Commissioned by ANU Productions as part of The Wernicke’s Area, funded by the Arts Council of Ireland and the Irish Museum of Modern Art. Supported by PRiSM, the Centre for Practice & Research in Science & Music, funded by the Research England fund Expanding Excellence in England (E3).

Commissioner exclusivity applies

First performed by Rosie Middleton (Mezzo-Soprano) and Stephen Upshaw (Viola) at the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA), Dublin, on 8 October 2022 as part of The Wernicke's Aria by ANU Production. Sound design by Bofan Ma.

  • Mz,va + [othersnd]
  • Mezzo-soprano, Viola
  • 40 min

Programme Note

Ombra (2022) is a 40’ dramatic vocalise for mezzo-soprano and viola in three parts, first performed as part of The Wernicke’s Area, a mixed media installation led by ANU Productions at the Irish Museum of Modern Art. The work can be performed in its acoustic version or accompanied by sound design, created by Bofan Ma, based on the original immersive sound design from The Wernicke’s Area. 

The work responds to the story and medical condition of Debbie Boss, wife of ANU’s co-artistic director and visual artist Owen Boss. In 2014 Debbie was admitted to hospital for surgery to remove a previously undiagnosed meningioma tumour from a part of the brain known as the Wernicke’s Area. Since the surgery her everyday life has been affected by epilepsy. When Debbie suffers a seizure the symptoms manifest as audio hallucinations and aphasia: a loss of comprehension of both heard and spoken words. 

Ombra takes inspiration from a series of diaries kept by Debbie, a trained soprano who can no longer remember the lyrics to even the simplest of songs. Responding to George F. Handel’s ‘Ombra mai fu’, which was Debbie’s favourite aria to perform, as well as to the mirage-like sounds of an AI-inflected Dublin cityscape, Ombra is a mental theatre, embodying an inward, ever circling wonder about meaning and comprehension. 

In Ombra I, mezzo-soprano and viola unite in an intense unison exploration of a brief melodic fragment from ‘Ombra mai fu’. A set of 8 short dramatic vignettes form Ombra II. In Ombra III, Handel’s original melody is foregrounded with an instruction in the score ‘Repeat ad infinitum’. As mezzo-soprano alternates between singing, humming and silence, viola is instructed to play at times with gradual or sudden transitions between p e dolce sempre and sounding ‘like concete being grated’, a final reference to the diaries. 

Ombra is dedicated to Debbie. 

Emily Howard, August 2023


Emily Howard (2022): Ombra | ANU: The Wernicke’s Area (PREVIEW)