Eve Klein & the Ghosts of Cockatoo Island

August 1, 2013

This entry is by #ua13 Online Content Co-ordinator, Lauren Carroll Harris.

Eve Klein’s work betrays a fleet of flitting loyalties: to opera, to ambient and experimental music and to the world of cinema. Shedding the role assigned to her by her classical training, and under the name Textile Audio, Eve has contributed her brand of ambient classical electronica to such next-level record labels as New Weird Australia, Feral Media and Wood and Wire. Most of all, she is not out of step with any of these ostensibly disparate artistic communities, but across all of them.

Now for Underbelly Arts, she’s producing Seeds, which she describes as “part opera, part installation, part music video.” Seeds takes place on the crest of Cockatoo Island behind the old convict’s solitary confinement cells, and collects the wide-ranging experiences Eve has accrued working for Opera Australia, writing film scores and on her upcoming album of operatic punk songs. There will be sound sculptures, short films projected directly onto the crumbling walls of the Convict Precinct, and an opera in miniature. We checked in with Eve part-way through her residence in the Underbelly Arts Lab to see what it looks like to work at the edge of contemporary music and art’s map.

LCH: Where are we?

EK: We’re in Building 3 of the Convict Precinct, one of the old mess halls. It has these huge ceilings and the vibe of an old church with its sandstone walls and big open spaces.

At the moment it’s an empty space. In it, we’re doing an opera in miniature called Seeds. It’s an excerpt of a full opera cycle which I released as an album earlier this year with [label] Wood and Wire. We’ve taken a few of the key moments of the album and condensed it into a tiny fragment of the story. I’ve invited a whole bunch of filmmakers, artists and designers to come and dress the space, and an opera director to stage it.

There’ll be a series of sound sculptures hidden discreetly around the space. Part of the performance will be me interacting with these sculptures, generating sounds. In between shows the audience can interact with them too.

There’ll be two major projection screens, with films we’ve made exploring how women heal from experiences of violence.

That makes sense on Cockatoo Island, with its previous convict labour and imprisonment.

Exactly, particularly with the history of the girls who lived here in the reformatory which was pretty horrific. We’re looking specifically at rape and rape’s history within opera, rape’s history in the Australian landscape and how women are treated after they go through these experiences.

I went exploring in character with the filmmakers a few weekends ago. We filmed Persephone, the woman in the story, and her reactions to the space. You’re seeing her journey into the underworld of Cockatoo Island, but in the story of Persephone, he’s going literally into the Underworld. You’re seeing some of the darker parts of the Island. You’re seeing a young, female, exposed, almost naked body and how vulnerable that makes her.

At its heart, Seeds is a story about healing. But in its condensed form, we’ve decided to take the confrontational parts of the process and amplify them, distilling what might take three hours to perform in an opera into a 20-minute work.


During your time on the Island in the Underbelly Arts Lab, has the work changed?

Very much so. You can’t help but react to Cockatoo Island. It’s very atmospheric. We talk in the blurb for the show about ghosts, but you really feel them in the space.

Really? You think it’s true about there being ghosts on Cockatoo Island?

I don’t know. But you feel the history sink into your bones, and you feel the stories, and you hear sounds at night which are creepy and very much out of the everyday. Whether or not ghosts are real, the Island has a ghostly effect. Given how Seeds is about how women have these lingering marks from violence on their lives, I really like the way the work is transformed by the Island.

Yes, you get a strong sense of the past on Cockatoo Island and in your work of people moving forward but still being in the past. Zooming out and away from this particular project, how do you describe your practice to those who are unfamiliar with it?

I’m an opera singer, but I’m very very much engaged in contemporary and ambient experimental music. The very cobbled-together term I use to describe my genre is ambient electronic opera, or post-classical electronica.

A lot of people may find that combination surprising. Are you trying to bring opera into the 21st Century?

I hope so. There are some beautiful textures in opera that work well with electronic music. Unfortunately, it’s often done so badly. You remember those cheesy techno opera films of the 1990s? That’s exactly what I’m not doing. I’m taking the texture of the operatic voice and melding it with those beautiful minimalist textures that you often get with ambient electronica – glitch and grain and delay and echo and those granular kinds of things. I used found sounds and sound environments, and work in orchestral lines, which are an anchor in traditional classical music. It feels cinematic in the end. If it’s closer to anything in the end, its cinema music, because it lets the ambience speak.

There’s a sense of spaciousness.

