My Travel

Oslo Reloaded, Day 2, Opera

The Oslo Opera House was definitely a major higlight during last year’s trip for me. What would it be like, we wondered, to see a performance there? One year later we find ourselves with tickets to see a ballet based on Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen, one of Norway’s most famous playrights, but more on that later.

There is never a bad time to visit the Oslo Opera House, really. The building seems to transform along with the time of day and the changing light. Each view of and from it is exciting and unique. With the traditional notion of walls, gravity and height on the mind, it is somewhat surreal to find yourself not only going in, but walking on the Opera House before you even realize it. The change of levels is so gradual, even gentle, that the view of the Oslo Fjord from the rooftop catches you by surprise.

Space and peace are the main impressions emanating from the Operahuset, as well as a sense of welcoming. It snowed in the morning. I look down at my pointed black ankle boots and my friend’s smart black pumps, and suggest we take the steps stretching out in front of us. There’s an expanse of of the building leading upwards, basically just a walkway, but that’s for another day and in other shoes.

People are walking everywhere, some are sitting down and reading or just gazing out over the city. Blues, whites, marble and glass ripple, blend together and reflect each other in the rays of the slowly setting sun. I am enchanted.

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To me, Henrik Ibsen was previously known for his plays A Doll’s House and Peer Gynt. My friend had read Ghosts before the trip and summarized it for me. Subsequently, we were both asking the same question: how can this complicated material with many-layered family drama and tragedy stretching over two generations be translated to modern ballet dancing? While admiring the spacious interior of the Operahuset’s foyer, which is just as intriguing as the outside, we got a program. In the introduction director Marit Moum Aune immediately answers that taking Ibsen’s text as a basis for a dance performance is indeed a complicated feat (“terrible idea”), but as those involved were, we too are now intrigued.

We take our seats in the auditorium we viewed a year ago from above during our tour of the Operahuset and in a few minutes lights go out as the ballet begins. The set is at first glance minimalistic, but reflective of the dark shadows in the character’s pasts, both literally and metaphorically. As the mother soon to be surprised by the return or her grown-up son dances across the stage, we are pulled deeper and deeper in to this eerily calm and increasingly tense atmosphere. A screen shows a family of three slowly making their way forward, as if in a dream, the Fjord behind them and the unurried noise of waves coming in time with their steps. Is it a dream? Someone’s memory? Or indeed, ghosts? We don’t quite know, and the possibility of interpretation, the freedom of it is exhilirating. Fast-paced dance sequences involving the whole dance ensemble on stage seamlessly interchange with the slower ones, as agonies, past and present all collide, so that it becomes occasionally difficult to undersand who is who, but at the end you are left breathless, just like the rest of the audience. The immersion is so complete, it takes a while to come back to the real world.



My Travel

Oslo, Day 3. Operahuset

Do you know how sometimes you get very excited about seeing a particular landmark when you travel, you read up on it, you hear about it from other people and keep going over the same parts in your city guide (yes, I like to have a book with me), but then you arrive there and your excitement is not only confirmed, but immediately transcended? That was what it was like for me with the Oslo Opera.

There are so many things known about Norway’s largest music and performing arts institution to make it intensely interesting. We walked from the Munchmuseet – it takes about 20 minutes (17 at a brisk pace and without stopping to briefly get your bearings with the aid of Google Maps – darn, it’s cool to watch that arrow move along with you). The sunshine was as brilliant as ever, and en route we walked right in to the Barcode District in Bjørvika, Oslo’s new financial and business area.

A tall bridge spanned across the distance, with a massive construction site and train tracks underneath, as literally bars of buildings rose from the ground, glas windows reflecting the blue sky twinkling among differently coloured concrete. These current urban planning projects may be getting their share of controversy, but I found the architectural view mesmerizing.


We hurried on, getting increasingly excited as the Opera came in to view. A quick dash along the side, as beyond us lay another enormous building site, and a quiet hope that we would indeed arrive at the main entrance. We did, and as I turned the corner, everything I had read or thought about the Operahuset was briefly wiped from my mind when I saw this.

IMG_20160318_104520It was a very clear, sunny day, made for showing off the Opera to its full advantage. But even so, nothing can take away the impression that this is both a building and a ship, seamlessly transitioning from one to the other as the marble roof diagonally meets the water on one side. White, blue, grey, marble, glass, stone – a bedazzling mix.

We arrived with 5 minutes to spare and I asked at the ticket office where to go, my German sensibilities forcibly colouring my aura. The clink of utensils on plates mingled with relaxed chatting in the café nearby and light flooded the spacious entrance hall.

Our charming and knowledgable guide won me over with his repeated “Come,” as we delved further and further backstage. Now, I have a romanticized view of operas and their world since I a) saw Phantom of the Opera with Emmy Rossum; b) ended up remembering the soundtrack by heart; c) interned at the press department of the Hamburg Ballet and was fortunate enough to go backstage at the local opera theater.

