The Guardian US - interview with conductor Karmina Šilec
 Photo by Nicole Lee/The Guardian

Photo by Nicole Lee/The Guardian

This article was originally published in the Guardian US.

At a time when most of Brooklyn’s Dumbo neighbourhood would still be nursing their Saturday night hangovers, conductor Karmina Šilec is surprisingly chipper as she sits in the performer’s lounge of St Ann’s Warehouse. “I like mornings,” she says, admitting that she has been up since 3am (she has jetlag), “because then you have the rest of the day to do what you want.”

From leading the world-renowned young female voice ensemble of Carmina Slovenica to collaborating with the Royal Opera House in London, the Slovenian seems to have no problem doing what she wants. Over 25 years, the award-winning artistic director has not only led the “Cirque du Soleil of vocal theatre” to festivals such as Ruhrtrienniale, Festival d’Automne à Paris and Melbourne, she has also famously coached choral groups around the world with her own unique choir training process which she calls “choregie”.

But it is Toxic Psalms, “a reflection of the spiritual anguish of today” which has led to us sitting behind the black box theatre hosting the production’s world premiere. As Šilec tucks a stray blonde hair behind her ear, she recalls the inspiration for the multimedia vocal theatre performance inspired in part by the anger and violence of Palestine, Syria, Pussy Riot and #yesallwomen headlining the third season of Prototype’s festival of music theatre and opera.

“I was asking myself how collectives and individuals obey authority,” she says, citing Hannah Arendt’s book on the “banality of evil”, Eichmann in Jerusalem. “This big Nazi criminal put so many people into the camps, but he always said ‘No, it was not my fault, I just obey authority.’” The notion, in conjunction with the Milgram experiment at Yale, a study on obedience to authority figures, struck Šilec deeply. “Throughout the study it was discovered that 65% of people would actually kill someone by electric shock because they trusted the authority of the scientists. And if we go further, we can also see that people often (blindly) follow authority in politics, economy and religion. So that was the starting point for Toxic Psalms, how people don’t think.”

She was also able to observe the collective’s desire for authority within her own ensemble. During rehearsals for Toxic Psalms, an intense process that involved explorations into movement and sound, Šilec found that when she removed herself from a position of authority, the group’s ability to function significantly faltered. To her fascination, the 30 young performers, aged 14 to 23, began to form their own hierarchies, and took an inordinately long time to make decisions.

“It was very interesting to observe how people changed and how their relationships changed and how long was needed to make a decision when you didn’t have a leader,” Šilec says with a wry smile. “And then when I appeared with an idea, how easily the performers followed me and forgot to think.”

Šilec began working with the female ensemble because she liked the “mentality and flexibility” of young women, and their ability to be “very open, like blank paper”. They are also the kinds of voices that are most elastic and open to experimentation. Each production the ensemble undertakes is also a vocal laboratory, where they investigate techniques such as Balkan and Inuit singing, or repetition, the use of time in music, and mood.

It also explores Šilec’s concept of choregie. The word arose initially from a Greek term that refers to the patronage of the arts, as well as Šilec’s research into the role of chorus in Greek tragedy. Other than a rehearsal tool, choregie also refers to a cross-disciplinary music theatre that involves the contrapuntal positioning of music and visual elements to create a non-narrative experience. The result is reflective rather than a traditional, reason-based argument.

“I don’t want to be all ‘something has to be done’, or to be some kind of preacher,” Šilec says. “I want my performers to look around and see what is going on.”

She reads a quote to me that captures what she hopes the choir is able to do in performance: “When the spectators come to theatre, worried, full of everyday problems … no problem, there is a chorus which is feeling the sorrow and compassion instead of the audience.” It’s a notion based on “interpassivity”, a philosophical construct that attempts to explain the passive reception and individual interpretation of some works of art.

In her native Slovenia, she says, audiences are more accustomed to being able to make up their own minds, and she hopes to share some of this “freedom” with the States. “I think we are instructed too much nowadays. Everything is now a manual: how to understand drama, how to feel in theatre. I don’t like this. I want people to come and sit and have their own drama experience, to listen to music and have their own experience.”

A thinking, independent experience, then? “Your own and only yours, because your neighbour has another.”

  • Toxic Palms runs 8-11 January in St Ann’s Warehouse, Brooklyn, New York.Details here