Yes, spaciousness.

Is there a potential there to introduce classical forms to new audiences. Are you trying to make opera cool?

I’m trying to make opera relevant to contemporary dialogues. Opera receives the most arts funding in Australia. But the stories that it tells are largely 19th Century stories. Only ten percent of operas performed around the world are by living composers. That’s it. If we’re trying to support living art forms it makes sense to transform opera into a more reducible form in new spaces. What I’ve found – I’ve done a lot of my work in pubs and festivals and alleys and clubs and underground spaces and warehouses – is that people find opera deeply scary, and then you sing to them.

The idea of opera is scary.

Yes, but then you respond to a voice in a space. Opera is overwhelming when you hear it for the first time. It cuts through those boundaries, and traditional operas knew that for hundreds of years – the power of the human voice to move and transform. But to modern audiences, that still resonates. Particularly when you make the form more accessible or the story more modern or the characters more realistic. The 19th Century stuff is overblown and perfect in its own way, but it’s hard, particularly for modern women, to think ‘I can relate to that’.

A similar thing occurs in modern Shakespearean adaptations. Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing is set in present-day California, and one of the thwarted love story lines revolves around the allegation that a bride’s virginity is not intact. It’s incredibly difficult for that to make sense in a contemporary setting and to a contemporary audience. Thematically, it jars with the new setting.

Definitely, thematically [there is a problem]. Particularly women characters in opera – if they’re a strong character in the 19th Century, it’s seen to be beautiful, but then they die.

They are almost always tragic figures.

They’re tragic, and rape is used as a threat or a real thing to create tension and drama. And that’s pretty scary.

Unless you’re offering a really sharp critique of that.

That’s right, so that’s one thing I’m trying to directly critique here.

There’s so much scope to make opera a modern form. It does have that great power – at its heart, opera is about the human voice. Anyone can appreciate those sweeping narratives, those big, grand stories.

What else do you think needs to change in modern opera?

We need to support the performance of new composition as a primary way of making, the primary way to drive the tradition forward. We give so much money to opera as an art form that we should be trying to balance contemporary voices with historical voices. And certainly the historical pieces have a place, but they shouldn’t be the overwhelming majority of what opera is today. There are heaps of Australian opera composers who just need a bit of support to write opera, particularly if they’re trying to work within traditional frameworks, which I’m not. To access orchestras, to access singers, to test work requires some structure. Underbelly Arts as a space is fantastic for that because you get to play with audiences and develop new work. For me that’s been great, but most composers don’t get that.

There’s a massive experimental music scene in Sydney – with labels like Feral Media and nights like the Now Now. What’s your involvement in that cross-pollinated community?

I’m kind of the weirdo in the experimental music scene. Opera is still so weird for everybody! Some of the more traditional people in the experimental music scene even find opera a little hard to deal with. But mostly that scene has been really welcoming of my music.

There’s plenty of space right now for people who are not just working in experimental music, but people who are working in traditional genres and genre hybrids and taking risks. My next project is with Lucas Darklord, an experimental noise metal musician. We’ll be using extreme vocal styles and grounding it in an opera aesthetic to discuss Australia’s treatment of refugees. You can meet like-minded people and have a concept that explodes as soon as you meet them. That’s the beauty of the Sydney scene. People are willing to collaborate and share.


What other lines of thought are guiding your practice right now?

I really want to have a politically-driven voice. I don’t want a traditional career. I think there are stories that need to be told in Australia. It’s so easy for us to shut down and listen to pretty music that has no deep feeling or connection behind it. I want to have a voice that shakes people up a little bit. That’s what I hope to do with Seeds. I think, as artists, we need to be a bit brave.

It’s interesting that you cite a political framework. Many people are frightened of being labelled a political artist. Do you sense that fear among other artists?

I do. You become the person who’s done that project.

And pushed that agenda.

Yes, and interestingly enough, that happens to women too and that’s what I’m talking about in Seeds. They get labelled as the girl whose husband hit her, or the girl who was raped. They don’t become Pamela or Emma. They cease to have a story except for that one thing. And it happens in the arts community too. But I think the more we stand up and do these sorts of things, the easier it becomes.

There’ll be a culture of politicised art, rather than the idea that its an exception.

Eve Klein will be performing her opera in miniature at Underbelly Arts Festival, this weekend (August 3-4). It’s definitely a sight worth seeing  and experiencing. Book now

Photos by Ravi Glasser-Vora and Sissy Reyes