Liza Lim – “Tree of Codes” in Focus, April 2016

Tree of Codes, a major new opera by Prof. Liza Lim (Professor of Composition and Director of CeReNeM) has just completed a highly successful premiere season of five performances in Cologne, Germany.

Commissioned in a partnership between Oper Köln, Europäisches Zentrum der Künste (Dresden), and internationally renowned contemporary music ensemble MusikFabrik, Tree of Codes is based on Jonathan Safran Foer’s book of the same name, where a new story is forged by removing – or more precisely physically cutting out – words from Bruno Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles (of which Lim was already a fan prior to Safran Foer’s repurposing).

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Lim describes the opera as ‘tak[ing] place during an extra day grafted on to the continuity of life. Within this margin of secret time, a ‘backstage’ area, the boundaries between the natural world, animals, birds, humans and machines are dissolving. Dead matter is combined with the living and becomes animated. It learns to dream, to speak, to sing…’

‘Cut-outs in time’ also serves the composer as the work’s subtitle – and the phrase certainly introduces the experience of the live work. The idea of a ‘cut out’ is transposed into several multidimensional spaces, manifesting as recurrent senses of voids and farther-reaching glimpses. All the performers – including MusikFabrik’s players – occupy the stage for the majority of the time, framed by and melding with a wireframe set. Characters transpose across bodies through masks. Instrumentalists become singers (MusikFabrik’s Carl Rosman plays both the clarinet and sings the role of the Mutant Bird) and then perform as a cappella choirs. Mute actors entwine with the major singing roles taken by soprano Emily Hindrichs and baritone Christian Miedl. The production was directed by the Swiss director Massimo Furlan with sets, costumes, lighting and video realised with his team from the theatre company Numero23.Prod.

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Tree of Codes, Cologne Opera, photo by Paul Leclaire

There have been strong reactions to the new work in international press. Ulrike Gonforf, writing for DeutschlandRadioKultur, described the work as “an exciting discovery for music theatre, cleverly designed and eminently sensual in sound,” whereas Markus Schwering for Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger stated that “this is an opera which is for, not against the human voice”. UK writer Tim Rutherford-Johnson writing for Limelight Magazine says, “Claims are often made for a new kind of opera, but in Tree of Codes they seemed entirely justified by the true fluidity between music and spectacle, sound and drama”. With additional press attention from Theater PurDie Bühne, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, WDR, NRWJazzVan Magazine and the New York Times, the impact of this first production is already being felt across the world.

CeReNeM offers its warmest congratulations to Prof. Lim for this incredible achievement and looks forward to the resurgence of this production in Dresden later this year.

Report by Matthew Sergeant
[who attended the 3rd performance of the opera in Cologne on 14 April 2016]