First performances of Norwegian operas are few and far between, but thanks to the Norwegian National Opera's ambitious commissioning programme, three new operas have seen the light of day in the last seven years.
A fourth will have its first performance at the Bergen International Festival this year, the result of cooperation between the Norwegian National Opera and the “1000th Anniversary of the Christian Church in Norway, 1995”. So what is more natural than an opera by one of the mainstays of Norwegian church music, Egil Hovland?
Although Hovland is responsible for several religious musical plays, he wasn't really thinking of a church opera this time, but rather an ordinary theatrical performance. The subject of Fange og Fri (Imprisoned and Free) is the Norwegian lay preacher, Hans Nielsen Hauge (1771-1824), who lived and preached in Østfold, south-east of Oslo - also Egil Hovland's home county.
Hauge's evangelism was associated with a socialist movement aimed at giving ordinary people spiritual and financial freedom. In addition to being a revivalist preacher, he wrote books, was a good administrator and an important political and democratic force in his time. The authorities therefore regarded him as dangerous. To quote the first lines of the libretto, “We Christian, by the grace of God, King of Denmark and Norway, hereby make known that Johannes is a heretic, a man who seduces the people.” (Hans is a shortened form of the name Johannes).
The opera is based on Hans Nielsen Hauge's period of imprisonment, his preaching and his social involvement. He criticises sanctimonious hypocrisy and exhorts people to cultivate their minds and their work rather than going to prayer meetings. The observing, hymn-singing, knitting Johannes is a kind of leitmotif.
Fange og Fri is the fruit of Egil Hovland's long cooperation with two Swedish artists. Author Britt G. Hallqvist has written the texts for about twenty of Hovland's compositions: simple songs, biblical plays for children, larger religious musical works and now a whole opera. The synopsis for Fange og Fri was written by the Swedish choreographer, director and scenographer Ivo Cramér, who has previously created ballets and dramatisations to several of Hovland's works, including the comprehensive Danses de la mort pour orchestre et danceurs.
Egil Hovland (1924) recently celebrated his seventieth birthday. Thanks to his influential position in Norwegian music, this did not pass unnoticed. He was honoured with two celebration volumes, several CDs, exhibitions, a festival of church music and a series of concerts. He is regarded as one of the major renewers of Norwegian church music and has contributed to the design of both the Norwegian hymn book and the liturgy of the Norwegian Church. He has also composed a considerable number of profane works. His opus includes almost 150 compositions, including many large orchestral works, choral works, chamber music, solo works, songs etc.
In the course of his composing career, Hovland has experimented with several different styles. His early works in the 1950s were clearly influenced by neo-classicism. In the 1960s, Hovland represented a radical direction in church music. His use of dancers in tights in front of the altar in Missa Vigilate caused a major scandal at the first performance in 1967, while Elementa pro organo was actually banned by an Oslo church for a period of time because of the unorthodox use of organ pipes.
Hovland nevertheless has a prominent position in Norwegian church music. The stylistic revolutionary has settled down and is now better known for his ability to vary the use of the traditional triad. His hymns and religious songs for children are extremely popular, also outside Norway's borders.