The Knife: 'We've never even been to an opera'

An opera inspired by Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species? Swedish duo the Knife explain how they went from performing creepy electro pop to writing for a mezzo soprano

Swedish electro duo the Knife are to appear at the Barbican this week for the UK premiere of their opera Tomorrow, In a Year, based on Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species and commissioned by Danish theatre company Hotel Pro Forma. We chatted to Karin Dreijer Andersson and her brother Olof, and their collaborators Mt.Sims and Planningtorock, about the project.

Before you began, what did opera mean to you?

Karin: I didn't have any knowledge of opera. I'd listened to one on tape but I'd never been to one. I still haven't.

Olof: When we began work, we didn't think of it as an opera in the traditional sense. In fact, "opera" originally meant "a piece of work". And that's the definition Hotel Pro Forma wanted us to use. One of the directors recommended some operas, so conventional references were around.

Planningtorock: We were concerned there was entrapment in the word "opera". We just wanted to create a piece of conceptual music, as opposed to "creating an opera".

What was the brief that Hotel Pro Forma gave you?

Olof: They were very loose in the beginning, very open.

Karin: They wanted 100 minutes of music and it was supposed to be performed by three singers they had in mind; a mezzo soprano, an opera singer and an actress.

How did you tackle Darwin's material?

Olof: The subject was vast. One of the ways to portray the diversity was to get different angles in, so that's one of the reasons why we wanted to collaborate [with Planningtorock and Mt.Sims]

Mt.Sims: [The subject matter] wasn't just confined to On the Origin of Species or Charles Darwin, it was about how his theories relate to us now.

Olof: Darwin came from a religious background and his discoveries contradicted the views of the church. So the opera became about where religion meets science and Darwin questioninghis beliefs.

Mt.Sims: In Annie's Box we dealt withDarwin losing his daughter and the impact it had on his studies and personal life. After her death, we thought that it would make him think: "What makes something weak and how can I repair this?"

What challenges did you face writing for opera singers?

Karin: Writing for a mezzo soprano felt impossible in the beginning.

Olof: It was a mix of conforming to her ideals and also reacting to her tradition. That was the largest part of the battle. When I asked her to sing one note throughout the whole opera, she said: "This doesn't make me sound good." So we had to find ways of making her feel good. The tension between our way of doing things has been really interesting.

Mt.Sims: It was challenging because we had to deconstruct how she was trained and considered "what is correct?" and "what is not correct?"

Planningtorock: Opera singers are different to pop singers. With pop performers you spend a lot of time with your own voice, finding a point where you feel comfortable. An opera singer doesn't have that point of feeling comfortable with their own voice. So if you ask them to do something they're not trained to do, they don't feel comfortable doing it.

Tomorrow, In a Year, featuring Hotel Pro Forma and music by the Knife with Mt.Sims and Planningtorock is at the Barbican tonight


Priya Elan

The GuardianTramp

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