In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, five young women in their teens presented separately to a Manhattan hospital.
All reported similar symptoms (problems swallowing; difficulty in speaking) and each was convinced they had debris from the fallen towers – debris including fragments of human flesh – lodged in their throats.
The throat constriction was real enough, said doctors. But no trace of debris could be found. It was, some concluded, a form of PTSD, a reaction to the unspeakable, inexpressible trauma experienced by an entire city.
Susan Faludi, in her contentious book The Terror Dream, saw it as something more: a symbol of the silencing of women’s voices by a resurgent anti-feminist culture.
A decade on from Faludi’s book, those young women are now the inspiration for The Howling Girls, Sydney composer Damien Ricketson’s wordless psycho-drama opera exploring the connections between voice and trauma, between grief and its expression.
Directed by Adena Jacobs, the work begins in near complete darkness with Summoning, the first and longest of four movements.
We hear a whispered whistling at first. From that a female voice emerges, singing a sawing phrase of notes sounded with in and out breath. The notes strengthen into something akin to a vocal exercise for warm up different parts of the head, throat and chest.
We don’t know where the voice is coming from for some time until an image becomes dimly visible in the void behind designer Eugyeene Teh’s white proscenium: a prone figure (soprano Jane Sheldon) being slowly scanned by a beam of light.
As this figure rises, the voice expands. Sheldon develops a timbre like that of the eastern European “white voice” heard in Slavic women’s choirs. Beneath it, a bass rumble like some far distant avalanche is turned on and off. Above it, a note is picked up and set to ringing by a chorus of six young performers from the company The House That Dan Built.
There is no libretto as such, no narrative to follow. Instead, Jacobs creates a series of mysterious tableaux. Visually, there are moments of considerable power (Sheldon’s Butoh-like procession across the forestage, for example) but the emotional force of the piece is overwhelmingly sonic.
Sheldon’s command of pure and profane vocal sounds is remarkable. Her stamina likewise. In cahoots with musical director Jack Symonds’ theremin, electronic treatments developed by Ricketson and sound designer Bob Scott, and a mini-orchestra of shrieking Inca death whistles, it is overwhelming. The Howling Girls coils around the listener like some impossibly ancient Siren song.