Isidora Žebeljan (1967, Serbia) earned her BA and MA degrees in composition at the Faculty of Music Art in Belgrade, in the class of Vlastimir Trajković. Since 2002, she has been a full professor at the Department of Composition of the Faculty of Music Art. In 2006, she was admitted to the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts as a corresponding member and was made a regular member in 2012. She is considered one of the most prominent composers of her generation. Already in her student years, her works were performed at every major festival of contemporary music in the former Yugoslavia. During the 1990s, she focused mostly on theatre and film music, winning multiple top national awards for her incidental music. She has won the Sterija Award three times and the YUSTAT Biennial of Stage Design award four times. In 2005, she won the Civitella Ranieri Fellowship. In 2001, she won the Vasilije Mokranjac Award. In 2004, her opera Zora D won the Mokranjac Award.
Works by Isidora Žebeljan have been performed in Great Britain, Italy, France, the Netherlands, Austria, Germany, Sweden, Finland, Spain, Ireland, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Croatia, Serbia, and the US, as well as at major musical festivals, such as the Venice music biennial, Bregenzer Festspiele, the ISCM festival in Sweden, the RAI NuovaMusica festival in Turin, the Settembre musica and L’Est festivals in Milan, the West-German Radio (WDR) Music Festival, Galway Arts Festival, the Ultima Festival in Oslo, the Nous Sons festival in Barcelona, the City of London Festival, the Swaledale Festival, the Walled City Music festival, the Dulwich Music Festival in Great Britain, the Crossing Border Festival in the Netherlands, Music Biennale Zagreb, and the BEMUS festival in Belgrade. Her works have been performed by the following artists and ensembles: the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, Wiener Symphoniker, RAI Symphony Orchestra of Turin, Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra, Belgrade Philharmonic, Westphalia New Philharmonic Orchestra, Haydn Orchestra, EurOrchestra Bari, Brodsky Quartet, London Brass, Nieuw Ensemble, Zagros Ensemble, Sentieri selvaggi ensemble; conductors Paul Daniel, Christoph Poppen, Lorraine Vaillancourt, David Porcelijn, and Pierre-André Valade; pianists Kyoko Hashimoto and Aleksandar Madžar; French horn player Stefan Dohr; clarinetists Joan Enric Lluna and Alessandro Carbonare, and others. The exclusive publisher of her music is Ricordi-Universal.
Her major pieces include the operas Zora D., Maratonci (The Marathon Runners), Simon, izabranik (Simon, the Chosen), and Dve glave i devojka (Two Heads and a Girl), chamber works Konji Svetog Marka (The Horses of Saint Mark), Hum Away, Hum Away Strings, Escenas picaras, and Deserted Village, works for soloists and orchestra Rukoveti (Garlands), five songs for soprano and orchestra, Nove Ladine pesme (New Songs of Lada) for a soprano and string orchestra (or quartet), chamber works Pep It Up, a fantasy for a soprano and chamber ensemble, Pesma putnika u noći (The Song of a Traveller in the Night) for clarinet and string quartet, Polomka kvartet, a string quartet, Simon and Anne, a suite for cello (or English horn) and piano, vocal works Latum lalo for mixed choir and Kada je Bog stvorio Dubrovnik (When God Made Dubrovnik), a song for mezzo-soprano and string quartet, and piano works Umbra and Il Circo.
Žebeljan’s opera Zora D was premièred in Amsterdam in June 2003, the first Serbian opera to have its world première abroad. It was also the first Serbian opera staged outside of Serbia since 1935, having won at the prestigious international competition organised by the London-based Genesis Foundation. The Foundation commissioned and granted financial support to Žebeljan to compose a complete opera, with a secured staging. The première was co-produced by The Dutch Chamber Opera (Opera studio Nederland) and Viennese Chamber Opera (Wiener Kammeroper). It was directed by David Pountney, the renowned opera director, sung by an international team of young singers, with a number of established artists also taking part in the staging. In Amsterdam, the opera was performed three times. Winfried Maczewski conducted the Amsterdam Nieuw Ensemble, whereas Daniel Hoyem Cavazza conducted the Wiener Kammeroper in 12 performances. The Viennese première of Zora D. opened the 50th season of Wiener Kammeroper, whereupon it remained on its permanent repertoire.
