Review of the opera Lennon

The opera Lennon is of utmost musical and scenical interest. Its scenic contents depict the spectacular story of the killing of the famous lead musician of The Beatles who was shot at the entrance to his residence in New York on 8 December 1980, after which the main question that intrigued the world was what might have turned a fan into the killer of the man he adored? The Croatian composer Ivo Josipović has set this touching subject to music, composing an opera in an innovative and fascinating way. Having had, in addition to his respectable careers in the world of jurisprudence and in the world of politics, an intense musical career and having written over fifty chamber music pieces for various instruments, chamber orchestra and symphony orchestra, he has now presented his first opera, which can be enjoyed on this recording. Josipović’s composition style is eclectic and expressive, awaking the thought of parallels to the composition styles of Gottfried von Einem, Friedrich Cerha, Gian Carlo Menotti, Alban Berg and – to go farther back – partly Maurice Ravel. It combines mainly tonal with some atonal elements, with prevalence of the tonal ones, a sharply developed rhythmical force and several sound painting elements. The dramatic aspect reminds of Alban Berg’s Lulu (yet, certainly, without parallels to its dodecaphonic composition technique), the rhythmic aspect reminds of Maurice Ravel’s Bolero or L’heure espagnole (naturally without parallels to their Spanish sound elements), and the transparent orchestra supporting the singers reminds of Bellini’s belcanto compositions like La Sonnambula and Norma (of course without melodic and harmonic parallels but referring to the way of accompaniment of singers, exposing the vocal parts by the aid of the orchestra, which is especially in operatic compositions of highest importance). The strong connection between music and text as well as the pictures transferred by the music is an important aspect that reminds of the composers Menotti and von Einem.

Josipović’es music presents high vocal demands to the singers, requiring dramatic voices with coloratura abilities. The rhythmic orchestra sound needs very precise vocal set-in by the singers. The English text pronunciation is rhythmically parallel to the music beat and therefore makes the text acoustically perfectly understandable. The combination of mostly straight beats with expressive musical illustration of the plot creates a fearful sound atmosphere, which is perfect for the subject of this opera dealing with John Lennon’s murder and the last days of his life as well as the people who were important to him, and creating by means of the music a psychological profile of his murderer.

The orchestra sound is transparent and bright. Lyric and dramatic elements interchange, and the rhythmical power is always in the focus. This makes the ensemble scenes very clear and precise. The orchestral music supports the singing lines and exposes the voices in an efficient way, almost in reminiscence of the belcanto composition technique, although of course with a totally different harmonical approach, but referred to the way in which the orchestra carries the voices. It is delightful that the fate of John Lennon has induced the composer and his librettist Marina Biti to create an opera dedicated to this subject, which experienced its world premiere at the Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb under the precise musical direction of the conductor Ivan Josip Skender and the thoughtful staging of the stage director Marina Pejnović, and is now eternalized on this recording.

This opera promises an important future worldwide as it combines a thrilling subject with a captivating music that has not only a place in the history of contemporary music but also with the audiences as the music, thanks to its expressivity and rhythmic structure, touches the listeners and creates strong acoustic pictures of the subject.

The composer differentiates excellently between various atmospheres and expresses them through his musical language so well that even without text the plot would be understandable only by the musical impact on the listener. It is high time that Josipović dedicated himself to compose an opera – and hopefully more operas to come – as his musical language and onomatopoetic composition style turns out to be especially appropriate for the music drama. This makes Josipović a composer who appears to be predetermined for opera. Perhaps this might be due to his manifold experiences, not only as a composer but also as an eminent jurist, not to mention his well known political career. As a matter of fact, the combination between jurisprudence and art appears to be quite a fertile one. Let us think back, for example, to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who was jurist and poet, or E. T. A. Hoffmann who was jurist and composer. And, finally and modestly, also the author of these lines combines experience as a lawyer and as a music manager.

