Opera on 9/11 terror attack hailed in London

‘Between Worlds’ tells the story of five fictional characters trapped in the North Tower through opera

Nabila Pathan
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The horror of 9/11, often recaptured through the indelible images of the two planes striking the twin towers in New York, have been relayed countless times, whether it’s for documentaries, films or news stories. For the past month, London’s Barbican Theater and the English National Opera have been using the art form of opera to transport audiences into the ill-fated building to follow the stories of those who fell victim to the attack.


Described as “brave” and “sensitive” by theater critics, “Between Worlds” marks an operatic debut from composer Tansy Davies, who collaborates with director Deborah Warner and librettist Nick Drake. Co-commissioned by the English National Opera, “Between Worlds” is a spiritual journey, focusing on human relationships and the emotions accompanying the journey to death.

The story unfolds around five fictional characters - a janitor, a female realtor, a young man, a young woman and an older man - trapped high up in the North Tower, caught between earth and heaven. The opera provides the vehicle for the transition from one world to another, capturing the often unthinkable journey from life to death. The background dialogue to the mourning and commentary is provided by a small choir. The character of the Shaman is played by a counter-tenor, perched on a higher platform than the other characters.

Nick Drake, who is the librettist for the opera, writes that “perhaps only opera can take us collectively to the emotional place where human beings in extremis confront life and death; to the place where words cease, and only singing and music can help us forward” on the official website.

In explaining how he found the words to express death, he also adds, “the events of that day have variously inspired novels, films (notably United 93), countless documentaries - even a strip cartoon. Opera has always dealt directly with vast human emotions and experiences. It allows us to approach and reflect on difficult subjects, and almost unimaginable situations, with feeling and dignity.”

Tansy Davies, whose composition work in “Between Worlds” has attracted praise for producing a distinctive sound that evokes an unrestrained exuberance with emotional depth, speaks to Al Arabiya News and explains how “life, feeling, thinking, being... and a life time of listening, music making and composing” have helped inform her composition on this project.

“Fundamentally, it’s about finding notes and rhythms that attract me and forming musical building blocks out of them, to serve the drama of each moment. On the larger scale, I have to look at the relationships between all of the notes, between every sound in the piece, and make sure everything is in perfect balance. Even in the more static moments of the drama, tiny adjustments are made almost constantly in order to sustain exactly right kind of tension throughout.”

As the show draws to an end this weekend, Tansy reflects how her work on the composition of the Opera has given her a chance to expand and explore her creative voice on a “much bigger canvas than ever before.

“It has opened up new spaces within me; personally, in my imagination and in my music. I have the strong sense that the ‘space’ of the opera is tangible to the audience; that they feel they are somehow situated within a collective experience and held there through the resonance of the music. The staging reflects and enhances this beautifully, as it does the level of detail too, which brings layers of sensuality to the whole experience.”

Whilst some critics have explored the implication that an opera about 9/11 “brings to the fore bigger issues about how viable such operatic realism can be – and the appropriation of horrific events into art works for consumption,” audiences have taken to Twitter to share how the Operatic form has worked effectively to recapture the human loss of the event.

Tansy goes on to explain that “one of the reasons that the production has been so effective is that we were given the resources to complete it to a very high level. It’s actually rare these days for new work to emerge in a honed and finished state; it’s normally ‘work in progress’ because there’s not enough time to finish it and/or the entire artistic team is overworked.

“I’ve been incredibly lucky to work with conductor Gerry Cornelius and the music staff at [English National Opera], who have all worked tirelessly to achieve a level of perfection I have only dreamed of in the past. So my music has been given the chance to truly shine, and this will I’m sure bring more opportunities for the future.”

“Between Worlds” ends its run at the Barbican on April 25.

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