Amundsen Og Jeg - Part 1
Tom Holloway, the librettist of the opera "South Pole", once lived in Norway. He writes about his last visit to Oslo, his liaison with Munch and Amundsen and the meeting with his former family-in-law for the first time after he left Norway. His story will be published in three parts.
I wish I could claim that the idea of this opera was mine. It seems like it should have been: This is a story about a British man and a Norwegian man that involves both Tasmania and Melbourne. I am a dual Australian/British citizen who is Tasmanian born and bred, once lived in Oslo and now lives in Melbourne. How could I not have come up with the idea of this opera? I don't know, but I didn't. It was all Mirek. You know something annoying about Miroslav Srnka? He's one of those people who are both brilliant and lovely. Don't you hate those people?
So, although I didn't come up with the idea for this opera, even though I should have, I want to tell you about my relationship with one of the story's key players, Roald Amundsen. I guess the best place to start is Oslo.
A little while ago I spent nearly two years living in Oslo. I was there for two summers and a winter. I loved it. It is a place of such extremes: Twenty hours of sunlight in June, twenty hours of darkness in December. Winter was a meter of snow and minus twenty-eight, added with clear days of cross-country skiing and fairy tale-like walks through silent snowfall. Summer was plus twenty-eight degrees, swimming off islands in the fjord, and golden twilight that lasted for hour after hour.
It can be an idyllic place, but it is most definitely a place of myth and mystery, because Norway is a Munch painting: Beautiful and serene at first glance, but the more you look, the darker it becomes. This makes it compelling. Endlessly compelling.
It was with this existing relationship to Norway that I first met Roald Amundsen. After Mirek (damn him) suggested this subject for our opera, I sat down and read Roland Huntford's book The Last Place On Earth. In it I discovered a version of Amundsen that captured everything I loved about Norway: a striking, honest and painfully effective man who does things the right way because questions of life and death have been day-to-day challenges for him, as they are for all Norwegians trying to survive in the harsh environment of their country. Huntford paints a version of Amundsen that is similar to the first glance of a Munch, full of colours in the right place, and people seemingly comfortable and happy in the park or on the beach or wherever they might be.
But then I read more about Amundsen from other writers. And I also read his own diary. Over and over.
The wallet I carry with me has a Munch painting on it. It is of a scene by the seaside. Couples appear to be dancing and kissing. Everyone is dressed in their Sunday Best. There is lush, green lawn going down to a golden beach, and the calm, still sea seems to be reflecting the golden sun.
But then when you really look at it, you notice some of the people have lime-green, distorted faces. One of the couples, who you thought were dancing and kissing, suddenly look like something much more treacherous might going on. Does that woman want that man on her like he is? And then you even notice it seems to be a moon reflecting in the sea, so all this is happening at night. In darkness, when all 'good folk' are sleeping. Are these people the dead, awakened? Why do the women on either side of the scene, one in white and one in black, look so sad and forlorn? I've carried this picture with me for nearly five years, and I still wonder at it.
The more I read about Amundsen, the more I began to see the darkness that sat under his confident, successful outward persona. He could be brutal with those he'd known the longest, he struggled to keep long-term relationships with women, and he seemed to prefer his own company to that of others. Why?
Now I saw him like this I had to wonder, did he do the incredible things he did... discovering the northwest-passage, being first to the South Pole and the first that we can be sure of (even if in a plane) to the North Pole... To achieve great things for humanity, or did he do them because he had potent demons that he needed to run from? Did he spend time in such cold and such extremes because these harsh environments seemed to match the emotional turmoil he took with him everywhere he went? Did the intensity of his pain push him to heights of success, and if so, what was the cause of it all? Why did this man who succeeded at so much, seem so failed at the basic rules of being human?