29 Feb 2020

Roomful of Teeth perform 'a ritual opera of death made for the living'

From Sound Lounge, 9:30 pm on 29 February 2020

Grammy Award-winning vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth are set to perform the rarely-staged opera Kopernikus at the 2020 NZ Festival of the Arts. Renowned for his radical and creative productions, visionary director Peter Sellers invited the group to take part in what he calls a mind-blowing mix of The Magic Flute, Tristan and Isolde and Alice in Wonderland.

Roomful of Teeth performing Kopernikus

Roomful of Teeth performing Kopernikus Photo: Helge Krueckeberg

Roomful of Teeth members call performing Kopernicus a magical, all-absorbing, otherworldy experience that's childlike in many ways. The ensemble's artistic director, Brad Wells, says Kopernikus is a perfect fit for the group because of the way its composer Claude Vivier mapped the music onto seven voices.

"Each singer is playing a different character or range of characters. And sometimes the ensemble - all seven, or subsets of the group - will come together in a sort of choral way, but for the most part, they're each inhabiting a different character. Whether it's Kopernicus, or Tristan and Isolde for instance, those kind of mythical, fantastical characters in the afterlife that this person is encountering."

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Roomful of Teeth are famous for re-imagining the expressive potential of the human voice by using the voice in unusual, colourful ways. When Brad first encountered this kind of singing he wasn't sure what to make of it.

"I had a kind of bifocal response. On the one hand my trained classical self, with the voice of my teachers in my head, said, Oh my gosh, this is danger. They're ruining their voices. This is a terrible way to sing, you know, turn it off. And then the other part of me said, This is a thrilling sound. I've never heard anything like it. It brings up different emotions and musical possibilities than I ever imagined."

Brad Wells, artistic director of Roomful of Teeth

Brad Wells, artistic director of Roomful of Teeth Photo: Supplied

The name Roomful of Teeth came from a desire to find some kind of more contemporary vernacular of a rock band, for a vocal chamber group. And Brad Wells admits, he just likes teeth.

"Teeth have this interesting characteristic. They're the hardest substance in our body, so they last the longest and decay the slowest. And I thought that's a nice juxtaposition. The breath and the voice are here, and then they're gone. And the teeth last as long as we can last, physically."

Scene from Kopernikus

Scene from Kopernikus Photo: Vincent Pontet

Kopernikus promises to take audiences on a journey of reconciliation and transcendence following loss and death, guided by the genius of Mozart, Wagner and Lewis Carroll. Brad says:

"Peter Sellers is a perfect sort of genius director to guide everyone in this kind of sophisticated childlike staging. It's really a magical thing."