Cassie Tongue on Adena Jacobs’ The Howling Girls at the Sydney Chamber Opera
It takes a lot to speak. The act requires the use of about half of your brain. It calls on a complex series of muscles and memory to summon the right words or sounds. To form a word or even a cry requires specific placement and shaping of the tongue and the lips. The lungs are essential. The nose too, and the throat. And then there’s the larynx: its vocal folds open and close, rubbing together, and it is through that movement – through this essential vibratory tension locked inside our bodies – that we can swallow and bring sound forth to the world: to talk and sing and cry out.
But if you’re a woman, if you identify outside binary gender norms or are marginalised in your community by the dominant (read: white supremacist) culture, it takes more than the physical to speak up. It takes mental and emotional strength.
To put it simply: to take a breath is complex. To be outside power and yet still speak is phenomenal.
This is the driving impetus of The Howling Girls, conceived by director Adena Jacobs and composer Damien Ricketson, premiered at Sydney’s Carriageworks this month by Sydney Chamber Opera.
By pushing the definition of opera to its most bare and necessary function – that of art constructed through the medium of voice – Jacobs and Ricketson pushed us to consider the role of the voice in our world.
But first we must be submerged into the subconscious. The Howling Girls creates a space beyond speech and everyday sensory experience by gradually dimming the lights ( designed by Jenny Hector) until we are drenched in darkness. For a moment, there’s nothing to hold on to.
And then: the sound of breathing. No, gasping. No: swallowing. We are a collective now, bonded by deprivation, alone and unmoored together, and all we can hear is the inhalation and harsh expulsion of air. It’s rhythmic. At first it seems sinister, and then becomes exploratory. A test of limits.
We can’t see her, but the instrument-body is a woman’s body. There’s no voice there, yet, but it’s a woman’s voice. And those don’t make it to the passing airstream without an enormous amount of effort.
When we silence our trauma, keep quiet about our loss and pain, what does it do to us? The woman (Jane Sheldon) struggles to form sounds because, perhaps, she has been silent for too long. Now she is trapped in a cadenza of choking. It’s beautiful, painful, shocking.
The Howling Girls is inspired by, but does not recreate, a medical anomaly that occurred in New York City, during the early wake of the 9/11 terror attacks, when the city was still holding its breath. Five different young women reported to hospitals across the city with the same symptoms: they couldn’t swallow. It felt, for all the world, like something was blocking their throats.
It was discovered that the women’s throats were indeed constricted – all of them – but there was no physical blockage to be found.
But its effects were real. The women could not speak.
Jacobs and Ricketson, in close collaboration, use this fact to create a work that explores the ways that silence, and the act of making noise, carry complex levels of power, meaning, and – often, especially for women – disobedience.
This isn’t the first time that Jacobs has considered the power of words and silence; her theatrical productions often eschew dominant voice to re-distribute narrative power to everyone in her casts, or indeed to favour symbology and action – placing new meaning in old structures, queering the typical modes of dramatic function.
Jacobs’ work too has long had a relationship with trauma and the way it shapes a voice. In her stage adaption of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, at Sydney’s Belvoir St Theatre in 2013, it was the silence of Elisabeth (Meredith Penman) and the constant speaking from Alma (Karen Sibbing) that propelled the play forward, a dramaturgy shaped by the push-pull of noise and its absence. The silences in the first part of The Book of Exodus (For Melbourne’s Theatre Works in 2017) illuminated the trauma of the visible before grappling with the pain of the felt. The space beyond and before a scream is where Jacobs thrives. And Ricketson comes alive here too, in gestural, post-structuralist music that suggests, rather than dictates, a feeling.
Opera generally requires a libretto, in the same way that theatre generally requires a script. But these conventional tools can be limiting and to define contemporary art by those parameters is regressive. Jacobs creates flashes of brilliance in a space beyond the conventional, the written, and the expected. Often her work feels as if it is in conversation with the earth, or something ancient in it: the voice of the gods, of ancestors, of women silenced by a litany of historical oppressors. Ricketson sits comfortably on this wavelength and challenges our view of opera by pushing the voice beyond anything we’ve ever heard: Sheldon holds an unbroken note for 36 minutes.
The Howling Girls follows in the footsteps of these two artists’ non-narrative exploration of tension. First, a voice is constricted and so is our vision. Slowly, methodically, shapes are revealed. A light illuminates a body – Sheldon’s body – in bars like a burst of clarity, defying censors. Her choking gives way to something closer to sound. Sheldon, in constricted dress and complicated breathing patterns, finds her voice.
The first two movements are called The Summoning and The Blockage. They are mired in, and reflect, the internal reckoning of loss, grief and trauma – the desolation and sparseness that comes after a great loss.
After that? The Howling. The Broken Aria.
The recovery of one’s self.
Sheldon’s voice dances with the pitch of a theremin as though she’s discovering herself along with it. That she builds this momentum with perhaps the most otherworldly of instruments feels crucial and precise: this is uncharted territory, this unchecked, untethered feeling. We know, without knowing, that it comes from deep pain finally voiced.
But she is not the only voice. A chorus of six young women (from The House that Dan Built: Grace Campbell, Kittu Hoyne, Kiri Jenssen, Emily Pincock, Jayden Selvakumaraswamy and Sylvie Woodhouse) emerge from the shadows with her. They are the ones who howl; they do it for Sheldon, and they do it for all of us.
These teenage girls are extensions of Sheldon. They function as reflections of her lived experience but, more than anything, they are her response and support: her coven, the voices that raise hers ever higher. They may be young but they have power here, with clarion tones. They carry death masks, but do not wear them. They play Aztec death whistles but they are not death so much as defiance of death. They are the forward march of grief, the physical representation of the voice as it builds. They are poetry.
Once we have become accustomed to the darkness, broken by sluices of light scanning Sheldon’s prone form, we are shockingly, suddenly, propelled forward. Eugyeene Teh’s set is revealed in a wash of light that blinds us, until the darkness dissolves into clean lines and bodies and in the backgrounds, shadows. But we see her now.
We hear her. We hear them all.
Now, the voices are different. Now, they move beyond constraints and into creation. Now the sounds belong to the women who howl, and they are in control of it. A drum beats. The women chant, move forward, elevate Sheldon’s cry with percussion and movement and their own haunting voices. Maybe the women have forged a new way of speaking.
Maybe they will never be silent again.
The Howling Girls, composed by Damien Ricketson, directed by Adena Jacobs, co-created and sung by Jane Sheldon. Design by Eugyeene Teh, lighting design by Jenny Hector. With Grace Campbell, Kittu Hoyne, Kiri Jenssen, Emily Pincock, Jayden Selvakumaraswamy and Sylvie Woodhouse. Sydney Chamber Opera at Carriageworks, Sydney. Closed.
Cassie Tongue is a freelance theatre critic and arts writer based in Sydney. She regularly covers theatre and performance for Time Out Sydney and the Guardian Australia. Her writing has been featured in Audrey Journal, Overland, The Music, Daily Review, and AussieTheatre.