The origin of the opera

Selfie vor dem Nationaltheater: Miroslav Srnka und Tom Holloway

Miroslav Srnka and Tom Holloway first met when they were working on Srnka's first full-length opera Make No Noise. This commissioned work was premiered in June 2011 in the Bayerische Staatsoper's "Pavillon 21". The successful premiere was followed by the offer from Nikolaus Bachler: a major opera for the National Theatre. South Pole was planned during the time that Kirill Petrenko was appointed as General Music Director of the Bayerische Staatsoper. For him, it was quite natural to commit himself personally to the project. When he was still Principle Conductor in Meiningen, he had encouraged young composers and commissioned new orchestral works. South Pole is - after Zimmermann's Die Soldaten in May 2014 and Berg's Lulu exactly a year later - the third musical theatre work from the 20th/21st century to be conducted by him in Munich.

It took months for Srnka and Holloway to find the topic for the opera; many different themes were discussed by the two artists, and a small selection was submitted to the General Manager. After over a year, it was agreed: The theme of the opera would be the discovery of the South Pole by the simultaneous expeditions undertaken by two competing teams in the years 1910 to 1912, which ended in victory for one team and death for the other.

In the following years, Srnka and Holloway worked on the opera separately in geographical terms (Srnka in Prague, Holloway in Melbourne), but were in constant contact via e-mail and Skype. Once the plot and the libretto had been completed, they still needed to come up with a title. This was finally decided at the beginning of 2015: The new piece was called, quite simply, South Pole. Eventually, a good four years after the first inquiry from the General Manager, Miroslav Srnka wrote the last notes of his score in the autumn of 2015.


The plot of "South Pole"

Roald Amundsen und Falcon Robert Scott (Fotos: Treasures of the NOAA Library Collection  Photographer: Archival Photograph by Mr. Steve Nicklas, NOS, NGS / Herbert Ponting; Pennell Collection, Canterbury Museum, Christchurch, New Zealand

The opera tells of the simultaneous expeditions to the South Pole undertaken by two competing teams: the British, led by Robert Scott, and the Norwegian, led by Roald Amundsen. The plot of the libretto created by Tom Holloway in close coordination with the composer follows the historical facts: Robert Scott prepared his expedition with the full involvement of the public. It was a combined scientific and "sporting" undertaking - along with collecting geological and geographical information, it was important that Englishmen should be the first to reach the South Pole.
Roald Amundsen, on the other hand, planned his journey in secret: He pretended that he was setting off to the North Pole, but actually he was only concerned about setting the record of being the first person to reach the South Pole. Thanks to a combination of many factors, Amundsen and his team reached the goal of the expedition a month before Scott. Scott and his four companions arrived too late and died in a snowstorm on the way back.

The opera's action begins with the telegram that Amundsen had sent to Scott, and with which he started off the competition. The tale is of a journey by two groups which is told partly in parallel, partly consecutively: a sort of "double opera", whose strands are synchronised to start and which then gradually develop away from each other. The arrival of the two teams in Antarctica, the setting up of the base camps and depots for the expeditions, their period of holding out during the Antarctic winter and the various ways in which they passed their time, the setbacks and discussions within the teams are stages within the plot in the first part.
In the second part, during which the South Pole is reached, the women whom the expedition leaders have left behind (Tara Erraught as Kathleen Scott and Mojca Erdmann as the "Landlady", Amundsen's lover) appear as visions. Whilst Amundsen and his team triumph, Scott and his companions gradually freeze to death in a powerful snowstorm.

The opera aims to tell what lies between the lines of the documents that survived the expeditions. Their diaries probably did not always tell what actually happened: Both men had kept records with a view to posterity, and Scott's diaries were ultimately written in the knowledge that these notes would be the only thing that would bear witness to his fate.


The music of "South Pole"

Pinguine in der Antarktis am McMurdo-Sund. (Foto: The NOAA Photo Library. The Ends of the Earth Collection. Fotograf: Dr. Levick)

The music of the opera works on the basis of superimpositions, overlaid in all sorts of different ways. The two narrative strands come closer and closer together, almost meeting at the South Pole and then moving apart again. For certain moments, there is "concrete" music: Both expeditions had taken gramophones along to entertain them. Scott's signature tune is the "flower aria" from Carmen (in the recording by Enrico Caruso), and Amundsen's is "Solveig's Song" from Peer Gynt; both of these can also be heard in the opera in the original recordings. Other significant moments with particular sound constructions are the moments when the participants in Scott's mission are freezing and dying.

The score is over half a metre in height. This format indicates how many tonal layers Srnka has overlaid; the printed pages come in poster size - otherwise it would not have been possible to show the many separate orchestra parts (100 independent parts are quite common, with each violin or each cello playing a separate part) in any legible form. The Bayerisches Staatsorchester will be about the size of a Strauss orchestra. In his composition, Miroslav Srnka has given the sledge dogs and ponies their own voices using six horns and six clarinets. Another leading role is played by the percussion, with such unusual instruments as cowbells, marimbas, a vibraphone and a glockenspiel. The score even makes use of standard kitchen appliances: Sometimes the string players are actually plucking the strings of egg slicers.


www.suedpol.staatsoper.de: Documenting the journey towards South Pole

Das legendäre T-Shirt: Südpol-Entdecker Roald Amundsen als modisches Basic.

During the creative process a blog will be keeping people up to date with the latest production news and important considerations, as well as sharing thoughts both topic-relevant and more general. In addition, the blog explains the historical background to both expeditions. This process of documentation is seen as an integral part of the creative process. The creators are convinced that the subject matter has the potential to keep audiences gripped.

Srnka: “Tom and I see this new opera as a living entity. Since we decided on the story, we’ve thought very specifically about how the topics touched upon in South Pole connect with the ‘electronic generation’, such as the physical and sporting aspects, as well as the various political and environmental contexts. And we’re also convinced that a new opera needs to be presented in a new way, including the integration of electronic media.”

www.suedpol.staatsoper.de