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Den Sidste Olie

Niels Rønsholdt

Den Sidste Olie

Katinka Fogh Vindelev, Morten Grove Frandsen, Nana Bugge Rasmussen, Richard Låås, Athelas Sinfonietta, James Sherlock

Guided by composer Niels Rønsholdt, Den Sidste Olie ('The Last Rites') is a groundbreaking chamber opera intricately woven into the Baroque tonal tapestry. It explores the historical odyssey of oil extraction, addressing the challenges of the climate crisis with musical sophistication. Set against the Danish 1721 colonization of Greenland, Rønsholdt crafts a captivating narrative reflecting on the global pursuit of exploitation, resonating with Enlightenment-era ethos.

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Nana Fransiska Schottländer & James Sherlock © Tom Ingvardsen
Total runtime: 
57 min.
Faster, higher, farther?

By Leonie Reineke

Faster, higher, farther – the relentless pursuit of maximum profit, even at the expense of resource exploitation and human lives. We are well aware that this principle has a limited shelf life. It is pushing our planet to its very limits, causing it to groan and buckle under the weight of our actions, ultimately charting a course toward self-destruction. The forecasts for the coming decades paint a bleak picture, with the current effects of rising greenhouse gas emissions already glaringly evident.

As long as we continue to turn a blind eye to these unfolding realities, the issues may seem somewhat distant, at least for those of us in the Western world. This very detachment, however, stands as a barrier to the kind of meaningful change we so desperately need. For, in truth, we have reaped the rewards of our heedless exploitation of the planet, basking in prosperity and luxury.

Yet, experts across diverse scientific disciplines are engaged in a stark reckoning of what lies ahead should we persist in business as usual. Their findings send shivers down the spine.

Likewise, composer Niels Rønsholdt’s engagement with this ambivalent subject matter is nothing short of bone-chilling – quite literally. His chamber opera, Den Sidste Olie (‘The Last Rites’), conceived for four vocalists and an ensemble, unfolds in an environment that hovers around freezing temperatures: the Østerbro Ice Skating Rink in Copenhagen. The audience, clad in winter sportswear and equipped with spiked shoes, sits in near-complete darkness right on the ice rink; arranged in a large circle, within which the music-theatrical event unfolds.


Performance artist Nana Fransiska Schottländer together with Katinka Fogh Vindelev as Power and Richard Låås as Skepticism © Tom Ingvardsen

With hands growing numb
Sitting motionless in the biting cold for almost an hour during an operatic performance, with only the faint illumination of a few candles – not even having the chance to stand up and leave without assistance, is an experience as demanding as it is awe-inspiring. It’s a state in which the theatre isn’t just observed but profoundly felt. Yet, the challenges faced by the musicians and performers are even more formidable: singing in icy temperatures and maintaining instrumental precision with hands growing numb – a hardship even for the spectators.

The quivering and shivering, the freezing of synapses and the sensed rigidity in the cold – all these phenomena resonate musically. The vocal segments of the singers predominantly comprise loops – persistent repetitions of individual words and syllables, as if a record were caught in a groove.

At the end of each sung phrase, the singers seem to falter, exhibiting a peculiar compulsive and deliberate stutter. A sense of stability in listening is provided by the harmony, which consistently remains within a traditionally major-minor tonal territory. A distant association might be drawn to the famous aria ‘What Power Art Thou’ of the Cold Genius from the Frost Scene in Henry Purcell’s opera King Arthur. In this music from 1691, arctic chords march forth so ruthlessly and shiver-inducing that mere listening causes a chill. Similarly, the sonic backdrop in Niels Rønsholdt’s Den Sidste Olie emanates an unrelenting coldness, despite the predominantly soft and rounded soundscape.

The perpetual repetitions of individual tones or two-note cells also echo in the ensemble accompaniment. Rocking motions and stuttering crescendos of chords recur at regular intervals across all instrument groups. At times, the singers are accompanied only by a piano, allowing isolated, arpeggiated chords to trickle into the darkness. The vocal lines alternate in dialogue, occasionally overlapping and converging briefly in choral moments. Thus, the sonic texture remains predominantly transparent, as if one could peer into the music’s frosty skeleton.


Morten Grove Frandsen as Ideals © Tom Ingvardsen

Engineered winter
Merely opting for an ice rink as the venue for Den Sidste Olie raises questions, regardless of the visual splendour the experience may offer. A fleeting consideration of our crisis-ridden world and our approach to resources prompts reflections like: Do we truly need places where an artificially engineered winter prevails? Is such an extravagant energy expenditure for leisure not, in essence, obscene?

Yet, it is precisely these inquiries that the composer foresaw within the disquieting setting from the outset. The composition delves into such ambiguities in our society, scrutinising resource exploitation from the colonisation of Greenland by Denmark in the 18th century and the era of whaling, to the contemporary exploitation of oil fields. Faster, higher, farther: perhaps humanity’s most treacherous impulse, one that has endured for centuries.

