging over the edge of an abyss and that she is trapped. In FRONT, soldiers from the trenches of the First World War write home to their loved ones describing the unending horror and despair they are experiencing. The feminine story of a woman who has come home, only to be trapped domestically, is mirrored by the masculine story of men who have gone to war, only to find themselves trapped in a different, unchanging eternity.
At the time, I wrote that ‘Infinite Now is about entrapment, and about finding life (perhaps hope not hope, as such, but at least a compulsion to go on) in such situations’. It is a very large work, which seems occupy to an almost overwhelming extent its available space, while always seeping slowly deeper into new spaces that in turn it fills again, like lava. Its sonic scale is immense: in a step away from many of her earlier works, Czernowin composed Infinite Now in large brushstrokes, without the infinitesimal detail that characterises scores like Maim or her first opera Pnima. The soundworld is conceived on a vast scale, in every dimension; like Merzbow written at the pace of Feldman. The huge orchestra is complemented by a giant surround-sound speaker array that moves electronic and instrumental sound around the auditorium with disorienting precision.
The opera’s six acts are played without break (to a total of two and a half hours). Each one begins approximately the same, with the clanking of an iron gate, and follows approximately the same structure. Although each iteration moves stepwise away from the last while retaining something of its genetic make-up, according to a meme-like forward-progress/call-back logic. While so much remains the same, each iteration pulls us across the threshold of a new understanding: every time something is stripped away, something new is revealed. As she told me the morning after the premiere, ‘It’s like when you see a person for the first time: you know nothing about them. But you think, after I have lived with them for half a year I will know. But it’s exactly the opposite. You see them for the first time and you know everything there is to know. You live with them for half a year and you know nothing!’
There is a lot about Infinite Now – from its title upwards – that seems to suit it to our present limbo-time. That is a trivial assessment of a work that is so much more extraordinary than that (and a trivial assessment of the catastrophe that is Covid-19). Yet it is fitting – and exceedingly welcome – that the European opera live-streaming site OperaVision has just begun showing Infinite Now on its website, and via YouTube. The recording and filming are both excellent, capturing both the scale and devastating intimacy of the work, and doing a decent job of handling the complexities of the surround-sound electronics. Infinite Now will be available to view until January 2021, but I advise you to take advantage of this opportunity as soon as you can. Headphones or good speakers recommended.