Thomas Larcher’s The Hunting Gun at the Aldeburgh Festival: in conversation with Peter Schˆne

And, when the operatic adaptation of the Japanese writer’s 1949 novella, The Hunting Gun, by Austrian composer Thomas Larcher and
librettist Friederike Gˆsweiner, was premiered at Bregenz last summer, it
was praised for its “clear, powerful text, some striking imagery and a
luminous score of great beauty and originality” (The Observer) and
its combination of “lyric beauty” and “explosive intensity” ( Financial Times).

Next month, the Bregenz production, directed by Austrian film director Karl
Markovics and designed by Katharina Wˆppermann, travels to the Aldeburgh
Festival. Peter Schˆne will perform the role of the elusive Josuke Misugi –
a cold, remote but self-assured man who declares his hunting gun
indispensable to him, no matter how successful his public and private
affairs – and I spoke to the German baritone about the forthcoming
production which will mark Peter’s debut in England.

I began by remarking my surprise that Inoue’s sparse, poetic style and
introspective narrative have proved apt for operatic setting. In their
translation of The Hunting Gun, for the Tuttle edition, Sadamichi
Yokoˆ and Sanford Goldstein describe the loneliness that Inoue depicts as
peculiarly ‘oriental’, “related to the weariness of life and its negation”.
Certainly, silence and suicide pervade The Hunting Gun, which is
dominated by two recurring images. Shoko’s painful vision of a love
“unlighted by the sun, flowing from nowhere to nowhere, and buried deep in
the earth like an underground stream” is crystallised by her memory of a
glass paperweight, its petals “frozen immovably in glass, petals that could
not stir if it was spring or autumn, petals put to death”. Then, there is
the “snake” which Josuke observes each individual has within themselves,
and which his lover Saiko imagines as one’s egotism, jealousy and destiny:
“an unbearably sad thing that we carry inside us.”

The Hunting Gun
recounts a tragic love triangle through the medium of three letters
addressed to Josuke. Penned by wife Midori, his lover Saiko, and her
daughter Shoko, the letters take us into the minds of these women as their
reflections form a layered dialogue of opposing perspectives and narrative
gaps are slowly filled. Midori, bold and rebellious, has kept her knowledge
of her husband’s affair secret for thirteen years, but now reveals her
awareness of Josuke’s deceit and demands a divorce. When she finally
confronts her cousin Saiko, the latter commits suicide by poison after
first asking her daughter to burn her diary. The bereaved Shoko, however,
reads the journal and, learning of her mother’s affair, feels betrayed and

We become privy to the women’s painful private reflections when the letters
are sent by Josuke to a poet. Via a framing device, we learn of the
unnamed, self-deprecating poet’s journey to the Amagi mountains where his
attention had been drawn to a man, gun on his shoulder, pipe in his mouth,
who had a strange contemplative air about him: an impression of loneliness.
Recognising himself in the poem that the author published about this
encounter, Josuke contacts the poet, enclosing the three letters which he
trusts the poet will burn.

Despite his pleasure in the poet’s representation of him, and his
admiration for “the uncommonly sharp insight of a poet”, Josuke reflects,
“It seems to me that a man is foolish enough to want another person to
understand him.” And, ironically, the poet explains that the details in the
poem – such the type of gun, a Churchill, the finest gun in England – were
selected by chance, declaring that “the real Josuke Misugi, the source of
my poem, was still unknown to me.” All we have of Josuke are his brief
words of address, his calligraphy – “huge characters”, “robust and gorgeous
and flowing that threatened to jump off the page” – and the women’s
enigmatic and frustrated wonderings. Can such a man be ‘brought to life’,
made ‘real’ and ‘knowable’ by the music?

