[Originally appeared as a program note for Spoleto Festival USA's 2016 U.S. Premiere production of Helmut Lachenmann's opera "Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern".]
You are about to enter a soundworld that immerses you in a story. It is a sonic atmosphere radically different from conventional notions of music and opera. The opera is subtitled “Music with Images”. Images – wordless images – that are not only visual, but are sonic and abstract. Images which come to you through our production, but also images which may spring up from the cave of your own consciousness.
Helmut Lachenmann’s The Little Match Girl is a work which permits a constellation of ideas and images to gather – so that we can go deeply inside and beyond this story, and feel it from many perspectives. We are used to this Hans Christian Andersen tale generally interpreted with a cheerful lamentation of tragedy. But this libretto juxtaposes three texts – the simple, brutally poignant Andersen tale, a letter from prison by Gudrun Ensslin, and a meditation by Leonardo da Vinci – to cast this as a larger allegory on injustice, societal outcasts, social and meteorological coldness, the forces of nature, light and dark, and awe before the unknown.
While the libretto and music follow the arc of the Andersen tale, it is embedded within this sonic world rather than set on top of it with narrative prominence. The texts themselves are for the most part deconstructed into phonemes, raw sounds, and fragments of speech. Language is so fragmented, that in hearing the space between the parts of words, it is as though we hear the inside of words…and the shadows of words.
Likewise, musical sounds are also reduced to the essence of action and gesture. Instruments are played in ways that defy convention, but find new resonances and potentialities where others saw nothing. Sounds of every kind are heard in an astonishing orchestration which conveys the libretto through aural imagery, in which musical timbre evokes not only the physical environment but also perhaps the timbres of our souls. Is the sound of snow falling “soundless”? You will hear it in this opera.
So the story is not told to you. You hear it, see it, feel it. It seems to be revealed as if from the perspective of a semi-conscious little girl drifting into death. We do not see her death, but we are connected to it. And yet where is she in this opera? Who portrays her? She is not exactly the two sopranos, or the choir, or the orchestra. She is amidst us, in everything – reminding us that there are still little match girls everywhere.
For us as artists and performers, we are cast outside of a usual stage, as if to experience the little match girl’s exposure in this stark environment. Our shadows and our sounds exist on a fragile threshold between being and non-being. We know for you as an audience member, that you are also suspended into this with us, and that it is sometimes difficult. And we know that both within this world of Lachenmann’s, and the world outside, that light and warmth sustain us.
– John Kennedy