The libretto, based on a TV film script by Dušan Ristić, was co-written by Isidora Žebeljan, Milica Žebeljan, and Borislav Čičovački. In terms of genre, the libretto constitutes a mélange of a thriller, melodrama, and mystery, with elements of fantasy. The opera consists of a prologue and seven scenes, set in present-day Belgrade, but also going back to the 1930s. It was written for four vocalists: soprano, baritone, and two mezzo-sopranos. It calls for a 15-strong chamber orchestra.
The opera’s main characters, whose chief attribute is unreality, undergo a transformation that is seldom found in opera literature. This quality of the characters and the story, as well as the absence of real drama in the libretto, point to the composer’s specific ideas about contemporary opera. Unlike composers who insist on lending their characters psychological qualities, which makes them lapse into emotional reaction commonplaces, her idea is to create an opera that focuses on the sensual, using the most striking feature of her music – its unusual and rather unique melodic invention. Zora D. might be described as a necklace consisting of closely threaded musical pearls. The specificity of her melodies is coloured by microelements of the traditional music of Serbia (Vojvodina), Romania, and southern Balkans. Those elements, however, are not borrowed in their entirety, nor do they exist in a form that might link this music to any particular type of folk music. Rather, these particles of traditional music are incorporated into the musical whole and Žebeljan’s musical language in such a way that they enhance its peculiarity and colour that bear an awareness of the composer’s musical roots. Expressed in this way, the opera’s melodic element also shapes its vocal parts, which require a high degree of musicality and perfect technique from the performers, without compromising the nature of vocal expression. A pronounced harmonic feature of the opera stems from Žebeljan’s use of peculiar diminished-fifth chords. These chords are a consequence of using folk music scales, which contain augmented seconds.
The rhythmic-metric component of the opera is complex, but stems naturally from its melodies and features irregular metres and changing metrics. The rhythmic patterns in the percussion are incorporated into the whole by means of a parallel stringing of melodic and rhythmic layers, which produces a multilayered sound. The rhythmic component very often bears the character of a dance.
The chamber orchestra consists of flutes (piccolo and alto), a clarinet and bass-clarinet, saxophone (soprano and alto), bassoon, French horn, trumpet, harp, piano, percussion, and a string quintet. By using unusual orchestration procedures and generating a special colouring, Žebeljan entirely shifts the real dramatic tension from the text to the music, particularly the orchestra, generating thereby a quick succession of emotional states.
In terms of structure, the opera constitutes an unbroken sequence of melodies. In some places, though few and far between, Žebeljan’s melodic entities bear contours of arias. There are no real recitatives in the entire opera. Each segment of the opera belongs to a corresponding melodic section of the scene. An extraordinary musical quality of Zora D. is the so-called musical surprise, an element of compositional language and writing that is seldom encountered in music literature and embodies a special talent. The various emotional states depicted in the opera are not realised, as it is customary, by evoking certain musical clichés. The peculiarity of their emergence lies in a sort of parallelism of emotional states that stems from the music. Therefore, at first, the listeners will never hear dark and gloomy music accompanying tragic and dramatic episodes onstage. However, listening to the music, they will be able to feel a sonic thread of tragedy, present in the totality of the opera’s sound content. The listeners will not follow this sonic thread consciously but, instead, it will lead them precisely to the emotional stimulus that they will not be able to resist by reason alone. This sort of musical expression I would call a musical fantasy.
The artistic team involved in the first production of Zora D. found a rather deft and effective solution for a quick succession of sets – projecting a video film that takes us from one set to the next.
Isidora Žebeljan’s opera Zora D. constitutes a great success of Serbian music on the international scene and certainly the greatest success of Serbian opera so far. Her music frees the listeners from the compulsion of thinking about what they are hearing and instead makes thems feel.
(Commentary by Borislav Čičovački)