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Olga Neuwirth: »The Outcast«

Taking Herman Melville's visionary seafaring novel »Moby Dick« as her starting point, Olga Neuwirth has created in »The Outcast« a work about the global crisis of our time.

Austrian composer Olga Neuwirth has always been fond of enhancing her music with additional elements like film, video and radio plays, thus introducing new creative impulses to the world of music theatre. At the same time, she has always written »music with an attitude«, fighting injustice, discrimination and the abuse of power. These two tendencies are combined in »The Outcast«: like the story it's based on, »Moby Dick«, this »music installation theatre with video« denounces environmental, political and social evils – and shows how vital human compassion is.

Olga Neuwirth on »The Outcast«

About the Event

On 4 March, »The Outcast« will be performed by an orchestra, vocal ensemble, children's choir and numerous soloists at the Elbphilharmonie. British artist Netia Jones is responisble for light and video design.

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The Background

  • The Author Herman Melville

    Herman Melville was born in 1819 in New York. Following the death of his father, he was forced to start working at a young age to support his family financially. At the age of 21, he was hired by a whaling ship for the first time and sailed the Pacific with the Acushnet. Inspired by the vastness of the ocean and the adventures that he experienced at sea (for example, he was imprisoned many times), he wrote numerous stories. »Moby Dick«, his most famous novel, was published in 1851. »Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street« followed two years later and tells the story of a law clerk who, after an initial bout of hard work, refuses to make copy or do any other task required of him, with the words »I would prefer not to«. Melville died in 1891, alone in New York, and only long after his death were his book rediscovered, illuminating Melville as one of the world’s greatest literary authors.

  • The Story of »Moby Dick«

    Attracted by the sea, Ishmael (the narrator) decides to go whaling. Together with his new friend, the harpooner Queequeg, he joins the whaling ship Pequod. When the ship was en route, Ahab, the captain, reveals to his crew the true destination of the ride: he is searching for Moby Dick, a giant white whale who broke the captain’s leg years ago. Blind with revenge, Ahab drives his team ever further out to the sea. Finally, Moby Dick is spotted, but the whale rams the ship. The Pequod sinks and Ishmael is the only survivor. In addition to this main narrative, Melville incorporated numerous digressions in his book, as Olga Neuwirth explains, »Moby Dick is a conglomeration of styles, corny jokes, natural history, philosophy, exuberant language, conscious and unconscious processes in the spirit of man and criticism.«

About the Work

Old Melville

Visionary author Melville was ridiculed and shunned in his own lifetime.

Olga Neuwirth has long taken an interest in Herman Melville (1819–1891), the brilliant author of the novel »Moby Dick«. In »The Outcast«, she brings him back from the grave and invents the character of »Old Melville«. In his own lifetime, the visionary author Melville was ridiculed and shunned, and he died lonely and impoverished in New York. His long scientific treatises about whaling, with which he intersperses the narrative of »Moby Dick«, were attacked as being too long-winded. But Olga Neuwirth thought they were perfect, and wanted to reflect these interruptions of the story in »The Outcast«. She asked the author Anna Mitgutsch to write a number of monologues for Old Melville, to be read by an actor. These monologues conjure up a jumble of images, questions about power and helplessness, God, the act of writing, fate, cruelty and the beauty of nature.

The American Dream Gone Mad

Johan Leysen
Johan Leysen © Markus Sepperer

What Olga Neuwirth wrote down in the year 2010 now seems almost more relevant than it was then: does Ahab »represent the American dream gone mad, or does he believe he embodies the world and can do with it as he pleases?«  Ahab's charisma and his obsessive quest turn the crew of the Pequod into an impressionable, disciplined and committed combat group tasked with cleansing the world. For Melville the Pequod also came to symbolise on the one hand a democracy that had not yet achieved full independence from its liege lords, and on the other the fact that, however free men may be, they will always long for the security provided by a strong leader.