In any case, the music world can hope after the world premiere of this opera that more operas will be composed by Josipović whose composition technique is particularly apt for that. It is quite seldom to find among contemporary composers such a perfectly fitting attitude for opera compositions, combining music with drama in a fruitful way. The music composed by Josipović does this masterly and its interpretation on this recording is exemplary, creating thus a so-called “Gesamtkunstwerk” of highest dramatic power and music impact! -Dr. Adrian Eugen Hollaender


A few words from the recording editor

The opera Lennon keeps Lennon’s mission current

Every other year we look forward eagerly to the first performance of a new music stage work by a Croatian composer. In this country it is only the Music Biennale Zagreb that is capable of pulling off something like this, in collaboration with one of the national theatres. This very nice practice, well-established since the 1960’s in the first biennial years, was renewed in 2021, after a short period of abstinence. 2023 was ideal for the first performance of the operatic first-born, heralded for more than a decade, of the best known Croatian composer, the third president of the country, doctor and professor, Ivo Josipović. His life’s wish was to write an opera about John Lennon, in which he wanted to combine his two equal loves – music and criminal law. As a composer, on the one hand, he was in awe of Lennon’s musical imagination, and as professor of criminal procedure, he was fascinated by the bipolar psychology of Lennon’s killer, Mark David Chapman. And as humanist, he was inspired by the pacifist messages of Lennon’s activist period. All of this was clear to librettist Marina Biti, who put together an outstanding libretto inspired by the facts of Lennon’s life, his thinking, his activism and his creativity. The libretto is a kind of compendium of Lennon’s relationships with people who are important in his life in flashback, a welter of memories of life in the moments Lennon lay dying, between being shot and death itself.

All the quotations from Lennon are at the level of association, while in the music of the opera, Josipović introduces not a single motif of Lennon’s musical work, neither from his solo career nor from the Beatles phase. But all the other elements of his life are included, filtered through the authentic music of Josipović, between modern and classic, very eclectic but always appealing and acceptable to a wide range of listeners. The selection of soloists was left to our colleague, conductor and composer Ivan Josip Skender, who in agreement with the management of the Croatian National Theatre, made an excellent allotment and precisely shaped the choral and orchestral performance. Under his leadership, all the soloists shone in the full glory of their individual music-stage potentials. At the end of the season, two of them actually obtained for roles in this opera prizes for the best achievements in the 2022-2023 season, from their home theatre, the CNT in Zagreb (the Marijana Radev and the Vladimir Ruždjak prizes); soprano Marija Kuhar Šoša with her charming appearance and crystalline voice of angelic purity in the high notes graced the original character of Lennon’s widow Yoko Ono, while bass-baritone Ozren Bilušić, with the fullness of his gestural expression, his deeply felt sense for drama and vocal strength showed as Chapman all the nuances of the killer’s mind. Well-deserved prizes were also given to interpreters whom we have not had the chance to meet previously in this kind of contemporary repertoire. They are bound, as are some other singers, to remain in the memory of the audience precisely for the roles they interpreted in Lennon. At the moment, no prize has been awarded to tenor Domagoj Dorotić for Lennon himself, certainly much deserved above all for the incredible psychological and vocal efforts he made during the preparations (he put all other roles “on ice” for 8 months), as well as for the incessant movements of the eponymous hero on the stage, creating with this role a new page in his repertoire in the direction of a contemporary dramatic and highly moving expression. Not less impressive are the interpreters of the smaller roles. Mezzo-soprano Dubravka Šeparović Mušović in the charming figure of Lennon’s lover May surprised all those who are familiar with her expressionist style of singing with a narrowed range of lyrical songs. Her colleague Sofia Ameli Gojić rounded her tone in order to acquire the associative almost maternal colouring of Lennon’s early deceased mother Julia. Soprano Kristina Anđelka Đopar, member of the chorus of the CNT, got the chance to show her paces as soloist in this opera with her voice of a powerful dramatic potential as Lennon’s strict but fair aunt, Mimi, who looked after him when his mother died. Deaths and premature partings are a leitmotif in Lennon’s life, and also in Josipović’s opera about him. He was too soon left by his first and best friend, Stuart Sutcliffe (Stu), bass guitarist in the original line-up of the Beatles, who was excellently limned in short vocal passages by tenor Dario Ćurić. The deepest registers and all the seriousness of the role of the first, legendary, and also prematurely deceased manager of the Beatles, Brian Epstein, were featured by bass Siniša Štork. The darklycoloured mezzo soprano of Helena Lucić Šego, playing Lennon’s first wife Cynthia, traditionally English and perhaps overly serious, and the pleasantly coloured baritone of Alen Ruško as their son Julian who complains at one instance of his having left him too soon, expanded the amplitude of vocal colours. The other Beatles were well fitted and impressively performed by tenor Siniša Galović as Paul, baritone Siniša Hapač as George and baritone Davor Radić as Ringo Starr. Josipović’s music only speciously sticks to the division into arias, duets and trios, choruses and orchestral passages (dividing the opera into scenes), but everything is intermingled into an inextricable mass of music that flows as if in a dream. The very successful choral parts of the composer who has in almost the whole of his previous work avoided the human voice are particularly delightful; in this opera he has revealed a subtle, nuanced and very adroit composerly poetic that is much wanting in contemporary Croatian vocal music. The chorus in Lennon has the role of commentator, even the role of initiator of the action, as fans or audience, and in the texture often resorts to the form of fugue or fugato, just as when the protagonists sing together. The stage interpretation of the work was devised in detail by the young director Marina Pejnović; in her third opera (after Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice done when she was a student and the previous biennial opera first performance, Last Intermezzo of Berislav Šipuš) showed her splendid talent for directing. All elements of the stage were used to the maximum, and there was no idling, something was always going on, and the effective moveable sets of Ivan Lušičić Liik and the minimalist costumes of Zdravka Ivandija Kirigin helped the whole of this psychological stage nightmare to be followed very easily and be expounded clearly as symbols. Although the opera Lennon was done primarily for theatre performance, to be seen from the auditorium at least the orchestra pit distance away, in a video recording in close up, much more can be experienced. ll the wishes, endeavours and efforts of the creative team had to be shown in image form, in which director Mirena Stijačić and her team of video operator, sound mixer, producer, assistant, musical associate and editor, succeeded masterfully. Opera is primarily a musical genre, and everything comes from the sound, which was multiply taken care of by music producer Margareta Mihalić and sound engineer Robert Tanasković, working countless hours in the studio alongside the composer to produce what might be called an ideally authorised sound image. The performance and the production of the recording before us will certainly be a guarantee that this newly created operatic masterpiece will continue to thrive among future generations of interpreters, organisers of operatic life and the audience, not only in Croatia, but in the world at large. This will without doubt be supported by the fact that Lennon has been included in the OperaVision project and is part of the YouTube important European theatres project. In just a month, Lennon was watched by almost six and a half thousand viewers, which is a very high viewing figure where contemporary serious music is concerned. Another important link in the opera’s success is our own company Croatian Records, which is preparing a special edition, a box set which will contain a CD, a DVD, a Blu-ray and a USB format as well as a lavishly appointed booklet with libretto and important information about the opera itself. Naturally, we also have to mention Croatian Radio Television, which did the audio-visual recordings and made them available to Croatia Records for this edition. Additionally, it twice broadcast a recording of the opera on its own programmes. I am so glad to have taken part myself, as the recording editor, in the exceptional project of the opera Lennon. -Jana Haluza


