Singing up an economic storm: Setting a crisis to music

Estonian singer Iris Oja, conductor Risto Joost and Tallinn Chamber Orchestra
Image caption You can reach a bigger audience with music, says singer Iris Oja

"Frozen pensions, lowered salaries, internal devaluation - Nostra culpa!" the words come not from an election campaign leaflet, but instead from an opera.

This is a piece of high drama, soaring vocals and intense emotion - not on opera's usual grand themes of love or death, but instead on economics.

Nostra Culpa is the story of the Baltic state of Estonia, the 2008 financial crisis that tore a hole in its economy, and a spectacular row between the country's president and a leading economist.

The crisis and the subsequent recession hit Estonia with dramatic results - its economy shrank by almost a fifth and unemployment rocketed to 18%.

Composer Eugene Birman says one reason for choosing Estonia was because of the central role music has played in the country's culture.

"Music has always played a social role in Estonia. The language was kept alive partly through singing and through music.

"It's a way of not just communicating and performing, but preservation and national identity."

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Media captionAn excerpt from the Estonian opera Nostra Culpa


All the words in Nostra Culpa, which means "our fault" in Latin, come from an epic 2012 row between Estonia's President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, and the US economist Paul Krugman.

First, the Nobel Prize-winning economist criticised the government's response to the crisis in an article.

In reply, the president called the economist "smug, overbearing and patronising" in a series of blistering and often sarcastic tweets.

The very title comes from one of the president's replies.

It was a dramatic story in itself. After all it is not often a country's leader spars with an internationally renowned economist - but why choose this as a topic for an opera?

"Economics is story-telling," says Scott Diel, who wrote the words for Nostra Culpa. "It shouldn't be a topic we avoid."

Eugene says they were jointly entering a work for Estonia's music festival and wanted to make a piece "that is both universal and really personal to a lot of people here".

Throughout the work, it is Estonian mezzo-soprano Iris Oja who takes on the role of both protagonists.

Image caption Nostra Culpa is a cantata in two movements for a singer and chamber orchestra

She is adamant that economics can be a compelling subject.

"I think that what's happened in the last 10 years has been quite dramatic," she told BBC World TV's World Business Report.

"And those characters and stories are in a way as legendary and interesting as the great opera stories."

'I love singing'

The secret, says Iris, is to have passion for what you do.

"I love singing, passionately - and if you draw the meaning of any piece close to yourself and make it personal, you will be passionate about it.

"Also the music in it is very dramatic. The music helps a lot to bring out the meaning of the text."

Underpinning many Estonians' resilience to the 2008 crisis has been the 40 years of Soviet occupation - complete with austerity and exile.

"Every family had somebody who was sent to Siberia in the 1940s," says Iris.

Her grandmother's seven brothers and sisters were all sent there, she says. "Some of them came back, some of them died. Most of them died."

Eugene hopes that Nostra Culpa will provoke debate and discussion about a topic "which has not been addressed musically".

Image caption Estonia's 40-year Soviet occupation still figures largely in the country's consciousness

From opera to Ole Opry

Yet it isn't just opera singers who have been choosing the economic crisis as a topic. Take country singer Merle Hazard, for instance.

Based in Nashville, Tennessee, the home of country music and the Ole Opry concert hall, he has written several songs on the theme, such as Inflation or deflation? and the Greek debt song.

Merle, who in everyday life works as a financial adviser under his real name Jon Shayne, describes himself as "the only country artist to sing about central banking, mortgage-backed securities and physics".

Music can help us understand things better sometimes than a written article or television interview, he says. "It's a bit of a mystery, but rhyming does intensify meaning."

A song allows the prose to be slower, giving the audience time to appreciate a message.

"You can't make as few points in a speech as you can in a song. The deepest truths tend to be very simple."

There is also a deeper layer of meaning in the phonemes - the very sound of the words themselves - which music can tap into, he says.

Opera and country music may not appear to have much in common at first glance but there are similarities, says Merle.

"If you take a country and western song, it's just one emotional moment in somebody's life. And that is similar to an aria in an opera."

Image copyright Tom Noser
Image caption Merle Hazard - named after country star Merle Haggard and the concept of moral hazard

'Major or minor key'

He insists that in writing humorous songs about recession or economic slowdown, he is not criticising individuals - just their governments and politicians.

"When something is badly broken, in the US, we say 'it's a joke'. Well, there are problems with the economy that cannot be fixed for political reasons.

"They are 'a joke'. To me, joking about them is more fitting than writing an opinion piece asking for a solution that will not come.

"The same story that might seem tragic to me in daily life might be played for comedy in a song," says Merle.

"It is like the idea of a major or minor key in music. The same melody can be played either way."

Image copyright Jim Demarco
Image caption Funny songs are no laughing matter, says Merle Hazard

Back in Tallinn, composer Eugene Birman says the essential truth of Estonia's economic crash is "not just about the numbers".

"It's about real people who have real stories."

The aim of Nostra Culpa, he says, is "to take these terms, and create a much more personal, musical experience".

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