Petr Wajsar is an avowed train freak. He loves anything that rides on rails, so much so that when heʼs not enjoying the passing view from a train or tram window, heʼs often glued to a computer or phone screen driving a train on the simulator BVE Trainsim. Wajsar is also one of the most versatile young composers in the Czech Republic. So when he first read Tramvestie, a collection of poems by Czech scholar and writer Pavel Novotný, he immediately became intrigued by the idea of setting them to music.

Jana Horáková Levicová, Lenka Šmídová, Dušan Růžička, Jiří Sulženko © Patrik Borecký
Jana Horáková Levicová, Lenka Šmídová, Dušan Růžička, Jiří Sulženko
© Patrik Borecký

Even Novotný found this a daunting proposition. The poems, written over a period of ten years, are based on conversations he collected while riding tram No. 11, which runs on a narrow-gauge line between the towns of Liberec and Jablonec near the Polish border. The scenery is remarkable, segueing from urban decay to rustic backyard gardens to patches of dense forest. The conversations were equally variegated, blending personal histories and traumas with reflections on the chaotic landscape. The result was a collage, an atmospheric series of disjointed moods and portraits – interesting reading, but hardly material for an opera.

Nonetheless, Novotný wrote a libretto and Wajsar produced what might best be described as an oratorio on wheels. A recorded soundtrack of mechanical noises, snippets of conversations and electronic rhythms provides the foundation for a 13-piece chamber orchestra and four singers to re-create the ride, with breaks marked by the actual stops. The singers remain stationary, perched on four tram seats behind an orchestra pit that occupies the apron. The momentum is supplied by the music and a kinetic flow of rear-projected images that invoke the lurching, vertiginous feeling of riding a tram. Mostly close-ups of peeling or rusting surfaces interspersed with dizzying flashes of light, the images were created by Marek Bureš, who also handled the stage direction.

Jiří Sulženko © Patrik Borecký
Jiří Sulženko
© Patrik Borecký

The four characters are synthesized stereotypes crafted with an eye toward capturing the Czech temperament, which Novotný and Wajsar do with compassion and precision. Thereʼs a neurotic office worker (soprano Jana Horáková Levicová), world-weary homeless person (mezzo Lenka Šmídová), energetic young optimist (tenor Dušan Růžička) and grumpy old man (bass Jiří Sulženko). They talk and sing solo, in various combinations, and occasionally as a quartet, often in insistent ostinato lines that add to the sense of movement. As the landscape changes, so do their personalities, snapping back to form at the final stop. Even with subtitles these shifts in character are hard to follow, though not off-putting. The constant stream of recorded and live voices is meant to be impressionistic, not logical, and the overall effect is agreeably kaleidoscopic.

Jana Horáková Levicová, Lenka Šmídová, Dušan Růžička, Jiří Sulženko © Patrik Borecký
Jana Horáková Levicová, Lenka Šmídová, Dušan Růžička, Jiří Sulženko
© Patrik Borecký

The music is even more fluid, moving seamlessly from neoclassical to modern to pop and beatbox and back again. The orchestra has a rock ʼnʼ roll spine – drum kit, electric guitar, bass and keyboard – and Wajsar knows how to make full use of the sound, sometimes setting a soft, atmospheric background, other times moving to the foreground with driving melodies. Colorful, focused and inventive, the score carries both a wild sense of freedom and feelings of claustrophobia – again, mirroring a real-life ride.

In that spirit, Tramvestie ends with the slightly dazed feeling of reaching the end of the line. The musicians finish playing, and with the singers still in their seats, pack up their instruments and filter off the stage. One by one the singers follow, slowly or hurriedly going separate ways while the soundtrack blares arrival announcements. Everything has changed and nothing has changed, with a fading clacking noise offering a reminder that the only constant in the world that Wajsar, Novotný and Bureš have brilliantly evoked is the never-ending rhythm of the rails.


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