Snakker Ikke Norsk

A Norwegian teen show struggles to find the right tone.

On the international teen show Snakker Ikke Norsk ("I don't speak the lingo") on Radio Nova 99.3FM in Oslo (Sundays, 10am), listeners
are calling in to express their appreciation for Jens Stoltenberg, whose popularity - always immense - has climbed to Churchillian levels in recent weeks. "Jens was just so kind to the ducks yesterday," 17-year-old Amy says, sweetly neglecting, as an enraptured girlfriend might, to specify where the ducks were. "Oh, Amy," giggles the host, the twentysomething Jan. "I've never heard anyone who's so into a politician on a personal level!"

“For those of you who are, like, dead," continues Amy, fiercely, "Jens Stoltenberg is the babe who governs Norway and he's smokin'. I love his hair, I love his bicycle, I love his tight bum." Jan moves in for the kill. "Is he the hottest politician of the lot?" Amy replies: "Politicians aren't usually sexy, you know? I mean, Sarah Palin is kind of hot . . . but only if you take away her mouth and, like, brain. I just love Jens. He is thousands of times better than the two English prime ministers. Can you even name them?"

And on it goes, until someone plays an impressively early Talking Heads number. When we come back, however, Amy sounds quite desolate. How to start a relationship with Jens? Poke him on Facebook, suggests the producer Philipp. A modest person who usually makes it clear that he finds all attempts to bring him into proceedings fairly disconcerting, Philipp, when he does speak, tends to offer a path to compromise. Extremes are not his bag. He is, one feels, a man who, even when pushed to the absolute limit, would only shout, "Oh . . . fiddlesticks!" But Jens, Jens. "Well, we just love him all the more since . . . Utøya," admits Jan, and there follows a long pause.

In Oslo, in cafés and restaurants, everyone talks about the shootings all the time - a constant, low-level murmur - but nobody has quite settled yet on what language to apply to the incident. The atmosphere here remains phenomenally tender, like the inner membrane of an egg.
They are readers following a story who suddenly look up and say: "Where next?"

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The fifty people who matter

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis