How do you stage an opera that mostly takes places inside a child’s murderous mind? That was one problem facing composer Ben Frost and librettist David Pountney when they set out to make a musical theater piece—Frost’s first ever—of Iain Banks’ 1984 psychological horror novel, The Wasp Factory. The book tells the tale of a psychopathic teen named Frank, who devises bizarre, violent rituals on a desolate Scottish island. Another problem: Frank is a misogynist, and this is no time for the glorification of misogynistic antiheroes.
Frost solved both problems in one stroke by asking Pountney to split Frank’s phantasmagoric monologue into a trialogue. Then he assigned the three roles to powerful women, entirely omitting Frank as a character. On this newly-released Bedroom Community recording—the opera premiered in 2013—they are sung with wicked charisma by Lieselot De Wilde, Jördis Richter, and Mariam Wallentin. Not merely aspects of Frank’s psyche, they’re like the Furies, bearers of divine retribution. With justified ferocity, they chew and spit Frank’s infernal confession, and Frost’s music, played by the Reykjavík Sinfonia, coldly stokes the flames.
The Australia-born, Iceland-based Frost is popularly known for his electro-acoustic hybrids of classical music and heavy metal. He combines post-minimal finesse with modernist severity and Wagnerian daring, charging into the deepest abysses of quiet and storming up the fieriest peaks of noise. Though the focus is now live sound and the human voice, The Wasp Factory should still resonate with fans of his ambient music. It’s By the Throat inverted, foregrounding classical and recessing electronics, with no entropy in Frost’s signature blend of concussive brawn, delicate tissue, and intricate logic.
A small string ensemble pulses in tight swarms, slashing out parallelograms in a holographic medium of bass and distortion. As always, Frost’s hyperreal acoustical shapes don’t seem symbolic—they just uncannily exist, deforming spacetime. This is captured in a recording of rapt, intrusive closeness, the singers lunging into your face, unlike the polite remove typical of classical music.
It’s not the only way The Wasp Factory bucks operatic convention. Don’t expect Italianate phrasing or proper coloratura. The vocal lines are lean and soulful, more like jazz, blues, cabaret, and pop. The belling timbre on “Blyth” is very Björk, while the indecorous bellow of “Wrong!” on “I See You’ve Washed Your Hands Again” is midway between Benjamin Britten, composer of Peter Grimes, and Nicki Minaj on “Monster.” If you’ve been looking for an accessible way into contemporary opera, this could very well be it. (If you’ve been listening to art music by the likes of Jenny Hval, let alone Shara Worden’s chamber operas, you’re almost there.)
Frost is well suited to a narrative form like opera because his music is dense with acoustical narratives, interlocked from the atomic to the cosmic level. A single bass drop on “I See You’ve Washed Your Hands Again” tells a whole story in seconds. It’s nested in the shape of the song, an inexorable grip and release. “My Greatest Enemies Are Women and the Sea” rises to a vertex right in the middle, as the title line is sung, flooding it with climactic power. And these well shaped songs are also absorbed in an album-long struggle from dark to light, as a pearly shimmer gradually emerges from the dark, lush crags of the early reaches.
The Wasp Factory is mad but serene, vile but alluring. The plot is strictly nightmarish. Frank’s brother has escaped from the hospital, and the exact length of a certain knife must be ascertained; he murders his cousin Blyth, with an artificial leg, using a venomous snake. Stark vignettes divulge Frank’s brutality to animals (and worse), his obsession with what it means to exist. “To be mastered,” we learn, “the world must be named.” Frank can find mastery only in violence, which infests his language. The opera’s title refers to a maze he makes from a clock where wasps meet various gruesome ends. To Frank, it’s a divination device; to us, it’s a searing illustration of a worldview in which time and life are machines that manufacture doom. Frost winds this bleak psychology with shockingly beautiful music, and finds in opera an exciting new form of expression for his profoundly psychological sonic abstractions.