With this all-encompassing theme at play, the roles are kept accordingly abstract. They are not assigned specific characters but instead embody conceptual personas: Idealism, Power, Cynicism and Skepticism. In contrast, their attire offers a more tangible spectacle, resembling a fusion of Baroque attire, bird feather ensembles and sombre sci-fi outfits.

Within the overall dim setting, the vocal parts of the quartet shine all the brighter. With a line-up consisting of soprano, countertenor, mezzo-soprano and baritone, the focus primarily revolves around the higher vocal registers and bright timbres. Consequently, the quartet’s voices appear to gracefully float above the instrumental accompaniment. In terms of singing style, a recitative and declamatory approach takes centre stage, devoid of ostentatious flourishes or excessive adornments, striking a balance between otherworldliness and groundedness.


Nana Bugge Rasmussen as Cynicism © Tom Ingvardsen

Earth as a whale
The narrative of the composition commences during the Enlightenment era. The four characters bemoan a widespread shortage of lamp oil, the fuel meant to literally bring them illumination. Together, they embark on a voyage, setting sail towards the north, in hopes of encountering whales from which they could extract valuable oil. Nevertheless, their quest to obtain this precious resource turns out to be a fruitless endeavour.

In due course, a novel and significantly more radical idea takes root: Earth itself is envisioned as a whale, traversing the cosmos as if within a vast ocean. If one were to dig deep enough, it would be plausible to extract all the oil contained within this gargantuan whale. Does such an undertaking come at a price? No, that cost will be borne by others later. So much later that it won’t concern ‘us’ anymore, Idealism assures its comrades. It’s precisely when the oil is uncovered that avarice triumphs in everyone. Consequently, the group dissolves as each member seeks to claim the oil for themselves.

Niels Rønsholdt reflects, ‘At the outset, there exists a natural yearning for something essential for our survival. However, within this pursuit, there may also lie a destructive force, compelling us to become acquisitive and self-serving. We capitalise on the suffering of others. It’s interesting that we often view the Enlightenment era through a predominantly positive lens. Nevertheless, it was during this period that ideologies of growth and supremacy took shape, resulting in the devastating consequences we observe today.’

A ‘pessimistic satire of human nature’
Musically, Rønsholdt has realised his ideas in the form of a Baroque opera. However, it becomes clear after just a few bars that this form is taken to the point of absurdity: The familiar chord progressions known from recitatives, where a sound eventually resolves into the next tonic, have been transformed by Rønsholdt into a sort of endless loop. The presumed final chord of a cadence is ‘redefined’ into a new transitional step, which in turn leads to the next tonic. And the next tonic, and the next and so forth. After a while, this pattern begins to fray the listener's nerves. Yet, simultaneously, it might be the most apt metaphor for our desire for growth and expansion – always onward, as if there were no end in sight.

The unfolding of text and music in such a bizarre spiral, often characterised by repeated notes and syllables, necessarily slows the progression of the narrative. Automatically, we zoom in on every word. But this distortion and alienation of a familiar musical idiom is typical of Niels Rønsholdt’s compositional approach. The sounds maintain recognisable diatonic relationships with one another, and yet, something is amiss. The composer lends an eerie quality to his music, invoking a blend of fascination and unease when listened to.

One particularly unsettling moment in the opera is the unexpected appearance of a group of ice skaters. Suddenly, several entities, dressed entirely in black, dart onto the stage and race around the audience at a frantic pace. The visual effect is as striking and eerie as the musical quality of the event. The hissing, scraping sounds of the blades on the ice introduce an additional layer of mercilessness into the music.

Niels Rønsholdt describes his chamber opera as a ‘pessimistic satire of human nature’. In it, he doesn’t provide answers to the pressing questions of our time, but he undeniably poses them. This is evident both in his choice of theatrical elements and, more implicitly, in the music itself. He does so in such an insistent manner that while listening, it’s impossible to escape the contemplation of the ominous ambiguities of our society.

Den Sidste Olie is an experience, both scenically and musically, that etches itself into memory – much like one of the isolated candle flames in the icy air of the ice rink. These unending chord loops, coupled with the biting cold, exude a consequence often absent in our present times.

Release date: 
January 2024
Cat. No.: 
DAC-DA2015
FormatID: 
Digital album
Barcode: 
636943201510
Track count: 
18

Credits

Recorded at KoncertKirken (orchestra) on 7 September, 2022 and at Gentofte Kirke (vocals, piano, and double bass) on 15 May, 2023.

Recording producer: Torsten Jessen
Engineering, editing, mixing, and mastering: Torsten Jessen

℗ & © 2024 Dacapo Records, Copenhagen

Liner notes by Leonie Reineke

Publisher: Edition·S, www.edition-s.dk

Den Sidste Olie by Niels Rønsholdt was produced by OPE-N in collaboration with Athelas Sinfonietta Copenhagen, and presented by the Copenhagen Opera Festival. Premiered at Østerbro Skøjtehal on 25–27 August, 2022.

With support from Aarhus Kommunes Musikpulje, Dansk Solistforbund, KODA Kultur and Solistforeningen af 1921.

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