Pauline Oliveros’ last work, “The Nubian Word for Flowers: A Phantom Opera,” is coming to life thanks to the work of her partner and close collaborator of more than 30 years, Ione—an acclaimed author, playwright/director, sound/text artist, and dream specialist in her own right. The joint production between Experiments in Opera, International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), and Ione’s own Ministry of Maåt will premiere on November 30 at Roulette in New York City.
I sat down with Ione during a weekend symposium at Brooklyn College recently. We talked about the impetus for the opera, colonialism, and the challenges of presenting a posthumous work.
VAN: I read in a recent interview that you were a freelance writer in the 1970s in Spain and France, before you met Pauline. What brought you to Europe back then?
Ione: Well, I was a hippie! [Laughs.] That’s why I was in Europe. It was a time, which is actually recycling now, when being in this country was getting worse and worse in many different ways. And a lot of young people were going to Europe, Morocco, and places like that. So that was what I was doing—I was a part of that expatriate movement, one might say.
A “let’s get the hell out of here” sort of movement?
Yes, to a place where things felt better and freer. So I went to Ibiza…
Wait, Ibiza? Ibiza is a big party town… was it like that back then?
[Laughs.] Yes it was! In the summers it was very, very intense. I imagine now it’s even a bit harsher. This was back in the early ‘70s, and even then there were so many tourists that you didn’t feel like staying there. But then September 1 came and everyone was gone. And so we stayed.
Can you describe how you and Pauline worked together on the opera “The Nubian Word for Flowers?”
We were very much hearing sounds. It was organic to me. She was relying on what I was hearing and then she would make it happen musically. And I would write text and she would make music for the words. But we were very much moving forward together. It’s not like I would write something and she would make some music. And that’s part of the reason it took so long to write. She was teaching and I was performing. There weren’t huge swathes of time to work on it.
Was the score finished when Pauline passed away? How did you approach putting everything together if it wasn’t complete?
Well, we had worked together on another opera. It was a dance opera. We realized in putting “The Nubian Word for Flowers” together that we wanted to use some of the music that Pauline had already written. This was a concept that she was fully behind. So now we are repurposing music of hers that has already been done, which Nick [DeMaison] is really brilliant with. Some of her text scores are forming the text, sonically, and musically.
So you’re taking bits and pieces from other places?
Well, it’s a new form. She was very much into new forms. And it’s very much honoring her work—a work that we wanted to complete together.
Can you describe the inspiration behind the piece?
Pauline and I were performing in Canada in a town called Kitchener. I remembered having written about Kitchener’s Island in Egypt after having visited it years ago and I asked myself, “Was this town in Canada named after the same person?” I looked it up, and the more I looked and read about it, the more I realized it was part of a really fascinating story—in fact it became more fascinating than I could ever have predicted.
Lord Horatio Herbert Kitchener of Khartoum (1850-1916) was a senior British Army officer and colonial administrator during the height of British imperialism. He played a central role in the Second Boer War (where he was, among other things, responsible for establishing civilian concentration camps) and World War I as the Secretary of State for War, a cabinet minister.
A lot of Americans don’t know much about him, but of course in London and in England he was very well-known. In fact, around World War I he was one of the most famous people in the world. He died on a boat after hitting a German mine off the coast of the Orkney Islands. So there was a huge outcry. It was akin to, I would say, Princess Diana dying.
It seems like Lord Kitchener was very much lauded—that he was praised in Britain as this great man for his military leadership among other things. Yet you’ve said that this is an opera about the colonial mind. Why have you chosen now as a time to engage with the issue of colonization, and why around the subject of Lord Kitchener?
Well, he represents the colonial mind. If there ever were a colonial mind, he would be a part of that. I think it’s always a good time to explore what colonialism is, and in some ways the concept of a phantom in the work relates to how different cultures regard each other. I was just remembering when I actually went to the island of Kitchener in Egypt, I was representing the colonial mind myself, because I was writing for colonial newspapers. When I went to the island, they were showing us around as tourists. They would point and say, “Oh, the Nubians are over there.”
Do you want the listener to come away with a moral message about colonialism?
