I entered a competition. Actually, we entered a competition. Here in Berlin.

It was a prize for an opera concept, and I luckily had an amazing partner, a composer who has done many strange, wonderful, complicated things. And won some prizes. I haven’t won any composing prizes, largely because I am not a composer, but I make up for it in moxy and strong conceptual ideas, despite all odds.

They announced the winner this afternoon. More on that in a moment.

About a week before the second round juries, I started putting together my presentation, in the form of slides. the composer would not be present; I was on my own. The jury rep had called a few times to ask whether I had any particular technological needs, or would require a piano, or whatever, and to tell me about the hardcore schedule they’d created for a full weekend extravaganza of meal tickets, free seats to see their very hyperactive rock musical with strong accidental homoerotic overtones about a group of lonely people and their relationships to their self-aware online avatars, group presentations, and so on. My presentation was essentially images I found online and sound files and video clips that would help me tell the story of what the composer does, what the project might be like, and what sort of vision we might be stumbling towards, with a bunch of text that I more or less stuck to. I thought about how to lead them through the thought process, how we interpreted New Deal (that was the proscribed theme) and so on.


Part one:

Yesterday we all met for an uncomfortable breakfast of soup bowls filled with coffee in the cafe downstairs from the theater, after which we all filed, 3 people at a time and standing very close together (the legendary German stare, incidentally, is not lessened by proximity, in case any of you were wondering about that) via elevator up to the strange cluttered attic space upstairs where we would be presenting. We learned there had been 44 submissions this year. I also learned accidentally that at least one group… well, one guy… had been invited just a few days prior, to travel all expenses paid from Czechoslovakia. In fact I was the only one from Berlin, everyone else of the 7 groups in the second round seemed to have come from a variety of exotic places.

The first group was two: a very confident young lady fresh out of German theater school and her Spanish composer friend. Using nothing but mouth words and confidence, they proposed a work which explores the topic of how auditioning is hard, because casting directors have specific ideas and isn’t that outrageous?? They proposed to explore this very serious topic onstage in the form of interpretive dance, and the singing (this is an opera, after all) should be done by people who are not only untrained but unsuitable for professional singing. The instrumentation was irrelevant, because the dancer-singers should ideally also play an instrument, which they would bring perhaps if they felt moved to do so, and play using each others notes which are written for other instruments. They therefore don’t have a libretto per se, but they have gotten together a few times to see how it feels and they think it feels pretty good, at least the dancing part.

The second group was three very shy little boys wearing cardigans, who seemed to basically present the idea that it is possible today to play any midi piece whatsoever in alternate tunings. 12 Tone! 14 Tone! 24 Tone! We heard it all. A Gavotte by someone important, which sounded positively un-Gavotte-like! Asked how this would translate to the stage, they concurred this would need to be discussed. Also staging, and story, and that sort of thing. However, they were certain that singers would absolutely not be involved, because singers already earn far, far too much money singing La Boheme.

I was third. I opened with a clip of the moody piece The Bed You Sleep In before introducing myself, because I thought it was a nice way to get their attention slowly, give them time to look at the key visual I developed for the proposal, and get in the mood. And I thought it would be a great idea to go after two really shitty presentations since, at that time, I still assumed the other ones would probably be better. And the music reminded me a little of the Depression-era thing I’d reference later. It worked. People definitely were rapt, and the presentation went very well. I introduced myself as a singer and played a variety of clips and apologized that I’d be speaking a little on behalf of the composer, but that I’d do my best.  People were with me, they laughed and Hmm’d at the right points. I felt them come along. I talked about the other people who we might like to involve, and why, and what we made of the New Deal theme. What the characters might be, how the story might progress.

But the room was a weird read. I felt a big wave of positivity, but then I received the following questions:

– “So, wait, is there singing in this opera?”
– “Wow, that’s really ambitious. Singers, set, music, ideas…”
– “Where is the composer from again?”

I sat back down.

Fourth was the Czech guy, a writer who works in a design agency who was presenting on behalf of a composer he’d never met. He opened by playing a couple very bad techno-lite files while he walked over to the piano and stripped, then redressed in a wig, heels, mini skirt, fishnets, and push-up bra. The jury adored it. He presented a list of characters, voice parts, and a description of each act/aria/scene. The music was to take place 40% on mobile phones in the form of ringtones from a variety of well-known pop and classical artists, because, as we all now know, whores all have three mobile phones, one for friends, one for clients, and one for their pimp. The New Deal was the special price the newest whore offers her clientele.

