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The Howling Girls : opera for soprano, teenage chorus and electronics

by Adena Jacobs and Damien Ricketson (2018)

Work Overview

'In the weeks following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre…five gaunt teenage girls had arrived separately at a Manhattan hospital complaining of identical symptoms. They were wasting away because they couldn't "swallow"….."All five believed that some debris or body part from the destruction of the towers had lodged in their throats and produced the symptom." The ear, nose, and throat surgeon who examined the girls discovered that their throats were, indeed, constricted. But he could find no obstruction, no debris, and needless to say, no body parts."
(Susan Faludi inThe Terror Dream, recounting Judith Greenberg's anthology Trauma At Home)

This haunting image became the seed for The Howling Girls. Five young women witness a collective trauma that is impossible to digest. Perhaps this anecdote is a metaphor for violation, the sense of being permeable, the terror that sets in when the familiar systems are collapsing - a larger trauma re-inscribed on the body and on the voice. Perhaps this is also a story which echoes a another collective trauma, that is the history of female 'hysteria,' a history of not being believed, of speaking a language deemed irrational and unintelligible.

Hysteria is controversial and mysterious territory. Robert Woolsey, a medical historian, considers hysteria to be a "protolanguage" whose symptoms are "a code used by a patient to communicate a message which, for various reasons, cannot be verbalized." Within feminist discourse, it has been been understood both as a means of controlling the female subject, and as a subversive force, a space of resistance which can disrupt and undermine the patriarchal order. Elaine Showalter writes; 'Historically linked with femininity for hundreds of years, hysteria's involuntary, uncontrollable, somatic symptoms were coming to be understood in the emerging critical feminist discourse not as a medical condition but a cultural one, an embodied index of forms of oppression.'

The Howling Girls explores the medium and metaphor of the voice. Featuring a solitary soprano and a throbbing chorus of young voices, together with an immersive orchestration of theremin, keyboards and electroacoustic music, the score itself is a kind of proto-language, an attempt to communicate in a mode beyond the rational: a sensory spectacle to bypass the brain and work directly on the body.

The work unfolds in the trajectory of a single utterance. Beginning with the lungs - the engine room of the voice where the first transformation from mind to matter occurs with the squeeze of this bodily bladder of air - channelled into the throat - the fleshy organ pipe-cum-string instrument translating energy into vibration - to the crucible of the mouth and its attempt to forge this plasmic substance into an articulate mass - to its final expulsion from the lips in a rupture from the body to the outside world.

For us, this experiential work functions as a ritual or purgation, in which the desire of reconstituting the voice is performed. The Howling Girls inhabits a space which is seemingly alien, at once primordial and futuristic, a fantasy of new possibilities for language and gender, a landscape of sensations, a monument and a void which gives way to something new.

Adena Jacobs & Damien Ricketson

Work Details

Year: 2018

Instrumentation: Solo soprano, chorus of 5 teenage girls, 2 theremin (1 on-stage), keyboard (driving 2 virtual instruments via MIDI), electronic queues, percussion, large PA horns, hulsui in A.

Duration: 65 min.

Difficulty: Medium

Commission note: Commissioned by Sydney Chamber Opera, Carriageworks.

First performance: by Sydney Chamber Opera at The Howling Girls (Carriageworks) on 28 Mar 2018

Awards & Prizes

Year Award Placing Awarded for/to
2019 Art Music Awards: Work of the Year: Vocal/Choral Winner Damien Ricketson


Resonate article: 2019 Art Music Awards - what the judges said by Australian Music Centre


Performances of this work

31 Oct 2019: at The Howling Girls (Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre). Featuring Jane Sheldon, Sydney Chamber Opera, Jack Symonds.

6 Apr 2018: at The Howling Girls (Carriageworks). Featuring Sydney Chamber Opera.

3 Apr 2018: at The Howling Girls (Carriageworks). Featuring Sydney Chamber Opera.

28 Mar 2018: at The Howling Girls (Carriageworks). Featuring Sydney Chamber Opera.

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