The Children of Ginkgo

The Children of Ginkgo

A Children´s Opera by Marcus Paus and Oda Fiskum

Premiered in Shanghai 7th NOV 2020

Inger Buresund – Artistic Director at a distance

© Henri Qi 

Sometime in the near future, the Big Sleep has frozen the earth to an icy desert. Not all are sleeping, however. In a hidden sanctuary, The Governess and The Gardener are hiding seed-children from the evil Helpful who travels across the world to steal and destroy the seeds of Ginkgo. One night, the two sisters Rhynia and Wollemia, hiding in the seed chamber, decide to undertake a mission: to wake the planet from its deep slumber. The gardener has revealed to them that the key to salvation lies in the bringing together of two Ginkgo seeds – but someone is listening to their whispering, and threatening clouds are gathering…

And so the story unfolds. The Children of Ginkgo was premiered live in Shanghai in November 2020. The plot takes its inspiration from the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a facility consisting of cold and dry rock vaults containing the world’s largest secure seed storage, situated in the permafrost 1300 km north of the Arctic Circle. The vault was opened by the Norwegian government in 2008. Crates of seeds are sent from all over the world for safe long-term storage, ensuring that many different varieties of essential food crops are preserved for the future.

The creation of such a seed bank is in itself a fantastic story, and it is perhaps not surprising that it should trigger creative inspiration in others. Inger Buresund  , founder and artistic director of Ibsen International, saw the potential of the story. Little could she know, however, that a global pandemic would mean that the final phase of the production would have to take place without the physical presence of any of the performers on stage. Inger Buresund is undoubtedly much the wiser for the experience, and I am curious about the consequences and the process in general:

When did you have the idea for the opera?

While I was at the World Exhibition in Shanghai in 2010, I discovered the seed vault. I was very inspired and enthusiastic. This led to productions and a pedagogical concept entitled The Seed initiated by Ibsen International. The Children of Ginkgo was originally the idea of Katharina Jakhelln Semb, former Opera Director in Tromsø, and writer and gardener Tor Smaaland, inspired by Ibsen International’s project.

Based on the pedagogical idea behind the original project, it was a natural choice to create a children´s opera. Composer Marcus Paus  was immediately positive to the idea. The production was to be premiered by the Arctic Philharmonic and Opera in Tromsø, and subsequently performed on Svalbard. But this was not to be. Changes in administration and several parallel projects meant that The Children of Ginkgo for a long time remained a “desktop project”.

It’s a long way from Tromsø to Shanghai, how on earth did the project end up there?

The background for this was my already well-established collaboration with Katharina Jakhelln Semb. We worked together on the opera Nora Too Late in China in 2014, and there we talked about a new opera collaboration based on a crime story involving seeds. It seemed natural that Ibsen International should look into the possibility of whether this production would suit us. After giving it some thought, in 2018 we agreed to take on the production, provided we achieved a good working relationship and had the necessary resources. By this time the libretto and the music were well under way. Considering Ibsen International’s previous experience, China seemed a good place to produce the opera. We contacted two well-known multi-media artists who worked at the Giant Egg – the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing – as well as a number of project managers and artistic assistants, all of whom have worked primarily with avant-garde projects in China. The avant-garde is very close to my heart, and I have built quite a network in the field over the years.

A western opera in Shanghai – how common is that, really?

Music for the stage has long traditions in China, so opera is nothing new, although Paus’ music with its western roots is very different from their own. The theme of the opera posed some challenges. Here in Europe we’re used to everybody being aware of global climate politics, but such is not the case in China. In China, such issues have been the preserve of top politicians, without any of it having trickled down to the general population. So people haven’t really seen the relationship between urban pollution and global climate challenges. It was difficult to find support for an idea that addresses global climate problems based on the concept of seeds. Yet a project such as this is important for increasing awareness; it has a libretto aimed at children, building up tension and excitement that is resolved in the hope of maintaining a green world.

The pedagogical approach was therefore a key element, and so the Art Space for Kids project based in Shanghai became involved. We managed to avoid having to convince them of the importance of climate issues and art for children by asking them if they had heard of Greta Thunberg, to which they replied: “She is our hero!”

What are the strengths of the libretto?