We went up to the higher rows of the largest stage, and we were very high up indeed. Darker wood dominated the space big enough for more than 1,300 people. Rows were mostly built in circular lines, making you think yet again of water and waves. Various detailed acoustic considertations were taken in to account when building, hence the different patterns on the velvet covering of each seat. Each seat back also has a small screen on it, where translations are displayed in 8 languages! Most progressive opera house in the world, or what?

I want to go see a performance there so badly now.

Masses and masses of complicated looking equipment loomed around us backstage. We heard singing, saw ballet dancers pass as we walked through the dance rehearsal area, and I happily recognized a Norwegian poster for Swan Lake. Most places where people worked and rehearsed seemed to have a lovely view, though all female members of the ensemble get dressing rooms looking out on the water. “Have to be nice to the ladies”, our guide said. Some 4,000 costumes are made for productions and the sewing area looked large, intimidating and incredibly efficient.

After the 50-minute tour ended, I had many questions, of which I got to ask two, but ours was not the only tour scheduled. Later I once again joyfully buried my nose in my guidebook again.

What is repeated about the Oslo Opera – it was built to touch, to feel, to experience – is true. That accessibility and space is immediate. Your experience of it doesn’t start with a purchased ticket for a performance – it starts before that. You can walk on the Opera, around it, sit in the sun, picnic on the roof and marvel at the incredible way modern Oslo architecture blends in with the local landscape.

Do You Remember, one of my favourite songs by Norwegian singer-songwriter Ane Brun, performed on the roof of the Oslo Operahuset in 2012.


Swan Lake

The swan is dying. I know she is, and so does everyone else! Carefully, daintily she skitters across the stage en pointe. I don’t know where the ballerina ends and the swan begins. Her arms rise and fall, and I almost see white wings fluttering, perhaps in a futile attempt to fly again. Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s music, both tragic and releasing at the same time, glides around her movements, then folds, just as gently as she finally does on the ground.
This past holiday season has breathed new life in to a long-standing interest of mine: classical Russian ballet. Childhood memories have sustained me all these years, memories of fairytale images, breath-taking performances, bordering on the impossible in their light-limbed, dashing perfection. Memories of sweeping, encompassing tragedy, romance, joy, and oh so much drama. Sometimes over the years I saw parts of well-known classics integrated in to other modern ballets. Other times I would listen to that Tchaikovsky score from The Nutcracker on repeat. And then, by chance, I went to see a performance of Swan Lake by the St. Petersburg Festival Ballet, on tour in Hamburg.
There seems to be only one school of such almost mythical ballet excellence, and it was established in the 19th century with a Russian-French fusion that included the enduring choreography of Marius Petipa. His work extended to Swan Lake, among other ballets. It’s amazing to think how long this foundation has lasted, even if individual companies bring their own touch and spin on the story, performance length and costumes. Paired with Tchaikovsky’s soaring score, in each scene the music makes you think that this soundtrack could not have sounded differently, but only like the notes that are seeping in to your mind as you are drawn to the shore of the swan lake.
Some of the most magical parts of Swan Lake are when Odette makes a solo entrance. To me this character has always conveyed strength and a certain resolve within the confines of the swan curse. The expected physical endurance of the dancer for this role has to be carefully combined with so many other characteristics – poise, grace, fragility that doesn’t seem breakable. She has to be able to express fear, curiousity, hope, despair. As in the performances I remember from long ago, that night in Hamburg a true prima ballerina carried Odette along the water. An example of a dance (from a different version):
 The music, of course, has accompanied my cultural experience in different ways, considering its enormous influence all over the world, from what I heard on the radio to an animated version based on the story, with a lot of quotable quotes. Anybody remember? (Don’t watch the sequel, it will tarnish the blissful experience if you enjoyed the first one as a kid.)
 Back from the brief humorous reminiscence. It is nice to begin experiencing Russian ballet again as an adult. It’s also interesting – you notice things you may not have noticed before. For instance, I remember the story going along until it finished, even if the audience couldn’t keep from clapping explosively after practically every dance. The ensemble from St. Petersburg, on the other hand, paused after every famous scene and seemed to almost expect applause. Which they fully deserved, but it did break up the experience somewhat. The magical feeling I remember is still attached to the ensemble I have seen as a child. Maybe it’s because they had that one absolutely amazing dancer, and so far she has been the only one I’ve seen who got close to reenacting legendary Russian ballerina Galina Ulanova’s wavy, rippling arm movements as Odette dances her swan song before death claims her:
 There is only one Ulanova, true, but there are also, luckily, others who take on the role of Odette and bring their own uniqueness to it, within the traditional dance framework that keeps attracting audiences decade after decade.
I hold my breath. Every eye is glued to the stage. The swan lies motionless. And then…well. Let’s leave it at that.
The curtain drops on the swan lake.
Until next time.