At the break, I wandered around the neighborhood. I felt strange. I had on very high heels and a suit. I realized the futility of having blow-dried my hair, as I so often do. This time I went up the elevator alone.

After the break, we were assaulted by a fascinating monologue from a girl whose grandmother was Chinese, so therefore she, too, is Chinese, though her face is too pointy, and thus she is a counterfeit Chinese person. The notion of which was surprisingly interesting. She would love to get a tattoo of a red star above her heart. She was dressed in a wig and fan (that she confessed later to have picked up on her lunch break) and proclaimed herself an excellent singer but refused to sing for us, even when repeatedly asked by the jury. Instead, she made use of her fan and dramatically recited the lyrics of a popular chinese karaoke song which she’d run through google translator. I liked her boots, which looked comfortable. She hadn’t really thought about what the music in her opera proposal might be like, but, put on the spot, she mused that perhaps she could find some Chinese people to play some traditional Chinese instruments. The set would have red couches, though. The jury loved her. I began to be palpably confused.

After the non-Chinese monologue, we heard from 2 extremely earnest women who had spent several months or years interviewing people in several countries, and asking them about their earliest recollections of experiences with prayer, and what that meant to them. I have to admit, the project, in a museum, would be very moving. The interviews were all done in the native tongue of the interviewee, and the earnest women translated these to us. One of the two women squinted her right eye extremely tightly when she was stressed, and never stopped smiling with all her teeth. They proposed an opera which consisted of the sound of these interviews being played all at once, while one of the women sings (not the squinting one) in her earnest folk singer way, her repetitive vowel song about prayer, which was something like this: ooo. EEEEE. oooo. eeee. EEEEEEOOOOOO. ooo. EEEE. ooooo. And so on. And this gets layered and repeated in infinite ways. Words are not important to them. Also, audience members would be encouraged to bring their own instruments and join in. It should be a communion, but not about communion, or religion, or ritual, or giving, or taking. The set should not matter, it’s not about set, or voice, but it’s everything about voice, and what we say, but words are not even needed. So yes and… no. Not at all. Also, the audience should be provided with a half of a piece of clothing, which they must wear during the presentation. Not ritualistic or somehow in any way religious articles of clothing, rather along the lines of a shoulder of a dress, the hip of a skirt. They were not sure how these things could be made to stay in place. It would need to be discussed.

The last presenter was a handsome italian dancer, very nervous, who spoke briefly. I was transfixed by his hair, which he wore in an inexplicably small ponytail at the very top of his head. His dance troupe would like to do a piece based on a book about survivors of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. This is because it is very much like Italy, not in that Italy is being invaded by Soviets, or has a desert, but nevertheless the story really spoke to him and this is New Deal. He did not know what sort of music might be involved, and the set was totally unclear. Singing would be done by the dancers, because they don’t have singers, they are dancers. But if the dancers sing, that could be interesting. Anyway, they don’t think of opera as singing. They think of it as dancing and art, and, naturally, Afghanistan.

After this final presentation, we were fed a dinner of toast, and we could choose to see a production of the aforementioned massively energetic rock musical with accidental homoerotic overtones, which I did. It was absorbing! Major props to the excellent cast. Major. And the band. Each one a total superstar.

Before I crawled to bed last night, and my dog was in overnight sleep away dog camp by the way so my feet were cold and I was nervous, I thought back over the day’s events. There seemed a good chance we’d not advance, based on my gut feeling, and also some other feelings.


Part two:

This morning was for private meetings with the jury for each presenting team. It was supposed to be a discussion to clarify things, or explain things we didn’t feel we had clearly communicated the day before. But before I had taken off my jacket, they informed me that it was a definite “no” by unanimous discussion last night. I wasn’t totally phased by this, but expressed my disappointment and admitted I was very curious as to who they would pick and why, based on their reactions to the presentations the day before. Well, they said. The thing is, the presentation I gave was very good. VERY good. It was very professional, and very clear, and I communicated everything about the concept really well. But that’s just it, Ms Zernand. It was simply TOO professional, and TOO developed. It was too good.

Well. I replied, trying to spin it, still. “Well, that is truly a pity. Hm. I had planned to start off our discussion today by reminding you that this was still just a concept, and a starting point for discussion. Since the parameters were so vague, we thought it was better to do something, as opposed to doing nothing, which is what most of the other presenters offered.”