The task given to  Oda Fiskum was to turn a difficult topic into something poignant and engaging for children. Oda had worked for Ibsen International on several projects (including Ibsen in One Take), and as a dramatist at The Norwegian Centre for New Playwriting (Dramatikkens Hus) in Oslo. In addition, she speaks Chinese, which was understandably a huge bonus and probably a prerequisite for the success of our project. The libretto was developed from an early stage in Norwegian, English and Chinese.

The challenge in conveying complex ideas in opera form is that the text needs to be short and concise; there’s no room for long, philosophical explanations such as there might be in a play. Oda Fiskum has succeeded in creating a plot that holds the attention of the children, and fits very well with the music.

As part of the artistic and pedagogical approach, we agreed to further develop the opera through a series of physical workshops.

When did the first workshop take place?

In the autumn of 2019 we held a workshop in Shanghai with Marcus Paus (composer), Katharina Jakhelln Semb (stage director), Yngvar Julin (scenographer and costume designer), Sifenv (multimedia artists) and Shubo Li (translator). We spent most of the working with the professional singers and addressing the matter of working with children, which is an important part of the concept with regard to both the plot and the music. New workshops were planned for February and May 2020, but these of course didn’t go ahead.

That was because the pandemic had already taken hold in China. What were your thoughts then?

The thought that gradually materialized was: Can we do this digitally? If I had been asked that question in 2019, I would undoubtedly have said no! In order to have a digital collaboration, we needed to find three project leaders in China – one to manage the overall artistic side of things, one to manage the music, and one to coordinate and organize the project. All of the performers were in China. The time difference between China and Norway made it difficult for everybody to be on Zoom together. We had to record a lot and evaluate at different times.

We also had to rethink the musical aspect. The opera was originally scored for chamber orchestra. It didn’t really seem possible to achieve the intended interaction between all those musicians and the performance developing on stage via Zoom, so we agreed to make an electronic version of the music. So now the score has been reduced to four musicians, two synth stations (one performer per station), and clarinet and cello. This can of course be orchestrated, but perhaps it’s more fun to stick with this more unusual solution? It also allows greater flexibility for future performances.

And what experiences have you gained from this digital process?

The most important thing we learned was that the space for critical thought is affected when the process is digital. Nuances and dimensions such as facial expression, gestures, spontaneity and humour are reduced. This meant that everybody involved showed a greater sense of politeness and consideration than normal.

This led me to reflect further on what artistic directing means. The basic idea is to develop the work’s ambition. Questions such as “how”, “why” and “who” etc. help drive the production forward. It’s just easier to ask critical questions when you’re all in the same physical space, and the fear of hurting someone, or uncertainty, is to a greater extent compensated by intuitive body language and you don’t feel you have to constantly stand on the sideline and applaud enthusiastically. In a scenic space we need to be able to address everything critically and constructively, and preferably as efficiently as possible, since opera is governed by deadlines. We had a total of ten days for rehearsals, but a lot of time had already been spent in advance on alterations and preparations.

What future plans do you have for the opera?

We were all anxious about how well a children’s opera so far removed from Chinese tradition would work, but judging from the recordings and feedback it seems that the work was very well received. One of the strengths of Marcus Paus’ music is that it is melodious, emotional, beautiful, and at the same time modern. The electronic version gave it a form of expression that is familiar in both the East and the West. You could tell that the Chinese singers and children really enjoyed performing it.

I see a growing interest in contemporary opera, which I’m very grateful for. There is also an increasing demand for opera for children and families. The Children of Ginkgo is effective and engaging, and addresses important themes.

The goal of Ibsen International is to initiate international cultural and artistic collaborative projects through dialogue based on openness, tolerance and mutual respect. With this approach we have achieved a good collaboration between academia and the arts, in which seminars, for instances, have proved an important link. As with previous projects, we hope to develop a closer relationship between universities and this production, perhaps by involving the polar institutes in Tromsø and Shanghai, for example, as well as the universities in both cities. The aim is to put together interesting and engaging material that can accompany the production around schools. The opera has unexpectedly become very relevant: The permafrost on Svalbard has begun to thaw, and the climate changes are ever more apparent. It might even be necessary to artificially freeze the seed bank!

When the world opens up in the wake of the pandemic, I am sure there will be more performances. That’s what we’re working towards right now.

© Henri Qi

© Henry Qi

Lisbet Frøystadvåg
Norsk Musikforlag/
Inger Buresund 

Jan 2021