Between Worlds, the first opera of composer Tansy Davies and a joint venture between English National Opera and the Barbican, is a poignant meditation on the events of 9/11. It focuses on five individuals who were on a floor above the point of impact in the North Tower, and who must face the prospect of never seeing their loved ones again. Lasting ninety minutes, it tells the story of the first plane hitting the tower through to its collapse in virtually real time.
Although none of the people portrayed are based on specific individuals, the opera’s librettist, the poet Nick Drake, studied the multitude of phone and email messages that were left on the day, in order to establish a variety of typical scenarios. In this way he avoids appropriating any individual’s story, which he felt would be uncomfortably intrusive, and he also universalises the themes of tragedy, suffering and love. As both the messages and the opera make clear, the most important words that people found to say in such terrible circumstances were ‘I love you’.
Between Worlds possesses a wealth of human detail, and the beginning reveals the most ordinary of days as people go to work, saying goodbye to their loved ones, or not in one case as the woman is in a hurry and has no idea she will never see her son again. For this section all thirty-two ensemble members sit in a four by eight formation. Their harmony singing, with the occasional solo line soaring above the throng, reveals how they are all individuals, and yet at this point they are equally caught up in the normal hustle and bustle of New York life.
In Deborah Warner’s production, the set is integral to the experience and consists of three levels. Stage level represents the whole world outside the Twin Towers, so at some points it features the firemen and survivors below the buildings, and at others reveals people miles away. The floor containing the trapped protagonists stands directly above this, and it is the fact that they are so close and yet so far from those below that places them between worlds. Up in the high towers, they are halfway to heaven, being neither dead nor able to return to their loved ones on earth.
As the crisis unfolds, each character reacts in a different way, with some showing resolve and others allowing fear to dominate. While some of those trapped work in the North Tower, others were only there for a one-off meeting, and one man lied to his wife who had insisted he shouldn’t be pushing things, and thought he had gone to see a cardiologist. It is ironic therefore that it is her heart that ends up being broken by his action.
While the majority of the victims attempt to phone their mother or lover, one character stands apart. He is the Janitor who is the unseen face of the World Trade Center, and had already completed his day’s work but had hung around because he had had nothing and no-one to go home to. In the culture of high finance, he may well have been looked down on, and yet he proves to be the most level-headed and constructive person, trying to find ways for everyone to escape before encouraging them to make their final calls. There is perhaps the implication that he has no fear himself because he is leaving no-one behind, but the Janitor may also be a supernatural being. He frequently joins in singing with the Shaman who sits alone on the third level above, and is himself a figure who can provide connections between different worlds.
Jean Kalman’s lighting is highly effective, while the backdrop to Michael Levine’s set consists of a high wall full of A4 sheets of writing. These allude to the type of activity that would take place in the Twin Towers as well as to all of the messages that were left that day. Over time more and more sheets tumble to the ground representing things falling from the tower windows, the South Tower collapsing and the sending of communications to loved ones on earth. At times scenes of New York are projected onto these sheets, which enhances the idea of being in the sky. The tension between falling and flying (perhaps to heaven) is also exploited in many places, not least in a moving dance where a girl embraces and desperately tries to cling onto a boy suspended from a rope.
Davies’ music, conducted here by Gerry Cornelius, is highly poignant as in some ways it feels unrelenting, and yet combines an underlying sense of tension with some very powerful moments. There are also many innovations so that the ‘Overture’ consists of haunting, sinuous sounds as the Shaman whistles over the top. Drake’s libretto combines every-day language, based around his extensive research of the day’s messages, with Psalm 130 and the Requiem Mass, sung in Latin. In this respect, the piece feels vaguely reminiscent of Britten’s War Requiem.
The cast is strong, with the soprano of Rhian Lois as the Younger Woman (one of the victims), the baritone of Eric Greene as the Janitor and the countertenor of Andrew Watts as the Shaman standing out in particular. No-one who witnessed it will ever forget Susan Bickley’s cry of total despair as she learns of her son’s death, and in the process represents the grief of all mothers from across the ages. Before it even premiered, Between Worlds came in for some criticism for representing so terrible an event so soon afterwards, but Davies and Drake have argued that their aim was to find light amidst the darkness. Perhaps because it feels like a requiem for all suffering as much as it does a representation of one specific event, it certainly seems to be more about healing than destruction.
Between Worlds is being recorded over its run at the Barbican for a future broadcast on BBC Radio 3.