The two or perhaps three versions of the libretto that form the text and subtext of the opera Lennon

The opera Lennon might be said to have been a long time in the making, one of the results of this several-year long engagement being the current existence of two or perhaps as many as three textual versions of the piece. Marina Biti wrote the initial version of the libretto in Croatian, after which – at the suggestion of the manager of the Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb, Iva Hraste-Sočo – she rewrote the text to create a second, English, version. Although it was in a sense an afterthought, it was this second version that was set to music and so became the official original. But the actual process of setting it to music created a kind of third version. This third version – the one that we can read in the score, or listen to in a performance – draws very heavily on the previous two, and for the full understanding of it one has by all means to read the whole of the material printed in this edition.

Though the Croatian and English versions are structurally and dramaturgically mutually consistent, each of them is built on a different kind of prosody and on different procedures for making intertextual references to the musical works of John Lennon and the Beatles. It can be said that the decision to create a version of the libretto in English was close to the heart of librettist Marina Biti, primarily because of the possibility of a fuller development of references to Lennon’s songs, which was to become an identifiable feature of the libretto for anyone at all acquainted with Lennon’s musical oeuvre and the music of the Beatles. But this factor of powerful allusiveness that suffuses both the English and the Croatian version of the libretto is not to be seen in the music of Josipović, which resolutely refrains from any reference to musical models related to Lennon. This factor will ultimately be textually palliated because of the abbreviation and condensation with which, composing his score, the composer intervened in the very text of the libretto. Subjecting the dramaturgy of the textual prototype of the opera to a high degree of condensation, and the very language of the libretto to rhythmical and melodic variations, Josipović has marked the third version of the libretto with numerous newly-introduced repetitions that he used for the development of the musical dynamics of the work and for the delimitation in this version of particularly condensed dramatic situations. It is, accordingly, a little less suitable for reading, since it is only with listening to the performance that we can break through to those layers of the message in which the composer has compensated for the meaning of the omitted parts of the text, having assigned an implicit narrative function to the often used rhythmical turns and the dramatic interrelations of the melodic lines represented in the many polyphonic passages.