The Pequod symbolises a democracy that hasn't yet achieved full independence from its liege lords.

Ahab and His Followers

At the beginning of »The Outcast« the ship's crew is a fairly meek group of men. They still believe in »the just spirit of equality« before they go along with Ahab's plans for revenge and completely abandon their individuality in the process. Ahab shows no consideration whatsoever for others as he pursues his plan: driven by a hatred that goes beyond human bounds, he takes his crew down with him.

»Back in the mid-19th century,« Neuwirth writes, »Melville was already criticising the exploitation of natural resources, and identified an ethical problem that remains unsolved on Wall Street to this day: people were starting to think that maximum profit was the primary goal in life. Worldwide online gambling, it's true, was a thing of the distant future, but Melville's novel still conveys a feeling for this change, for the anarchic, centrifugal power with which the individual is eliminated by a society rife with ambition and greed, a society only interested in money.«

Melville had already identified an ethical problem that remains unsolved on Wall Street to this day: people were starting to think that maximum profit was the primary goal in life.

Olga Neuwirth


In »Moby Dick«, Ishmael is an outsider who is unsure of himself, a lonely misanthrope who contemplates suicide at times. Olga Neuwirth sees him as one of Herman Melville's alter egos. Ishmael is of course a character in the story, but first and foremost he is the first-person narrator. Unlike Ahab, whose paranoia prevents him from developing, Ishmael changes by reflecting on his experiences. His narrative as sole survivor of the final shipwreck shows that he has realised that a whale is just one of God's creatures that fights for its life when men attack it. By overcoming his traumas, Ishmael finds peace so that he is able to live in freedom. He longs to act in a socially responsible manner and to understand things, and everything becomes a question of identity and the search for it.

Ishmael Becomes Ishmaela

And this is exactly what prompted Olga Neuwirth to turn Ishmael into Ishmaela. In Melville's day, women were not allowed to work on ships; if they nonetheless did so, they were forced to conceal their true identity. This metamorphosis made them into mysterious figures somewhere between myth and reality. »The dream that every woman has a right to live a worthy and fulfilled life in freedom has always been important to me, and I've tried time and time again to express this in my music. It's important to me to believe that every human being deserves a life worth living. And we need to open our mouths and speak out to achieve this aim. Melville did it in his own time. We need to speak out against the restrictive assignment of a person to a single identity,« declares Neuwirth.

Die Ausgestoßenen

It's important to me to believe that every human being deserves a life worth living. And we need to open our mouths and speak out to achieve this aim.

Olga Neuwirth

The »outcasts«, lonely and confused people, represent a symbol of hope for Olga Neuwirth.

Even though Melville's tale is a chronicle of violence and love, loss and grief, for Olga Neuwirth the »outcasts«, the lonely and confused characters like Bartleby, Ishmaela, Queequeg, Pip, the children's choir and even Herman Melville himself, represent a symbol of hope. As she commented in February 2010, while she was writing most of the score in New York City, »My aim with »The Outcast« was to touch people's souls and shake them out of their complacency, to open their ears and eyes and minds to things beyond the boundaries everyone is calling for and beyond our economic constraints, using Moby Dick and Herman Melville himself to do so.«

With »Moby Dick« Melville, as hardly any writer had done before him, reduced human nature to the insatiable craving for subjugation, contempt, exploitation and the conquest of space for economic gain. Written some 150 years later, Olga Neuwirth's »The Outcast« is an insistent plea against xenophobia and the fear of the unknown, pointing a finger at issues like freedom, the abuse of power, personal responsibility and the exploitation and destruction of nature. The rule still applies that violence breeds violence, especially when those in power use it to intimidate and bully others. In that case, we all come out as losers. That is the central message of »The Outcast«.

This article is a shortened version of the introduction to the work by Tom Michelsen. The complete text can be read here: the programme of »The Outcast« (German only).

An insistent plea against xenophobia and the fear of the unknown.

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