The Snow Queen by Hans Abrahamsen

Hans Abrahamsen, the Danish composer, won the 2016 Grawemeyer award with his song cycle for Soprano and Orchestra, Let Me Tell You, written for Barbara Hannigan. The composition of Abrahamsen’s first opera, Snedronningen – The Snow Queen, began at this time.  The opera’s libretto, closely based on the Hans Andersen fairy tale, is by Henrik Engelhardt and the composer; the main role, Gerda, was written for Hannigan’s voice.

Abrahamsen’s music is highly original, often slow and intense with intricate microtonal harmonies and atmospheric orchestration. He admits to being obsessed with snow, and its peculiar cold and quiet properties pervade his compositions. In the late 1990s, after making some arrangements of Bach, he realised a whole new world of circular time had opened for him; he first explored this idea in Schnee, 10 Canons for 9 instruments.

The world premiere of the opera in Copenhagen, with a Danish cast, in October 2019, was very soon followed by a second production in December at the Munich opera house, the Nationaltheater, in English. Danish is a hard language for non-speakers to learn and sing, hence the decision to perform the opera in English outside Denmark.

Abrahamsen called me in early 2018 and asked me to write the English version. I found a Danish teacher and set to work on the libretto – in a cold snowy London; I also had a midi-recording of the score so I could work out how the words were set, and how they might sound when sung. I sent the translation to Denmark in May and in the summer Abrahamsen and I worked intensely (on Facetime) on the score for a couple of weeks – when the roses were blooming, as they do in the opera.

The Nationaltheater Munich on 21 December 2019, the first night of The Snow Queen