The relation between the two original versions of the libretto and the texts of Lennon’s songs develops in the domain of allusion, as a rule and does not cross over into direct quotation. The librettist however managed in both the Croatian and in the English version to find procedures by which to refer to the celebrated Lennon-Beatles compositions like Let It Be, The Long and Winding Road, Revolution, Imagine and others besides. In this string of references it is worth picking out the template that represents the original place for understanding the phantasmagoric mergings of reality and dream vision into which Lennon falls immediately after the shots from the pistol of Mark David Chapman were fired at him. A short introductory segment of the opera is located in the realm of reality and presents John Lennon and Yoko Ono in a December dusk getting out of the car and walking along the pavement to their New York home up to the moment when John, responding to Chapman’s calling of his name, turns round, only to be hit with the lethal bullets. The action at that moment shifts into the consciousness of the dying musician in which reality becomes part of a hallucinatory vision through which are to parade all the important persons from his biography, thus taking part in his ultimate farewell to life. Immediately after the shooting, when this fissure opens up in Lennon’s mind, in the libretto comes a reference to the title of a composition on a tape recording that the musician was holding under his arm just before the attack. This is the composition Walking on Thin Ice, the recording of which was done the same day and which would become one of the bigger critical and commercial successes of the musical career of Yoko Ono. Lennon, then, sinks into state of hallucination: he suddenly takes leave of reality and – as if while walking on thin ice that with a crack breaks under the weight of steps – falls into icy water in which his breath is taken away, stiffening his body, blurring his vision and slowing down his vital functions. In the Croatian version, this intertextual relation is made more explicitly present than in the English, which addresses the theme of ice and plunging into the cold and murky depths more indirectly, and with different words: (Croatian, as rendered in English:– I am here… I’m not… I am / Caught in glass / In the anteroom to heaven or perhaps in hell / Under the icy crust I’m alone, without a voice. / I seek my light… / only the surging of the dark/ I feel wretched in this wave of dark: /Where am I? Who am I? What am I? / I’m cold… cold / Steps on the ice. Steps on the ice. Steps on the ice. In Croatian: Tu sam… nisam… jesam.. ./ Zarobljen u staklu… / U predvorju raja… il’ možda – u paklu… / Pod ledenom korom sâm sam, i bez glasa. / Tražim svoje svjetlo… / …tek mrak se talasa / Na tom valu mraka osjećam se jadno: / Gdje sam? Tko sam? Što sam? / Hladno mi je… hladno… / Koraci po ledu. Koraci po ledu. Koraci po ledu..; And in actual English: A deafening row fills my ears / It comes from a distance, yet it feels so near / Endless, unbound… this crazy sound / A shrieking high and a throbbing low – / from somewhere, from nowhere, / from above, from below… / Am I in the sky, unthinkably high, / or in the deepest deep of the sea?…). Like a drowning person in deep and icy water in his last moments John lives through the whole of his life in a phantasmagoric creation of his own mind, in which there are three main personae: Yoko, May Pang and Mark Chapman. Lennon’s song My Mummy’s Dead is invoked at the moment he recalls his mother’s death; Paul McCartney consoles Lennon’s son Julian with the words “Hey Jules”, referring thereby to Hey Jude, and John addresses Paul with the description of a song with which he wishes to be consoled (I want to be vibration – free, like breathing / For breathing – that’s today) alluding to the poem that McCartney really did write after the death in memory of his perished friend (Here today) and summed up in it the emotional charge of their relationship. The gathering of the Beatles is accompanied by an allusion to the song Come Together (in Croatian as translated: Lads, be quick – where are you? Time to rehearse! Let’s get together / Brian’s calling us / Brian’s calling us / Let’s get together / Get together fast / Look, Brian’s here / And here are George and Ringo too. Can you believe it, Paul, that we are all here, together) the original words of which go – He says, “one and one and one is three” / Got to be good looking ‘cause he’s so hard to see – and are a bit more directly invoked in the English version (English: Well, five is “one and one and three”- / all five of them good looking! / Indeed, we are a sight to see! / Ok, Brian – what’s cookin’?). Reference is made to the white room motif and John’s final fascination with whiteness, to the dreamy whiteness of the rooms of John’s home, seen in the video of the song Imagine, where the text is also permeated with allusions to the words of Strawberry Fields Forever. In the final scene of the libretto there are mixed references to Imagine and Give Peace a Chance, John dreaming a distorted scenario of his own death in which, from the mass of the gathered people invoking peace, the face of Chapman emerges. These are just a few of the intertextual moments that the librettist has skilfully woven into her own verses.

