- By Marya HannunMarya Hannun is a Ph.D. student in Arabic and Islamic studies at Georgetown University. Follow her on Twitter at: @mrhannun.
When, in 2012, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman chose to title a blog post about Estonia’s less-than-stellar economic recovery "Estonian Rhapsody," we should have known that this was no run-of-the-mill fiscal commentary — but rather an omen of far more dramatic things to come. The slew of angry tweets that the post elicited from Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves included the phrase "Nostra culpa" and provoked mixed responses in the international press, with some glorifying the president and others lambasting his rashness.
Conflict, rhapsodies, Latin — in retrospect, it’s easy to understand why Estonia-based writer Scott Diel and U.K.-based composer Eugene Birman thought this bizarre online feud had the makings of an opera. Their much-anticipated 16-minute production, Nostra Culpa, is set to premier on Sunday at the Estonian Music Days festival.
So how exactly does one go about turning six tweets and a blog post into opera? Foreign Policy caught up with Birman to find out what we can expect.
The opera will be divided into two acts, according to Birman, with the first detailing Krugman’s philosophy and the second Ilves’s tweets. "I thought the most powerful thing would be to take those things verbatim and oppose them — not to put them into conversation because there was no conversation," Birman told FP. The two acts are fairly different in style, with Krugman’s movement set to loud and fast music and the Estonian president’s sung against a more varied and slower score.
For Birman, the decision to separate the exchange into two acts using a single female soloist, Iris Oja, underscores the problems with communication in today’s world. "The nature of Twitter for example, or writing an article is that there’s no real discussion," he said. "You can respond to something but it’s not really a discussion format. They’re speaking at each other instead of to each other." In the digital age, where everything is mediated through our computer screens, having one voice speaking directly to the audience does seem fitting.
Diel and Birman hope the opera will stimulate deeper discussion in Estonia about the political and economic issues behind the spat. "Estonia became independent through music," Birman tells FP, referencing the mass singing demonstrations, known as the Singing Revolution, that helped the country peacefully overthrow the Soviet government. "There is something Estonian about this — that we’re using music to have a discussion about what the political policy of Estonia should be," he says.
But more than anything, the opera’s purpose is to highlight the absurdity of all the squabbling over economic recovery — and in particular the terms so often thrown about by pundits. Librettist Scott Diel achieves this by transforming Krugman’s 70-word blog post into a series of almost tweet-like phrases imploring the Estonians to follow his advice. "There’s this line in the libretto that says stimulate over and over again and it becomes almost sexual," Birman says. "The words when you take them out of their context become really strange."
One of the stranger moments comes in the second movement, when in adapting Ilves’ sarcastic tweet "Let’s sh*t on East Europeans," the singer will make a high-pitched whistling sound with her voice in place of the asterisk.
While Birman concedes the content is amusing, he cautions "in the end there’s nothing really funny about what they’re discussing. If you think about it, if you look at the words and you look at the argument, then it’s pretty ridiculous. But that makes good theater." We won’t argue with that.
Here’s the libretto in full, as written by Scott Diel: