The haunting hum of ‘folie à deux’

Ella Rhodes on a new musical collaboration around a rare psychiatric condition.

An opera which started as a collaboration between composer and psychiatrist, and presents the electric tale of a madness shared by two, comes to the UK next month. Its creator, Emily Hall, has also drawn on the talents of Icelander Sjón, who has written songs for Bjork. The performance at Spitalfields Music Festival will be its London premiere.

The tale, produced with the Mahogany Opera Group, centres around the rare psychiatric condition ‘folie à deux’, from which it also takes its title. This condition involves two people who begin to share the same delusion. In this case a happy couple’s lives are taken over by an electricity pylon – the man begins to believe it has a special hold over him, and his partner starts to think the same.

The ethereal lyrics will be complemented by a specially-built electro-magnetic harp which emits the haunting hum of the pylon, the third character in the production, using so-called e-bows on resonating strings. The final production includes six songs, performed by Swedish voice artist Sofia Jernberg and Icelandic tenor Finnur Bjarnason, accompanied by acoustic harp as well as the electro-magnetic harp.

Composer of the piece, Emily Hall, said the idea for the production came out of a conversation she had with her friend, the psychiatrist Lisa Conlan. She said she became fascinated with the condition and she and Lisa began to plan out the framework of the opera together.

Emily Hall (image credit: Kate Benjamin)

She added: ‘We began doing workshops with the Mahogany Opera Group and it just felt like folie à deux was a really strong basis for an opera. Sjón came up with the idea of using an electricity pylon as central to the delusion and it seemed to have such strong aesthetic and sonic possibilities.’

Lisa Conlan, who works with the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust, has been involved throughout the creation of the production as a psychiatric advisor, collaborator as well as a fascinated onlooker. ‘The composition of these beautiful sounds always seems like a miracle to me,’ she told us. ‘But then I suppose the things I speak about may seem the same to some people.’ Lisa mentioned Folie à Deux to Emily when she knew her friend was looking for new inspiration: she said she realised the scope and possibilities such a condition created for an artist.

She added: ‘It just struck me as idea you could do so much with. It’s a condition that, although you don’t see very often in clinical practice, you hear about. Patients have told me about members of families developing the same symptoms.’ Dr Conlan said being so closely involved with the production had been “amazing”: ‘It’s been especially fascinating as someone from such a different background. I have no real formal understanding of music so it’s been a privilege,’ she said.

Watch Dr Conlan talking about the condition here.  

Folie à Deux is being performed on June 6 and 7 at Spitalfields Music Summer Festival

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