Tomasz Domagała: For this year’s Opera Rara Festival, in addition to Rossini’s Sigismondo, you also directed Unknown, I Live With You by Katarzyna Głowicka. Why take on two such different projects?
Krystian Lada: The cooperation with Katarzyna Głowicka is the crowning achievement of our shared artistic path based on the belief that opera can be a contemporary, critical and at yet emotional form of art. I don’t agree with the sentiment that opera can only be pretty and that it won’t teach us anything about the world, while critical art can teach us something about the world, but it can’t be pretty. The Unknown, I Live With You project was born out of the belief that it is possible for an opera to be beautiful and talk about important, difficult topics at the same time.
TD: You work in the theatre (with Ivo van Hove, among many others) as well as in opera. What’s the difference between the two?
KL: First of all, they have different critics… On a more serious note, the space of music in theatre and performing arts is something I don’t want to separate between different forms. It may manifest itself in the composed music, but it may also be an aspect of text or image, movement or a situation presented on stage. I remember my first contact with Ivo’s theatre – back in the day, his plays were somewhat “dry” musically and I distinctly remember that watching them was a chore for me, because they were so devoid of musicality. These days, Ivo is on a completely different stage of his artistic journey, and his plays offer a lot of sound, music and rhythm, which has certainly brought us closer together. And now, to answer your question about the differences between theatre and opera. I think they primarily differ in their scale and restrictions. I’ll start with the scale – I’m positively jealous of my theatre colleagues that they can do something phenomenal with just three actors on stage, and such a piece is treated by theatre community seriously, as a full-fledged stage play. This also makes it easy to pack it up, then move, set up shop and show it somewhere else. In the case of Unknown, I Live With You, I worked not only as a director, but also as a producer. There are just 12 people on the stage – from the point of view of our opera world, this is a tiny production. There are some who ask whether it’s an opera at all, because it has no choirs, no symphony orchestra, no monumental decorations… There is nothing but 12 artists from a number of countries, living in various corners of the world, who will come to Krakow to resurrect this piece just for a while. Each time this “tiny piece” is presented, a complex logistics and production machine needs to be fired up. We all speak several different languages every day, and the only one we all understand best is music. This is what fascinates me most about opera – here, music is a language that rises above the semantics of any other language, which one can use to communicate beyond the limits and borders of time. I can be critical of Puccini, of the colonialism and imperialism of his operas, when you analyse them from today’s perspective. However, when I hear the final aria of Manon Lescaut, I always experience this unconditional, physiological surge of emotions. Puccini knew well how to provoke this carnal reaction – he was an alchemist of emotions embedded in human voice and music.
On the other hand, we have the issue of restrictions in opera. Once again, I’m going to compare working on operas with what my theatre colleagues can get away with. They can just come and say, for example: “You know, in this new play we have mud on the stage, Małgosia comes out into this mud from under the stage, she’s half-naked, then she looks at the audience and screams for several minutes straight: “I hate you all!” In the world of opera, we always have to deal with acoustics and physical conditions of sound generation, as well as with a certain kind of historical pompousness and social expectations concerning this art form. Not all sopranos can perform their arias while rolling in mud, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a violinist who’d agree to perform naked. I find trying to find my way around these limits, crossing the borders of expectations towards this form or art, as well as surpassing the technological limitations of this operatic mechanism to be fascinating. Summing up, I’m doomed to the opera, because I love it with that kind of love you have towards your older sister – some think she’s a bit on the chubbier side and that she let herself go a bit, but you still notice her intrinsic beauty, and you love her above everything else, despite everything. Just as I experience the surrounding reality with all my senses – not only with my hearing, but also with my eyes, my touch, my taste, I wouldn’t be able to express this reality with just one sense – solely through spoken words or dance. Opera is a reality resurrected in a symphony of sensual stimuli – in sound, images, movement, in the experience of space. I am well-aware of the fact that these days opera came under fire of immense criticism due to the fact that it offers imperialist, colonial or misogynistic repertoire, that its narratives are not fit to our times. On the other hand, there are some people who claim that opera is entertainment for only three percent of the society. Critical and constructive confrontation with the oft problematic opera repertoire is and must be a challenge and a duty for a new generation of artists today. This requires knowledge of the form and history of the opera, but also burning curiosity, and some courage to transcend its conventions. Since its origin, this genre has always crossed aesthetic and political boundaries, and it has always been excessive. However, we should not be focusing on repeating and copying the historical opera theatre, idolizing that, what was back in the day. Instead, we should focus on creating the language of the opera of our times. This is the only way we can ensure its place in society.
