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The opera "Kälte" ("Da gelo a gelo," or "From Frost to New Frost"), which premiered Sunday night at the Rococo Theatre in Schloss Schwetzingen, brings together an almost dizzying spectrum of cultures and epochs. The opera is based on the 11th-century diaries and poems by the Japanese court lady Izumi Shikibu, who conducted a none-too-secret affair with Prince Atsumichi that rocked Old Japan. It is composed by the ultramodern Salvatore Sciarrino in a co-production of the Schwetzingen Festival, the Opéra National de Paris and the Grand Theatre of Geneva. Other collaborators include the celebrated avant-garde American choreographer Trisha Brown, who directed the opera, the French stage designer Daniel Jeanneteau and New York-based costume designer Elizabeth Cannon.
Subtitled "110 scenes with 65 poems," "Kälte" is really a fragmented continuum. Sciarrino described his work as a "continuous change from small and large, closed and open, direct and indirect." Without breaks, all the costume changes take place onstage, making the clothing an integral part of the opera, which runs through Wednesday night as part of the Schwetzingen Festival. "Kälte" will next be staged at the Opéra National de Paris-Palais Garnier in May 2007, then will move to Geneva the following year, and there's talk of it going to Lincoln Center in New York.
Cannon carefully researched the ancient period, but, she insists, "this is not a costume drama. It will feel immediate." Her creations bridge past and present, with a few compromises to accommodate the demands of staging. For example, the kimonos are not as voluminous as they would be traditionally. "Those clothes weighed people down to an incredible extent. Women were on the floor a lot," she explained. Brown urged Cannon to try to re-create the almost origami-like forms one sees in early graphic depictions of kimonos in Japanese art. The results are impressive: The court lady Izumi has two reversible kimonos, which represent the seasons and "the emotional impact of color," Cannon explains. Spring is a lime green style lined with graduated shades of coral, to represent summer; while fall is mauve silk with burnt orange on the hem and sleeves — which reverses to ice-blue satin for winter.