Opera

In a sublime theatrical poem for Chamber Made, cellist Zoë Barry details her experiences of being struck by lightning. By Alison Croggon.

The Nervous Atmosphere

A cellist performs with on stage.
Zoë Barry in The Nervous Atmosphere at Arts House, Melbourne.
Credit: Sarah Walker

The statistics of lightning strikes are impressive. A single lightning bolt, for example, contains five billion joules of energy. The heat it generates in the surrounding air can reach 30,000 degrees. Australians have a one in 12,000 chance of being struck by lightning during their lifetime. Astonishingly, 90 per cent of those who are survive.

Google tells me that the odds of being struck twice are one in nine million. According to Guinness World Records, the person struck by lightning the most times is the unfortunate Roy Sullivan, known as the “Spark Ranger”, who worked at Shenandoah National Park in Virginia in the United States. He was hit seven times. The odds of that are apparently 1:1028, although in Sullivan’s case his outdoor work magnified his risk. After the third strike, Sullivan became convinced that some force was out to get him. He claimed that clouds would follow him and he took a can of water with him everywhere to put out his hair if it was set on fire.

My maths isn’t equal to calculating the chance of being struck by lightning three times, which is the experience of cellist and composer Zoë Barry, but you can be sure it is vanishingly small. In The Nervous Atmosphere, a one-woman performance directed by Ingrid Voorendt for Chamber Made at Arts House in Melbourne, she reflects on her encounters with the sublime violence of raw electricity. Sullivan and Barry show it’s hard not to take multiple strikes personally: both speak, in different ways, of being “chosen”.

When Chamber Made Opera was founded in 1988, under the artistic directorship of Douglas Horton, it focused exclusively on contemporary chamber operas. After 2014 – under Tim Stitz and then performance-maker Tamara Saulwick – the company dropped “opera” from its title and broadened its remit to works that “re-imagine how music and performance can converge”. The Nervous Atmosphere – an unclassifiable mixture of live, looped and prerecorded music and text and some extraordinary design – certainly fits the bill.

It’s a theatrical poem about the sublime horror and beauty of what Benjamin Franklin called “that most sudden and terrible mischief”, encompassing the subjective experience and after-effects of being hit by lightning. Seated forestage in a soft pool of light, Barry begins with her work as a cellist, her fingers rippling along the neck in a strange, failing, dissonant chord. “If I am nervous, I don’t make good contact with the strings,” she tells us. “I’m not ‘in’ the strings.”

Barry was hit twice in her car during a storm. The first encounter is almost corporeal – “A black opening smashes into the windscreen with violent force. The sound is dread.” She thinks that she’s hit an animal and expects to see blood, hair, a cracked windscreen. “But there is nothing, there’s nothing. But I saw something dark, and wide – thick – with form, and depth…”

The second strike, a fork of lightning that hit the road and branched towards the car, is “ravenous ice-white heat” that propels her into an experience of ecstatic beauty. “I have shifted up a space, up a plane,” she says. “The world is conjuring the most beauty imaginable … a final show, because I am about to die.” She survived but afterwards her sense of self – physical and psychic – was “disordered”.

Mary Ann Cooper, professor emeritus of emergency medicine at the University of Illinois Chicago, told The Washington Post survivors of lightning strikes exhibit a wide variety of injuries. They include chronic pain, epilepsy, paralysis, aphasia, apraxia and, in one extraordinary case, becoming a living circuit breaker – lights flick off when the woman passes streetlights, billboards and parking lots.

“You and I can filter out distractions and still focus,” says Cooper. “One of the things we see with lightning and electric[-shock] patients is that ability is scraped off.” Barry says she can’t negotiate space, that she has no sense of her own boundaries. “It’s like your body is a computer with a power surge,” someone tells her. “It’s rebooted itself, but in the wrong way.”

The third strike, “a fever heat rage river” in her home, almost completely dissociates Barry from herself. “Nature has … wrenched me away from the human world,” she says. “It has cast its spell.” Her psyche has split: she is now untethered from the earth, “not-quite-myself, not-quite-another”.

It’s clear by now the “nervous atmosphere” of the title is at once interior and exterior – the instabilities in clouds that generate electric charge, the “weather body” that Barry feels she has become. In an attempt to free herself from the “surreality” she no longer wishes to live, Barry consults a psychic. She reads philosophers, visits medical professionals, counsellors, an osteopath. Yet what brings her back is a painting of two lightning spirits, a picture that “rearranges” her psyche. Afterwards she revisits the scene of the first strike, where hundreds of white butterflies “fly up and up and up…”

Words, however evocative, are inadequate to the ecstatic horror that Barry has experienced. Here her telling is heightened and extended by music, played live and on loop, which takes over when language fails: a melody that winds around itself, subtly discordant. My only quibble is that the rhythms of The Nervous Atmosphere – as so often in experimental Australian work – sometimes lack variety and are weighed down by the kind of solemnity that undercuts its own poetry. I occasionally found myself longing for the electricity of contrast.

Bosco Shaw’s remarkable set and lighting design is hallucinatory. It places Barry ambiguously – at times she is a diminutive figure backstage but at others she seems like a kind of god, seated above the clouds. In a couple of long musical sequences, sinuous LED ropes, throbbing with pulses of colour, stretch to the ceiling from the constantly flashing clouds that adorn the floor. Sometimes they seem to be the lightning itself, but later they glow red and orange like luminous veins, the body coming home to earth.

Barry’s evocation of the divided, alienated self strikes chords that resonate far beyond her very particular experience. The Nervous Atmosphere is a fascinating and deeply absorbing production that is, at its heights, disturbingly beautiful.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 23, 2023 as "Three strikes".

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