Opera is also a complex whole, which is born of a multitude of different crafts, which are necessary to bring to life a world on stage. Personally, I consider this an extremely important metaphor of reality – if the opera dramatist is able to get along with theatre shoemaker who is supposed to prepare 60 pairs of shoes for the choir, that means that we – the society in general – can get along as well, despite the often glaring differences. This harmony of the multitude of activities, as well as perspectives and stores which every single one of us brings to the rehearsal room and to the stage is the most beautiful metaphor of society.
TD: You mentioned the issue of anachronistic stories, which don’t fit today’s reality, which are part of the classic repertoire of opera. Would it be possible to rewrite these narratives in a way that would take into consideration all the changes that have occurred in our collective consciousness in the 21st century?
KL: Of course. We are limited… Or rather, we face the challenge of preserving the integrity of the musical narrative – the experience of time is already intrinsic to the musical structure of a given work. You can translate Hamlet into German, cut it into pieces and rearrange them, cast a woman representing another culture as the eponymous protagonist, but it’s still going to be Hamlet, only directed by Peter Zadek. We can’t do that to an opera. It is not only about musical cohesion – certain roles are assigned to particular voice types in the gender sense. For example, Cio-Cio San from Madame Butterfly is a woman and – from today’s point of view – a victim. Due to the nature of this vocal part, it needs to be performed by a soprano, which means that it can be played only by a woman. Another thing that needs to be preserved in an opera is the structure of the musical experience. You’d be hard-pressed to cut Madame Butterfly into pieces and shuffle them around, because you’d have to decompose a composition, which has its rules and principles. New stage interpretations of the classical opera repertoire enable us to take a critical look at opera stories with colonial, oppressive or misogynistic narratives.
One of the strategies we have at our disposal is to draw viewers’ attention to a given problem, instead of trying to sugar-coat it with historical costumes. In the case of Unknown, I Live With You, one of the important aspects was to have the presence of voices who are excluded from society at the composition and casting level – we wanted for example to include the voices of transgender people in the opera. While working on Unknown…, we collaborated with Lucia Lucas, a transgender singer who is able to sing with two voices – a baritone and a new voice that I would describe as an alto. Of course, this is an innovation, a new quality, which – as the history of music and the presence of counter-tenors, castrati and breeches roles clearly shows – is nevertheless in line with the spirit of the opera, which has been developing since its emergence by crossing borders, including those related to gender issues. This is another available strategy, which enables us to tell the opera stories in a different manner.
The questions of who tells the story, to whom, and whose story it is were particularly important while we worked on Unknown, I Live With You. We wanted the narratives about Afghanistan, usually told by men – politicians to other male politicians, to be presented directly using the voices of women living in this society. We wanted their voices to be unfiltered by men at various levels of social and family hierarchy – fathers, brothers and politicians. We wanted their true, real, primitive, uncut and unpolished voices, not a product of political diplomacy. That is why we decided to work with a foundation that organises creative writing workshops for Afghan girls from Taliban-occupied regions, running meetings attended by women who risk their lives to do so, because in that region of the world a woman can be stoned to death for owning a pen or pencil! We are talking about women who write that their husbands are aware that their wives and daughters find their situation unbearable, so they make sure that there are no tools around them that would allow them to commit suicide, because for many of them this is the only way out of their situation. As we found out while we worked on Unknown…, one of the common ways for women to commit suicide in Afghanistan is by pouring boiling oil all over themselves – this is often the only way they have access to, because it’s their duty to prepare food for their families. The outcome? Either prolonged death and suffering, or survival with a deformed body. In this context, we bring up the fundamental right of every human being to have their own voice and tell their own story. When we cannot talk about ourselves and our lives, or express ourselves, we face the need to answer a fundamental question: what is the purpose of our existence, and whether we exist at all, if we are not able to verbalise our voice and our history? Unknown, I Live With You was thus a consistent reflection on what it means to give voice to these excluded protagonists in opera and society.
This project is also linked to the concept of empowerment. The audience often asks us if this is a project that empowers Afghan women. I want to make it clear that this project was a source of empowerment for all of us: Małgorzata Walewska, who dealt with such a repertoire and context for the first time, for myself, for Kasia, for the transgender singer Lucia Lucas, who will not join us in Krakow but who is a part of this project, or finally for Raehann Bryce-Davis and Francesca Chiejina, Black singers (from Texas and Nigeria), each of whom carries their own personal story of exclusion. Suddenly, it turned out that thanks to the courage of these Afghan women, we were able to confront our own exclusion caused by our roots, lifestyle or beliefs, and at the same time face the archetypal exclusion of otherness from society. And this is where I would like to go back to the first question: what’s the common thing shared by Sigismondo and Unknown, I Live With You. Both of these projects cover the issue of contemporary social exclusion, although in a different way and using different aesthetics.
