‘As big as the entire planet’
Composer Ellen Reid on The Shell Trial
Text: Jasmijn van Wijnen
The American composer Ellen Reid manoeuvres between various musical worlds, with work that ranges from classical music and opera to sound installations and avant-pop. The Shell Trial is her debut with Dutch National Opera.
Ellen Reid first learned about opera in a rather surprising location: after completing her Bachelor’s, she spent two and a half years in Thailand, where she discovered the country’s rich tradition of opera and musical theatre. That aroused her interest in using music to tell stories.
What did you think when you were asked for The Shell Trial, an opera adaptation of a theatre play?
“I felt enthusiastic about it immediately. Text-based theatre and opera are completely different: opera can say more with fewer words. We con - densed the script and fleshed it out with music, movement and other things that go beyond language. We essentially reinterpreted the play and added new dimensions.”
How did you incorporate the key themes in the play – guilt, responsibility and the increasingly blurred line between right and wrong – in your composition?
“I spend a lot of time thinking about perspective. Music can force the audience to see things from a certain perspective. The same words can take on a completely different meaning when put to different music. I’ve been particularly aware of that aspect with this composition.”
‘I can’t think of any other story that’s more important to tell at the moment’
Does opera offer the space to tell an activist story like The Shell Trial?
“The work is very contemporary and incredibly relevant. I can’t think of any other story that’s more important to tell at the moment. But I wouldn’t call it activist or political. If we label it that, we are stopping the work from showing its true expanse – which is as big as the entire planet.”
The Shell Trial is the result of a collective creative process. What does that mean?
“Opera is essentially a collaborative art form, but what makes this project unusual is that a relatively large group of people are involved in deciding how the story should be told. Everyone brings their own point of view with them, and that makes the creative process very inspiring.”
Ellen Reid is much in demand as a composer. In 2019, she received the Pulitzer Prize in Music for her opera p r i s m. She has also been Creative Advisor and Composer-in-Residence for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra since 2019. She will be in residence with the Royal Concertgebouw and the Concertgebouw Orchestra during the 2023/2024 season.