Peter begins by noting that despite the ‘strangeness’ of the novella, in
which the characters do not actually speak to one another, there is a
strong energy in the text, one which – having travelled in Japan, beyond
the cities and into the countryside – he feels is distinctly Japanese: a
balance of lightness and blackness, which brings back memories of Mount
Fuji to Peter, and which he feels is sustained throughout the novel. One
thinks of Buddhist teaching which asserts that pain and passion are
inextricably entwined: “To love, to be loved – our actions are pathetic,”
writes Saiko, moments before she takes her own life. It’s a dichotomy that
Peter finds, too, in Larcher’s music, the post-Mahlerian tonality of which
captures both the intense cruelty of the characters’ suffering and the
delicate beauty and freshness that one might associate with Japanese

There is a resilience about Josuke Misugi, Peter notes; he is a strong
character, and has had a successful business career, yet the private man
has flaws, as do we all. Thus, we can relate to Josuke when, despite have a
new, young wife, he loves another woman and succumbs to temptation. He
makes a decision which brings the outside world into his own inner life.
Larcher’s music is beautiful to sing, Peter says: the legato line enables
one to show the strength and shine of one’s voice but there are dark
moments too – a wide emotional and expressive bandwidth. Does the music
encourage us to sympathise with Josuke, who seems so distant and ineffable
in the novella, I wonder? Peter agrees enthusiastically!

When I mention that The Hunting Gun will mark Peter’s debut in the
UK, he corrects me: he has actually performed in Scotland twice previously,
first in a Youth Orchestra as a teenage violinist, and then at the 2011
Edinburgh Festival, singing songs by Hugo Wolf. Does he still play the
violin, I ask? Peter explains that he began playing as a five-year-old,
when living in East Berlin. When the Wall came down, many of the musical
contexts in which he studied and performed disappeared. His mother looked
for other possibilities for Peter to continue his musical development and
her attention was caught by a television programme about a boys’ choir.

When she asked the then fifteen-year-old Peter if he wanted to join, he was
adamant that he did not! But, she encouraged him to begin singing alongside
his ongoing violin studies. As his voice became stronger, it was necessary
to make a decision: it would not be possible to do the necessary
seven-hours-a-day practice on both violin and voice, so Peter decided to
audition for conservatoires in both disciplines and see what the results
were. Ten offers to study voice against one for violin determined the
future, and he completed his vocal training with Harald Stamm at the
University of the Arts Berlin, though Peter did also graduate as a
violinist, following studies with Valerie Rubin at the Academy of Music
Nuremberg-Augsburg, and still plays violin for pleasure.

Interestingly, he remarks that he thinks that his training as a violinist
helps him to read and learn music quickly, and is especially beneficial
when he is learning the contemporary music to which he is dedicated, having
performed in several world premieres such as Moritz Eggert’s Helle N‰chte, Johanna Doderer’s Der leuchtende Fluss and
Ichiro Nodaira’s Madrugad.

Peter will spend three weeks in Snape rehearsing The Hunting Gun,
but before that he performs in another epistolary-related opera [pi:ps] by Swiss composer Luca Martin, based on the diaries of
Samuel Pepys, at the Grand Concert Hall in Solingen. He joined the ensemble
of the State Opera House of Saarbr¸cken last year, and recently took the
role of Faninal in Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier at Saarl‰ndisches
Staatstheater. But, he explains that a house contract of this nature is
both a blessing and a potential problem. There is the ‘luxury’ of regular
work, but a company singer’s plans are made for them and sometimes one
needs to feel free to listen to one’s inner self about what projects to
take on next. Peter seems to be getting the balance right: he will soon dip
his toes for the first time into Wagnerian waters, tackling the role of
Wotan; and next year will travel to and Theater St Gallen, St Gallen,
Switzerland to sing in George Benjamin’s Lessons in Love and Violence.

But, before that there is love and violence of a different kind, in the
form of the secrets, sins and inner snakes of The Hunting Gun.
What song could be more sad, or perhaps more truthful, than the song of
human aloneness?

The Hunting Gun
will be performed at the

Aldeburgh Festival
, 7-9 June.

Claire Seymour

product_title=The Hunting Gun: the first UK performance of Thomas Larcher’s opera, at the Aldeburgh Festival
product_by=An interview with Peter Schˆne, by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Peter Schˆne