I was a bit skeptical as I trekked across Ostrava for the first night of New Opera Days Ostrava, seeking the venue 'Důl Hlubina – Staré koupelny' which Google had dubiously translated as 'Coal Mine Hlubina – Old Bathrooms'. I've listened to contemporary music in some weird places before, but never an abandoned toilet. Fortunately I made it to the venue on time – a multi-story semi-industrial space featuring two performance halls as well as restrooms that were in fact rather new-looking – because the space was quickly overflowing. Audience members, some of whom sipped wine or ate popsicles, stood along the back walls or, alternatively, sat in the front on the numerous pillows on offer. The festival, abbreviated as NODO, is the brainchild of Petr Kotík and the opening night featured a double bill: Ligeti's Aventures and Nouvelle Aventures, followed by the world première of Mr Kotík's William William in the hall upstairs. A biennial experimental music theater festival now in its third iteration, it features numerous world premières and commissions, as well as Czech premières of older works including the Ligeti opera.

© New Opera Days Ostrava
© New Opera Days Ostrava

 Ligeti described his 1962 Aventures and its sequel, the 1965 Nouvelle Aventures, as “speech sound compositions”. In these two brief works, totaling about half an hour in length, Ligeti explored possibilities for opera and narrative through an 'artificial language' with a libretto (written in phonetic alphabet) that was created simultaneously with the instrumental score. Therefore, the instrumental component is much more than a mere accompaniment, with vocal and non-vocal sounds complementing and accentuating each other rather than affecting each other causally. In this production, directed by Katharina Schmitt, vocalists Lydia Brotherton, Lena Haselmann and Markus Hollop were dressed in tuxedos – three mimes standing in a row, except when they were frantically gesticulating at the audience or the instrumentalists or each other. Within Pavel Svoboda's stage design, the Ostravská Banda (conducted by Mr Kotík) was stage left, while the vocalists stood in the center of the stage, with barely distinguishable Czech and English text occasionally broadcast on the brick wall behind them.

© New Opera Days Ostrava
© New Opera Days Ostrava

The speech sound composition began with heaving, gasping and panting from all three vocalists before their 'artificial language' expanded to include laughs, grunts, groans and gibberish. The band produced a fascinating array of sparse yet ominous sounds: pizzicato twangs on the bass, a brush across the piano strings, plus the occasional harsh outburst from the percussion in the form of slaps, snaps and bangs. The vocalists continued to make every imaginable mouth noise; their facial expressions were exquisite, conveying every possible emotion. In Nouvelles Aventures, the lines were livelier and more operatic. Repeated vowel sounds and indecipherable yammering eventually dissolved as the singers seemingly became aware of the presence of the musicians. At this point the vocalists began panting like worn-out dogs, gesticulating wildly at the instrumentalists, and even going so far as to thieve away some percussion accoutrements and bowl them downstage towards Mr Kotík. He and his band kept their cool, ignoring the singers and finding their way effortless to the final airy sustained tones, which cut off simultaneously with the final hissed expulsion from the vocalists.

While Ligeti's opera was sung in an 'artificial language', Mr Kotík's was conveyed in several languages at once: English texts by Shakespeare (Timon of Athens) and Picasso (quotations) sung by Alma Samimi, Markus Hollop and Adrian Rosas; a Czech voiceover consisting of spoken excerpts from an autobiographical text by Nathalie Babel, the daughter of the Russian poet Isaac Babel; purely musical lines played by the violin duo String Noise (Pauline Kim Harris and Conrad Harris); and finally, the kinetic language of five incredible dancers. These dancers – Matilda Sakamoto, Colin Fuller, Rei Masatomi, Isabelle Ayers and Giordano Bozza – moved across the stage with breathtaking passion, telling their own wordless story through the choreography of Ms Sakamoto. The space could not have been more perfect for Mr Kotík's 'dance opera': spacious hardwood floors with large windows letting in the natural light of the fading sun, and otherwise lit by Zuzana Režná's lighting design.

© New Opera Days Ostrava
© New Opera Days Ostrava

Against this backdrop of impeccable singing, the crackle of Miroslava Georgievová's narration, and the ear-snatching (though atonal) lines of the violins, the dancers strode across the stage, their reflections in the windows. Even their eye contact with each other crackled with tension and energy. The choreography did not simply mime what the singers were envoicing, but rather, as per Mr Kotík's intentions, the meaning was left ambiguous: “The theatrical element is non-narrative [and] deals with situation(s) of unforeseen turns of events that fundamentally change the condition of human existence.” In a recurring motif, a male dancer tried to shove his heart back into his chest, holding his hands over some invisible wound, until Ms Sakamoto placed her hands over his, holding them in place. The strings were quieter through the final moments, falling into unison as the dancer stumbled and fell to the ground. It was a sobering, moving and indeed wordless conclusion to a night proving that opera can tell stories even while transcending words.