Commissioned by the Festival d'art lyrique d'Aix-en-Provence and premiered as part of its 2013 event, The House Taken Over is a chamber opera by Portuguese composer Vasco Mendonça with a libretto by English playwright Sam Holcroft.
The book is based on the novel Casa tomada (literally: "occupied house"), first published in 1946 in the magazine Anales de Buenos Aires, edited by Jorge Luis Borges. It is based on the story of a brother and a sister who share a family home from which they hardly ever leave. Their habits take on the appearance of rituals, but when noises begin to be heard in one of the rooms of the vast residence, they seal it off. Their living space shrinks as their lives shrink, to the point of forcing them to leave the "occupied house".
The House Taken Over contemporary opera premiered on 6 July 2013 as part of the Festival d'art lyrique d'Aix-en-Provence, directed by Katie Mitchell. The role of Brother (Hector) was played by Oliver Dunn and that of Sister (Rosa) by Kitty Whately.
An old and spacious country house, Argentina, early 1940s.
The larger, older rooms of the back wing are separated from the smaller rooms of the BROTHER and SISTER’S living quarters in the front wing by a large oak door. We begin in the dining room in the older, larger part of the house. It is equipped with a fireplace, a large wall clock or grandfather clock, a tall bookshelf stacked with books, some indoor plants and a large antique dining table with chairs. On the wall hangs a family portrait. Heavy curtains are closed across the windows; the room is lit by lamp.
A door slams violently.
A large townhouse in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the 1940s. Hector and Rosa - brother and sister - eat breakfast in the dining room of their family home. On the chime of nine o’ clock, they begin their daily cleaning routine, defending their inheritance against the onslaught of dust and dirt.
At noon precisely they stop for lunch.
Several days later: once the morning housework has been completed, Rosa spends the afternoon resting on the sofa, knitting. As she knits, she sings a lullaby. Hector arrives, searching for his gloves. But when he opens a drawer, he discovers a stash of beautifully decorated shawls, knitted by Rosa. He leaves, having failed to summon the courage to ask his childless sister why she has knitted so many shawls. When he is gone Rosa once again sings the lullaby of her youth.
Some days later: Hector reads to his sister from a novel. While alone in the kitchen preparing tea, Hector suddenly becomes aware that there is something wrong with the house. Simultaneously, Rosa experiences the same unnerving feeling. In a blind panic, Hector slams shut the door which separates one wing of the house from another. He rehearses the explanation he will give his sister, before returning to the sitting to deliver the tea. But Rosa urges Hector to accept the fact that part of the house has been taken over: they will have to live on this side of the door instead.
The following morning: Hector and Rosa attempt to cling on to their old rituals: eating breakfast in the smaller part of their family home, cleaning their remaining possessions. But with fewer objects to clean, they finish quickly and are forced to take lunch at ten thirty.
Two days later: Rosa is passing the time by knitting whilst Hector reads to her from manuals, the only books which remain on their side of the house. To break the tedium, Rosa suggests that he sort through their father’s old photographs. As tensions mount, Hector begins to taunt Rosa about Lucho, her ex-suitor. Rosa demands that her brother bring her more wool; but when Hector refuses to leave the house, she unravels her beloved shawls.
Later that night: Rosa has a vivid nightmare in which she imagines herself as the stuffed parrot, which the family kept in the house. She wakes herself in fright.
The next day: Rosa and Hector eat breakfast together, the tensions in their relationship now painfully apparent. But as they begin to argue over the memory of their parents, they suddenly stop in fright. Instinctively, they take shelter in the vestibule and shut the wrought iron door to the house, agreeing that the house has now been completely taken over. Rosa feels that they should leave, but Hector insists they should stay.
Minutes later: Hector attempts to recreate their morning routine in an effort to convince his sister that life in the house is still tenable. Rosa begins to join in, but her resolve falters. Having initially attempted to placate his sister, Hector concedes that their life in this house is over and that they must leave their ancestral home. The brother and sister take their first steps into a new life.