These and many other references to the lines from both Lennon’s and Beatles’ songs contribute to the dreamlike atmosphere in which, in the perspective of a fading consciousness, reality and hallucination are mingled, waking and dreaming, reality and its painful and ominous penetration of John’s consciousness. A second layer of references that constitute the core of the text of the libretto relates to real persons who had important roles in Lennon’s life, from whom in various ways he parts in his last moments; making peace with them, bidding farewell to them, resolving the traumas of loss and desertion he links with them (mother, Aunt Mimi, former wife Cynthia, son Julian, Stuart Sutcliffe, Brian Epstein). In the series of people a key role belongs to Lennon’s lover May Pang, whom at the movement of the shooting Yoko herself invokes in order to ease John’s last moments and who, apart from the biographical has a literary reference too, taking upon herself the Virgilian role of John’s guide on the paths of reality on the other side. May comes into the story through Yoko Ono’s intervention – just as in real life she entered Lennon’s life – in a scene of the invocation of spring (May qua season). May pulls John out of the depression and state of shock into which he falls after the shooting, but at the end withdraws from the story (as she did in real life), reconciled to her own abandonment, but at the same time sensing evil: John’s imminent death. May Pang is the key with which in the libretto the world of fantasy opens up and which in the end signalises the return to the grim and ominous reality.

Another important role in the structure of the libretto goes to Mark Chapman. Unlike May, who has a symbolic role as link between two worlds and is a metaphor for Lennon’s entry into a hallucinatory state in which echoes of reality, dreams and memories mingle and combine, Chapman is the weight that pulls Lennon down to the bottom, the abyss, into death. The last face that he saw and the last voice he heard reverberate in Lennon’s mind, undermine his spiritual peace, persecuting him. Chapman’s face is a leitmotif that emerges from Lennon’s nightmare visions, not permitting him to calm down; he is the face of death. His role is crucial in the articulation of the up and down, undulating trajectory of events that marks the structure of the libretto. Every time Lennon manages to break out of his depression, confusion and shock, Chapman’s face appears again, pulling him back into the frozen abyss of death. Unlike May, who calms him and softens the state of shock he is in, Chapman is here to remind him of what he would like to forget: the inevitability of the death with which he is faced. The peak of this dramaturgical wave consists of the scene with the reunion of the Beatles, one more phantasmagoric evocation of reality, recalling to us the last Beatles concert, given in 1969, on the roof of the Apple Corps building in London (the Rooftop Concert). This much dreamed of reunion – one that many fans ardently wished for but that never occurred – was to get self-referential dimensions, since John, Paul, George and Ringo, under the direction of manager Brian Epstein, proclaim their playful exploit to be the creation of an opera in which the role of soloist – that which John in his lifetime as a whole had assigned to her – would be taken by Yoko Ono. This renewed union of John and Yoko would lead to the evocation of their work for peace – first of all their performances given before representatives of the world’s press in bed in the hotel room in Montreal – the Bed-in for Peace, as it was called, and then their combined appearance at a peace demonstration held before fifty thousand people in Bryant Park in New York in 1972 . The evocation of the latter scenario is subject to phantasmagoric deformation because of the presence of Mark Chapman. The last rise and dramatic fall within the continuous undulating trajectory of the dramatic events happens in the final scene of the gathering of a huge crowd of people who, following John, protest in the name of peace. The hymn-like feeling of the peace demo is interrupted contrapuntally by Chapman’s shots, which bring the end of the opera back to its beginning, Lennon’s dream death converging irrevocably with the real life event. The text of the libretto is characterised by a powerful rhythm and a rhymed structure, with unconventional and interesting rhymes producing a powerful euphonic effect. The original, complete version of the libretto in English together with the corresponding Croatian text should be understood as a value in itself, as a cantabile subtext of the third version, important for a better and fuller understanding of an opera as work in which the musical expression is dominant. Annotations related to the musical prototypes and the real events that the author has put in the text of the stage directions can also additionally help in the understanding. Reading of the integral libretto also helps the decoding of the allusive and metaphorical structure of the stage work and in keeping up with the complex modernist music of Ivo Josipović that condenses these meanings and energetically rearticulates them in musical code, turning the actual text within the score into a kind of third version of a libretto marked by his creative imprint.