Performance on 24 March 2019, 8pm, at The Trinity Church, Oslo

Inspired by “Laudato Si,” Pope Francis’s unprecedented 2015 encyclical about the environment, the opera “Upon this Handful of Earth” by Norwegian composer Gisle Kverndokk and librettist Aksel-Otto Bull will receive its Norwegian premiere on 24 March 2019 at 8pm at Trinity Church Oslo as part of the Oslo International Church Music Festival. This fully-staged opera will be directed by Aksel-Otto Bull with Vivianne Sydnes conducting The Oslo Cathedral Choir, Oslo Sinfonietta, Oslo Cathedral Boys’ Choir, Trefoldighet Girl’s Choir and six soloists – more than 100 performers.

The opera deals with one of today's greatest challenges - climate change - and tells the stories of human lives that have been impacted by environmental disasters. It was originally commissioned by New York Opera Society, and the world premiere was on February 24th, 2017 at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola in New York City. This Norwegian premiere is a new production, directed by Aksel-Otto Bull, and has a new stage design by Gjermund Andresen. The libretto was co-written by Gisle Kverndokk and Aksel-Otto Bull.

“Upon this Handful of Earth” explores the intersection of faith and science through the story of six people whose lives have been irrevocably altered by environmental catastrophe. The project draws parallels between the Pope’s encyclical and the texts of Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Excerpts from accounts of environmental disasters, such as Chernobyl, Shell’s oil catastrophe in Nigeria, pollution, fracking and climate change, are read throughout, grounding the opera in the present. This meditation on our environment seeks a way forward for mankind at a time when climate change is, once again, at the forefront of political debate.

This five-part opera also explores related social issues such as labour exploitation, wealth disparity, the high cost of progress, reliance on technology and industry.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) was a central inspiration for the opera. He was a scientist, intellectual, and theologian who studied evolution and the relationship between the material and spiritual world. He composed ecstatic, progressive writings on the environment throughout his life that were often censored by ecclesiastical authorities, leading Teilhard to become a scandalized figure.

Teilhard’s “Mass on the World” informs the opera’s narrative structure and excerpts from the offertory are used as dialogue throughout. The libretto also uses text from The Bible and from Native American mythology.

This is composer Gisle Kverndokk and librettist Aksel-Otto Bull’s third collaboration although “Upon this Handful of Earth” is the first for which they have devised an original narrative. The story began to coalesce when they discovered a text from a Sanskrit Veda text dealing with mankind’s relationship with the environment:

“Upon this handful of soil
Our lives depend,
Nurture it, and it will grow,
Our food, our fuel and our shelter.
And it will surround us with beauty.
Abuse it, and the world will collapse and die,
Taking humanity with it.”

“We found this text, from Vedas Sanskrit scripture written 3500 year ago, and everything fell into place,” said composer Gisle Kverndokk. “Throughout time, we humans have been concerned about the environment, and we could see a thread in history—3,500 years ago until today—and make a relevant story about survival. In this concept Teilhard de Chardin was a natural and inspiring component.”

Bente Johnsrud, Director of the Oslo International Church Festival said: “Climate change has become a noticeable challenge in many people's lives: extreme weather, drought, forest fires, ruined crops, food shortages and flooding have become everyday events. This is a central theme of our 19th festival on which we wish to shed light …The opera “Upon this Handful of Earth,” tells stories of human lives that have been impacted by environmental disasters. We have long wished to illuminate our shared responsibility for man-made climate change in the festival, and in 2014 began a dialogue with the composer about an opera on this theme that would fit naturally in a church space with its strong symbolism.”

 

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