Knut Hamsun’s novel Sult is a point of departure for a libretto by Darcie Dennigan dealing with themes of psychological decay, irrationality, and self-destruction. The protagonist is a starving and delusional young writer who is unwilling to compromise his work, as his intellect and body gradually deteriorate. He is drawn to Ylajali (mezzo-soprano), a young girl who appears in this scene as a countergirl in a butchershop. The writer, Oumenos is split in two, by the baritone and soprano as a composite, depicting aspects of his inner self and suppressed madness.
Scene 1, Episode 3 of a Multimedia Opera in Four Episodes
He is scribbling on a wall beneath a streetlamp. Starving, he considers stealing bread from nearby children, as well as self-mutilation, feeling both desire for the bread and self-disgust. He begins to bark at them. Perhaps they will leave the bread. Because of such base thought and behavior, he is the dog. As he enters a butcher shop, he decides to place an order, as any normal customer would. He calls into the backroom. Throughout this scene, his inner self fights his urges. He wants the meat arrayed before him, and he wants Ylajali, as if she were meat. He fights his coarseness and his hungers, to appear presentable, normal. Ylajali recognizes him from earlier in the opera, where each time Oumenos has tried to sell something from his body for money, he has encountered her. At the bloodbank, Ylajali drew his blood. At the spermbank, she coaxed his orgasm. She sticks to her countergirl conversation, and a countergirl way of flirting, though she also feels much of what he isn’t saying aloud (i.e., what the soprano is saying). As the scene goes on, his base part wins out and he finds himself examining her on the counter as if she were meat. He is humiliated by his inner self, and by Ylajali, in turn humiliating the girl. He has again become, in his mind, a dog.
Note: The man in Sult is split in two. Oumenos, the baritone, is his outer, public self. The nameless soprano is his inner self. The outer man seems to be a slave to the inner one’s pride. The cry of the man in Baudelaire’s “Heautontimoroumenos” might well be Oumenos’ own cry: “She’s in my voice, the termagant! All my blood is her black poison!” Yet the inner self is a slave to the body. Most of the stage direction here is for the outer self, the baritone. The soprano has been given very little movement direction because her interaction is solely with Oumenos. However, her movements/staging could be quite dynamic.
Outline of scene sketch for Darmstadt Contemporary Opera Workshop:
Oumenos is scribbling. He has no paper and may be scribbling on a wall, telephone pole, a piece of newspaper, or his own skin. When he writes, he has moments of stillness and of wildness.
He turns suddenly sober and then stops writing when he sees from the corner of his eye children sitting in a doorway, eating bread. He begins walking swiftly across the stage, in a slightly odd fashion, eyeing the children all the while.
He wants the bread badly and considers stealing it from them. He is then disgusted with himself for considering such a thing. He feels the desire for the bread and the self-disgust both very strongly. He begins to bark at the children. Perhaps by barking he can get them to run away and leave the bread. Or perhaps he barks because his higher mind has recalled the line from Matthew: It is not meet to take the children’s bread and cast it to the dogs. Because of such base thought and behavior, he is the dog.
He goes to grab the bread from the children with his right hand (his writing hand). As he does so, the soprano, his inner self, violently bites his hand (or alternatively, he bites or strikes himself). He is both dog and master.
As he crouches, hurt, Ylajali steps out from the butcher shop and throws a pile of bones for stray dogs onto the sidewalk. She doesn’t see him, or maybe if she does, he seems a dog to her at that moment. She disappears into the shop’s backroom.
He has recognized her. Earlier in the piece, each time Oumenos has tried to sell something from his body for money, he has encountered Ylajali. At the bloodbank, Ylajali drew his blood. At the spermbank, she coaxed his orgasm. Etc. Oumenos stands, rapidly jerks his head around to see who is watching him and, holding his injured arm, enters the shop.
He decides that he will place an order, as any normal customer would. He calls into the backroom.
Throughout this scene, Oumenos’ inner self fights his urges. He wants to eat the meat arrayed before him. And he wants Ylajali, as if she were meat, but also as if she were exalted– a muse? He wants to fight his coarseness, his hungers, and appear presentable, normal. He also wants to satisfy his hungers.
Ylajali recognizes Oumenos. She mostly sticks to her countergirl conversation, and a countergirl way of flirting, though she also feels much of what he isn’t saying aloud (i.e., what the soprano is saying). There is some intimation of her inner life through a few lines that are asides, like “mica of crushed glass.”
(end of summary through page 19)
Oumenos and Ylajali do have a moment that is exalted: when they share their inner names.
As the scene goes on, his base part wins out and he finds himself examining her on the counter as if she were meat. Does he really do this, or does this happen only in his mind? I think it could go either way. Certainly, he feels humiliated by his inner self, and by Ylajali and so in turn humiliates the girl. He has again become, in his mind, a dog.
Ylajali in the end is all tenderness, as if she were a willing participant in the degradation, or as if she were unaware that he wanted her in that way. She completes the butcher shop transaction. Does she really give him her own toes? Or is that only in his head? I leave this to the singers and director.