No, I think it’s more about the horrors of war. It’s more about that than about how colonialism is bad. Everyone knows colonialism is bad. It’s an old whipping post [laughs]. No, what I’m pointing out is more about what happens when two cultures interact. I was very interested in that when Pauline and I did “Njinga: the Queen King.” That work was very much about the intersections of cultures and the different type of results that come from that. In “The Nubian Word for Flowers,” the Nubians can see the colonialists as phantoms and the colonialists can see the Nubians as phantoms.
So when you use the term “phantom” does it represent a misconception about another culture?
That’s right. It’s like feeling as if the other culture is not quite real. But I’ve also written that I feel that a phantom is a bit like a virus. If there’s a colonial phantom here, my contact with it is actually affecting me and so gradually I get the virus, and the other way around as well. The thing about Kitchener is he was more or less benevolent when he got into power as the Consul-General of Egypt after the war of Khartoum. He even said he didn’t want any Christian proselytizing. He let the Muslim people keep Friday as their day of rest, the day on which they wanted to worship. And this openness was very unusual for the time.
Kitchener was a complex historical figure. Do you find an affection for him? Do you see him as a protagonist?
We see him as a human being. We see him in between worlds in the opera, and also he’s completely powerless under the impact of the phantoms of these islands. And he was a hero to so many—there were so many layers to him. As a young surveyor, he surveyed the lines that are now dividing Israel and Palestine. All those early wars which were against fundamentalism, which are still happening, are a part of this story. But the good part, if you want to see him as a more positive figure, is that it seems, as Secretary of State for War during World War I, that he hoped there would be a peace, a reconciliation. He was overheard saying he wanted to live to see a peace put into place so there would be no more wars of revenge. So when the “powers that be” carved up this region so horribly, so much revenge had to play out. In fact, after Kitchener’s death, a lot people tried to push his reputation down, especially Winston Churchill.
He sounds like a very complex character; great for an opera.
Yeah, and there’s a mystery there too. So I leave it fairly open showing how the sinking of the ship could have happened. His sexuality is also an important aspect of the story. His sexuality was, and still is, in question. There are whole books about it! So I’m showing his early love as a young lieutenant. And also his companion Captain Oswald Fitzgerald who was with him when the boat went down. You must realize that they never found Kitchener’s body. So it has created a kind of opening in the world. There have been sightings of Kitchener after his death, like Elvis. And I’m trying to show that.
Do you have a renewed appreciation for Pauline’s works now that you’ve had to go through this process getting into the more nitty gritty logistical things? I know there’s a soundtrack, improvisation for the performers, the text for the singers. It must be a challenge getting all these things to work together.
You know, we’ve been together on huge projects, even larger projects than this. In terms of complexities—prior to certain types of abilities that we have now musically, we worked on projects before the technology developed to where it is today. Now it seems almost like a piece of cake [laughs]. I have expanded my skills, my listening, to integrate the score with the script. We worked with some of the ICE musicians in LA, to piece things together. What I had to let them know is that I’m in on that part of it, that I know what was intended, both with the text score and with certain aspects of the music and the sound.
Do you feel you have an added moral responsibility to honor Pauline’s intentions?
I feel that there’s a very intuitive knowing of what to do. I was with her in that way long enough—30 years—to know how to go with things. And she was really a master of…she would allow people to have different feelings, but she could also steer you into another direction [laughs].
I interviewed her back in April of 2016, and I kept bringing up her determination. I’d ask how, as the only woman among all these men, having come from Texas in 1950s, from a culture that wasn’t necessarily that supportive, she got to where she was going. And she kept saying, “I just kind of did what I did. It was just my path forward.”
These challenges didn’t escape her, but she didn’t allow them to deter her. And that’s not to say that she liked what was going on. But she never let anything stop her from doing what she envisioned. It never occured to me not to continue with this opera project for example. I’m also determined in the way that she was.
Has this project taken on a deeper emotional meaning because you and Pauline worked on this together?
Sure, that’s why I’m finishing it—bringing it to completion.
Do you feel this is a form of closure or an opening?
Both. This will be bringing it to a level of closure, but there are going to be other versions in the future. We plan to do it again in 2018. There’s technology that Pauline and I were exploring which is still being developed.
With the projections?
3D projection mapping, for example. So we can bring some of that into it on later versions.
And can you tell me the Nubian word for flowers?
Well, you’ll have to come to the show to see that [laughs]! You know that right? And even then you might not know the answer. ¶