They replied that the parameters were spontaneous, and were developed over the course of the presentations.

Back to the discussion with the jury: at this point the composer on the jury, Benjamin Schnicklefritz (not his real name), who specializes, incidentally, in a kind of electronic elevator music and who I am 100% sure was really jealous of our composer’s work, informed me that the music was boring, too classical, and not at all edgy, and CERTAINLY not the kind of music that they are looking for. I wrote that down as a note so that I would not actually spit at him, but my face was sufficiently rude as I gazed at him and said “what a fascinating comment.” He could not look me in the eye after that. I am quite certain he has problems maintaining erections. He lamely went on to say, as his penis retracted obediently underneath the table, that the concept is too much like Robert Wilson. I really did not know what to say to that, so I chose to be pleased. I actually like Robert Wilson, even though I hear he’s an insufferable asshole. But for the constructive value of this feedback, Benjamin Schnicklefritz (not his real name) may as well have told me monkeys can’t bake banana bread all on their own. I stared.

And so, after an uncomfortable pause, the music critic jumped in and asked, incredibly, whether there was to be any singing, because she really did not understand that yesterday. I could only fix may gaze on her and mildly ask “is there any singing… in the opera?…  hmm… yes.”  Within my bosom, murder arose. I stabbed her in the eye repeatedly.

She then asked me whether I had misunderstood the 20 minute time requirement for the finished works. I pointed out that the rules had actually said 20 *TO* 30 minutes, that the difference between 20 and 30 minutes is immense, and that if I had mistaken anything, it was that we would actually be clarifying that sort of thing right then and there, as I’d been told we would be doing. She apologized and admitted that was true, the rules did say 20 to 30 minutes. I snorted and wondered whether they had all done drugs together recently.

Another jury member then expressed frustration that I wanted a tractor onstage during the production. This seemed a point of great interest among the entire jury, so I found myself incredulously explaining to them that this was clearly a concept presentation, and I was showing them images that would just give them a mood, a feeling, based on a few images I googled this week, for what we were or I was thinking of as inspiration, not that I was actually proposing that a 20-member chorus silently brings a tractor onstage in the middle of the piece. Someone said well, if you make a really good presentation, which you did, we are going to take it at exact face value. I replied that I at no point whatsoever had even intimated that an actual tractor might have any place whatsoever onstage during this show, and that I had in fact been quite clear when I showed it that the tractor image was simply a visual meant to evoke a mood. I reminded them that if they had wanted to see *exactly* what the work would look like onstage, they would have to pay me first. They did not seem to grasp what I meant by this.

They accused me of having too much information about the theme and our ideas about it, to which I apologized for having chosen to do something to show my thought process about the theme they themselves had proposed and which I’d taken seriously, rather than having done nothing, which most of the teams opted for. I said this, and they asked me what I meant. A sense of deja-vu overcame me. I wondered whether I had taken drugs, and forgotten.

They asked why on earth I would have assembled a whole team for the production, “not that there’s anything wrong with that.” I said that I had been under the impression, perhaps mistakenly, that they were looking for clues that we could actually organize what we set out to do, in case that would be needed. I repeated for the thousandth time that nothing had been set in stone, and that I thought that had been made abundantly obvious. If they had wanted something specific, they could have told me. Oh no, no, they said. We don’t want specifics.

Then they told me they had specifically wanted more information about the characters we’d proposed. Why didn’t I spend more time on that instead of the concept and theme and music and set and team?

Then they said it would be much too ambitious to include Roosevelt and Sarah Palin in the show. At this point I began to lose my temper, really. I reiterated my sadness at having been so grossly misunderstood, and at not having had an opportunity to correct these rather astounding misunderstandings. They apologized for having made it seem that I would actually need to inform them of the connections between New Deal and our proposals. I said, thank you, I would know next time to bring absolutely nothing to the table, so that I would not have to defend having actually given any thought to the matter. Before death or weeping, someone made let’s-end-this-shitstorm-for-the-love-of-god gestures, which I spoke over loudly and emphatically and flounced out of the room. The three little boys waiting their turn outside the room looked at me sadly and totally bewildered as I rushed past. Then they looked scared.

I did not attend the awards ceremony.



I’ve already prepared my submission for next year. It goes like this: 20 blank pages, bound, and a DVD of myself sitting on the floor facing a wall, eating candy and farting light bulbs, for 20 minutes. I’ll invite my friend Sasha to contribute a thought-dance, which is more a process about doing nothing, and of non-physicality, than of actual dance.

