Love as a kind of shared madness; technology as a mediator of the force and energy of the universe. These two themes power composer Emily Hall’s opera “Folie à Deux”, commissioned and produced by Mahogany Opera Group and released as an album by Icelandic label Bedroom Community. The project arose out of a kitchen-table conversation between Hall and the psychiatrist Dr. Lisa Conlan about folie à deux, a psychiatric term for delusions shared by two people. Poet, novelist, and sometimes Björk collaborator Sjón was enlisted to write the libretto; for the recording, singing duties were assigned to Allan Clayton (who sings in an operatic style) and Sofia Jernberg (who uses the more common pop or musical theatre style).
It’s a bit difficult to follow the narrative of the opera by listening to the recording, even though the lyrics are helpfully provided with the album download. What I gather is this: a man and a woman meet, and fall in love; the man is struck by delusions centred around a recently-built electricity pylon, which he comes to revere as semi-divine; the woman, motivated by her love for the man, follows him down the rabbit-hole of madness. The pylon is a node connecting the couple to the “universal grid”: the electrical flow of love through all things, including people around the globe but also whales, satellites, stars, and, it seems, the whole of the Universe. So what presents itself on one level as a meditation on the love between two people opens out to consider love as a form of mass hysteria, a fundamental and all-pervasive force.
The device of the electricity pylon, as well as the electronic manipulations and transformations sometimes applied to the voices of the singers, suggests to me the mediation between people by technologies that connect them while at the same time underscoring the edges and distances between them. But music itself is a kind of technology, and the composer’s musical choices — such as the pairing of singers with contrasting vocal styles, and the building of complex harmonies through the layering of vocals — would seem to reflects this notion of being together while also being separate (or separation making togetherness possible). The other key instruments on the album — a harp played by Ruth Wall and a uniquely-designed ‘Electro Magnetic Harp’ played by the composer — transmit tumbling lines of notes along with the crackle and hum of energy distribution.
Sjón’s libretto, meanwhile, is audacious and daring in its belief in love as a cosmic phenomenon. While it’s suggested that belief in such a “universal grid” is a form of madness, the lyrics nonetheless remain committed to such a notion. Likewise, the complex patterns of the harps and intricate vocal harmonies frequently give way to something much more plaintive and knowingly sentimental: the duet ‘wonderful things’, in which Clayton and Jernberg’s voices soar while describing the birth of a star, is but one example of the music’s willingness to risk falling into saccharine cliché for the sake of the opera’s concept. In a sense, then, it is the music and the libretto that are the subjects of the work’s ‘folie à deux’, sharing a madness that is faith in the universality of love and the complimentarity and communicability of experience. This madness is all the more convincing and contagious for being so unreservedly shared. Madness and courage can look remarkably similar sometimes; on this album, at least, their resemblance is enthralling.