Image: Eve Klein in the Barrel Room at Mona Foma (2018), photographed by Amanda Laver.
1. Eve Klein, a big congratulations to you, for the world premiere of your project Vocal Womb at Mona Foma 2018! The work was so well received and pushes barriers in a multitude of ways. This success comes from your exceptionally well-considered concepts paired with your dedication to nutting out some rather tricky components. You also seem to have quite the stellar team in Queensland, with your partner Ravi and baby daughter Octavia contributing to the project in their own special ways. How was the creative process in the latter stages of the work?
Thanks for the comments! Everyone involved with Vocal Womb is thrilled at its reception coming out of MONA FOMA especially given the complexity of the work’s development.
The creative process in the latter stages was multifaceted and filled with lots of troubleshooting as we negotiated managing integration of the technical components and brought the work into its site, the Barrel Room at MONA. I was developing aspects of the composition, performance staging, costuming and the mixing control interface while Ravi was developing the control interface, video projections, visualisations of the live audio feeds, and integration with site AV equipment. Octavia, our baby daughter was five months old when we staged Vocal Womb at MONA FOMA so in the midst of the final push to present the work we were also new parents learning how to do all of the things a baby needs. Octavia contributed baby smiles and I sampled her sounds for the Vocal Womb composition.
We had an intensive week setting up and rehearsing in the Barrel Room before the festival commenced. My co-performer AnA Wojak and I spent considerable time refining the performance gestures which were best for safely deploying the medical devices in the show. The final stages of the creative process required a lot of energy but were extremely rewarding as we could see that the work was coming together as we’d imagined.
2. It has been a couple of months since your vocal chords rested, in that type of context. Now that you can look back and see yourself in the space of MONA's barrel room, with full capacity for each session, what were your golden moments?
I had been working with the endoscope for some time to prepare for Vocal Womb so I became comfortable viewing the inside of my body. During the performances I was able to watch the fascination, sometimes wonder, sometimes aversion to this pink, alien landscape inside me as many audience members encountered this view of the human body for the first time. All of our shows were full with people crammed close to one-another and I was also astounded by the hushed silence over the space while I was singing. Our audience members were also very reflective and it’s clear from chatting with them that the themes underlying the work--the power relationships embedded in who gets to possess a ‘voice’ in human culture and how its expressed--were understood and felt by our audience members.
On a lighter note wearing glorious 18th Century undergarments and promenading through the MONA FOMA crowds with AnA was huge amounts of fun.
3. Vocal Womb was one of the projects you developed through the 2016 SITUATE Arts Lab. Did the year or two in between the Lab and Mona Foma influence how the project changed in any way?
I had the initial concept for Vocal Womb on the very first day of the Arts Lab and refined it into a formal project pitch after the lab concluded. It took two years exactly to realise as a work, mostly because it was difficult to access and finance the medical equipment necessary for the performance. Initially the work was going to be staged as a 5-10-minute performance in a purpose-built astronomy dome as an intimate experience for about 6 people at a time. It wasn’t possible to build this structure while funding the endoscope. Given that MONA had the Barrel Room—a dark, resonate space which smells of port wine—we could create a similar kind of effect for a much bigger audience. I made the show longer as a consequence and this also gave me the opportunity to compose two longer-form arias. Despite the change in scale, the themes and feel of the work remained the same.
4. How did the work (and yourself) respond to the space and vice versa during the performances?
Conventional opera performance occurs in proscenium-style theatre spaces where the stage provides a metaphorical and literal distance from your audience. The Barrel Room is highly resonant and dark space resembling an underground cathedral. The air is chilled, moist and fragrant because the wine barrels maturing inside must be misted so the wine can develop properly. When you enter this space, your body undergoes a sensory shift.
Added to this, the size and responsiveness of the audience contribute strong atmospherics which I used to shape my musical performances. The audience is physically close at all times. To get to the stage AnA and I had to squeeze through crowds cuing outside and in the venue. The space was lit only from projection screens which showed my body and the images from the scope, and this light made it was easy to see every individual’s reaction to my singing and the images coming from the scope—as a consequence each show was subtly different based upon this contact. The changing sensory nature of the performances and audience responses impacted upon my body’s physical reactions, which were projected back into the space creating a kind-of feedback loop between the environment and my performance. This was central to the intimacy of the experience.
5. I was fortunate to be in the audience for one of your sessions and there was a moment when I wondered what you were thinking as you were singing. Were you a few steps ahead in your mind, or did it get to a stage where things just happened automatically?
During conventional performances, opera singing is a precarious balance of singing, acting, and movement. It takes your whole body to produce a sonorous vocal and requires all of your concentration to do this while committing to the performance of a character. In Vocal Womb, Inserting the endoscope, and wearing the stethoscopes complicates this process further by putting in physical constraints. To sing and use the scope simultaneously you can’t move your head very much. You have a device inserted through your nasal cavities which means that it is very difficult to feel your bodily resonances, which are used to position and colour an operatic singing voice. Doing the performances was a negotiation. There were moments when I was able to be fully immersed in the texts I was singing and other moments—particularly when the scope wobbled and knocked something in my throat—where my focus shifted to the mechanics of the performance. This kind of medicalised performance entails risk as we are effectively conducting a medical procedure in a non-medical context. Training in device operation, sterilisation, and first aid were used to mitigate this risk but there is still potential that the unexpected could occur and that’s good for keeping your mind in the present!
6. With this first wonderful iteration down, where are you keen to go with things?
Given how overwhelmingly positive the first iteration of Vocal Womb has been we are keen to tour the work both in Australia and internationally. We are currently negotiating some opportunities with festivals and looking for other context where we can show the work as well. There will be an album release of the work in 2019. We are also going to use the technology and processes we developed for Vocal Womb to do more intricate live biomedical vocal performances so stay tuned! Updates will be posted on eveklein.com as we have them.
Interview: Ainslie Macaulay.