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SIRI ZERNAND MÜLLER defines herself by the people who crowd her bed. She has a dog, a husband, a cat who also would like some recognition, and the occasional prophetic dream.

8 responses to “China Girl Took It”

  1. Greg Olear says:

    Welcome to TNB, Ms. Muller.

    I share in your frustration. One likes to imagine that those who produce operas like to include things like, you know, opera singing. Now I know that if I do find myself at The Met, it might be three shy dudes playing bad techno.

    If you do opt for your ironical entry next year, I encourage you to check out the latest conceptual novel by TNB’s Davis Schneiderman, called BLANK. He manages to pull off an idea I originally heard back in high school by a writer friend of mine named Austin, and pull it off well…

    Is opera ever edgy? Isn’t it supposed to not be? Doesn’t its edge derive from a lack of edge?

    • Siri Zernand Müller says:

      Thank you kindly, Mr. Olear. Pleasure to be here, barfing out some scribbles.

      I will certainly be checking out Mr. Schneiderman’s novel. Incidentally, people named Austin tend to have good ideas generally, I’ve always thought.

      Opera can be edgy! This composer happens to be really edgy, actually. He wrote an amazing opera on the text of Burroughs’s Queer, which was decidedly edgy. But apparently edgy for these people means idiotic.

      • Greg Olear says:

        To paraphrase that operatic master, David St. Hubbins, there’s a fine line between being edgy and being stupid.

        You should totally write an intro to opera/opera for dummies kind of post, tell us what’s good and what’s not so good, so we can get our vibrato on.

  2. dwoz says:

    The only thing I can offer is, “why didn’t I lock Phillip Glass in that basement underneath the fly system motors, when I had the chance?”

    It’s his fault. The legion of bad euro techno schlocks who infest alt theater boards like cockroaches have to be blamed on him.

    I loved your response to the jury.

    • Siri Zernand Müller says:

      Don’t beat yourself up. He would have found a way out, he looks scrappy.

      I don’t have a problem with techno schlock in general. Not that I like it, but it has it’s place. Somewhere far, far away from me.

  3. dwoz says:

    I’m compelled to try to tease apart the motivations of the jury. Your experience is of course not unique…there is an underlying theme that runs through much of the art world.

    I think that underlying theme is the profound dysfunctional irony of postmodernism, in that nobody that thinks of themselves as a postmodernist actually has a fucking clue what postmodernism is or how to actually define it…and that’s basically BY DESIGN. Postmodernism is inherently resistant to definition, by it’s very definition.


    When we bring that abstract concept down to the ground, and embody it in an alt theater creative board, what we have is a coterie of thought leaders who’s job is to be one step ahead of the other postmodernists, their ostensible clients (or perhaps, consumers of their tastes). Now, the way one becomes a postmodernist thought leader is to exude contempt for the understandable, the concrete. If “I” understand it, that means that the work is expressing a lack of contextual ambiguity, and others probably understand it too, and it should therefore be rejected. By rejecting the unambiguous work as inferior, I engender in others the sense of “what then did I miss, that he saw?” The uncertainty that they must be missing something, must not be FULLY understanding it.

    If, however, I come across something of which I can’t for the life of me formulate a clue about, then it means that others probably can’t either, and therefore I can feel SAFE in championing it, because all my “thought leader followers” will perceive my endorsement as, again, “what then did I miss, that he saw?”

    Because, after all, China Girl came a long way to participate in the audition, and she has some kind of portfolio behind her, and therefore is it conceivable that she really actually had NOTHING there? OR is it more likely that I just couldn’t understand it in the least? Since I failed to understand it, so did the others, so my endorsement of China girl makes the illusion complete. Once the first domino falls, the others have no choice but to dive for the floor along with it.

    That is all not to be misconstrued as my trashing postmodernism. No, I’m thoroughly comfortable with context-driven meaning and relativism and anti-formalism and all the other definitions of postmodernism.

    I guess what seems to be missing from the whole mess, is honesty.

  4. Joe Daly says:


    Welcome aboard and congrats on one of the more interesting inaugural pieces I’ve read. The descriptions of your competition were wonderful- I felt awkward just thinking about some of them.

    Please post next year’s video here on TNB so we can all get behind your effort. Hell, you’ve already got my vote.

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