TD: In Unknown, I Live With You, did you put the stories of protagonists together in some kind of a cohesive whole, or do you rather remove yourself stepping aside and leaving them some space?
KL: It’s an important question, because it touches upon the sense of direction, and the question of the very nature of directing – a manifestation of the demiurge director’s ego or the ability to orchestrate diverse perspectives and voices of the artists involved in a given process. For me, the starting point in directing is listening – listening to the voice of the work itself and its authors. What does this work want from me? What does it want from all of us – a group of artists working in a specific cultural context, here and now, creating for a given audience? What can a story and this music offer today’s audience? Going on: who’s the singer who is to play the role, and how do they build their own bridge to that role? How can I inspire or enable this process? Working with soloists to find a very personal form for the emotions contained in the music and the libretto is at the centre of my work as a director. Only somewhere at the end, in the broadest perspective, does the question of my aesthetic choices arise.
This is also how I worked on Unknown… The Afghan texts, which I discovered by chance a few years ago… I simply couldn’t forget them. When they fell into my hands – at first for my eyes only – I felt like a photographer who took a picture of a child during the war, and the inability to show this picture to others was kind of taking away the dignity of this child, taking away their voice. And then there was an organic transition from being a recipient of these texts to asking myself the question: How can I give these women a voice? In my world, the world of opera, there is nothing more monumental than the voice of an opera singer. I realised that this is how the project touches upon the archetypal problem of the opera – who tells the story and why opera almost always shows women from a male point of view. These poems are a source material, where a woman – facing extreme oppression – shows her world and is proud to be a woman, who can formulate her own answer. I understood that this was not something that could be directed, not in the slightest, because these are stories that cross the boundaries of our experience of reality. After all, I have no idea what it means to be in such an existential moment to decide to pour hot oil over myself with the intention of committing suicide… There was also another story of a girl, leader of a school sports team, who lost her legs when her school was bombed. Her idea of getting out of the cruel patriarchal world was a sport, and she poured all her heart into it – and then, her life was ruined. I can’t imagine that either. It is not about the mythical and metaphorical Medeas and Antigones – these are real, contemporary women who still live in Afghanistan. This is not something that can be directed – life has beat us to it.
That’s why in Unknown… we document our reactions to these stories. It is the process of passing them through ourselves, filtering them through our own experiences of fighting for our own voice in a patriarchal world. I think that in this situation it is better to use the term “installation” rather than “play” in order to step away from the idea of staging, which resembles setting up a Christmas tree, with all the baubles, lights and a star on top. In this play, there are no baubles, no stars, and no lights. There’s the tree itself – one that grows in the forest. Here, I would like to bring up an anecdote that gave name to our collective – The Airport Society, where we work together with composer Katarzyna Głowicka. It was born during our debate on this project, when one of the singers, who can no longer be a mother, got up and unwittingly pointed her hands at the area around her belly, and she said that she could create Turandots and Cio-Cio Sans, but that won’t create any new life in her. But when she sings the words written by a contemporary Afghan woman, who was deprived of her voice by the religious extremist regime, she feels as if she is some kind of a void, an air port of sorts, where it can reappear, so she is able to give a new – and real – life. Hence the idea for the name of our collective – creating an air port, which is sort of a commitment for us to avoid taking the talent or privilege we have – the ability to do what we want and love – for granted; to consider how we can share the voice that we have with those who are deprived of it. It is not a matter of decorating opera stories – instead, this is about facing the challenge of opera repertoire in a constructively critical way and creating new projects that allow socially excluded voices to be incorporated into the mainstream of opera narrative and thus into social debate.
Interview conducted for the magazine accompanying the Opera Rara Festival held in Krakow on 23.01-14.02.2020.
Krystian Lada – director and librettist. Active on international opera scene, lives in Belgium, where he worked as the director of dramaturgy at the La Monnaie National Opera. In 2017, he founded The Airport Society collective. The first winner of the Mortier Next Generation Award for exceptional talent in the field of opera.
Tomasz Domagała – theatre critic, member of the Polish section of the International Association of Theatre Critics (AICT), Polish Radio journalist, author of domagalasiekultura.pl blog, selector of the Divine Comedy Festival and FNT Festival in Rzeszów.