Wayne McGregor on Sum: "A brilliant collision"
The choreographer-turned-opera director on his collaboration with Max Richter, based on David Eagleman's book.
Imagine an opera where the audience is very much part of the experience. A small group of 150 sits around the orchestra pit, the space around them giving a sense they are in a contemplative state, in a “vanishing point through the middle of the Earth” closed off from the outside. Between states, between worlds, one might experience the sensation of “falling through the floor like a particle, which is held on a space and can be ejected in any direction”.
That’s the challenge that lies ahead for Wayne McGregor and Max Richter with Sum, an innovative and intimate chamber opera, a piece that relies on one’s own personal bank of memories to build narratives, a concept that McGregor defines as “a brilliant collision of things”.
Sum is based on neuroscientist and author David Eagleman’s best-selling tales of the afterlife or, more exactly, “afterlives” (the book is a spiritual, philosophical and often funny collection of several “after death” experiences) and recently, we wrote about our conversation with Eagleman himself for Wired.co.uk. The author, who is flying in from his home in Houston to attend opening night, is thrilled to see his work cross over into a different format, “It is very interesting for an artist, to put something out in the world and let it become its own thing.”
Ahead of the premiere next week, we also chatted to director McGregor who told us about his amazing connectivity with composer Max Richter from the very beginning. They crossed emails, pitching Eagleman’s book to each other “literally the same day”. McGregor adds, “Max sent me an email saying ‘Have you read Sum?’ and I sent him an email saying ‘Have you read Sum?’ so we were both reading the book at the same time and it was really weird. It just felt right. We asked David what he thought about it and he came over to London.”
McGregor and Richter instinctively felt that there might be a way to incorporate the stories into a very different type of opera: “Max found a fantastic way of using David’s stories and I thought we could use video, so it is more like an installation rather than an opera. It helped us think about designing the piece in a totally different way.
“[Eagleman's stories] would translate very well in an intimate space with people singing them to you. Max writes these beautiful pieces of music with the orchestration, and strings, really rich and haunting melodies but he has a fantastic way of also tapping into memory, with things that make you associate.”
Given the book consists of 40 short stories, McGregor and Richter envisaged this adaptation for the stage as a collection of mini operas “rather than just one opera”. They picked 16 of Eagleman’s tales (including ‘Sum’ and ‘Circle of Friends’) and designed a special environment around them, “we are taking out all of the seats of the Linbury, the orchestra pit is right at the centre and there’s a projection all the way around the audience so you feel like you are inside the operas.”
In that space, three singers perform, alternating song and spoken word. “Sometimes they just tell you the story as if they are sat around a campfire with you” McGregor explains. It was very important for him to allow Eagleman’s stories to unfold in this organic, almost informal manner: “The pictures David creates are so vivid, that we didn’t want to ruin them. I think that what Max has been able to do, is to reinforce them, the ideas, with music.”
Rather like the director’s own experience watching the BBC series ‘Jackanory’ as a child. From a massive armchair, an actor would read children’s stories in a simple but engaging way which strongly resonated with McGregor, “I always found that really captivating. No images or animation, just story and you build the pictures yourself. I think what we are trying to do in this is to evoke the personal pictures of everyone else who is watching.”