The opera: dance, music and film – Interview with Zoltán Balázs / 2008

I spent my childhood in Sighetu Marmației, near mountains, rocks, waterfalls, rivers. Thanks to this I could hear many different types of music.

- He is an actor, director, once wanted to be a clown, and he still considers the circus to be the most sacred art form.

- In Fellini’s I Clowns a small child talks about how frightened he is, but also attracted to the bizarreness of clown jokes. Somehow I feel the same. The circus was that pulled me to the theater.

- What were your first musical experiences?

- Those who grow up in the mountains may have music in their gut. I spent my childhood in Sighetu Marmației, near mountains, rocks, waterfalls, rivers. Thanks to this I could hear many different types of music. I’ve sometimes seen a couple of opera performances when a company from Cluj-Napoca visited us. However, the decisive impacts were in Hungary and especially in France. What caught me was Bob Wilson’s directing with their incredible precision and mathematical construction. For example, I am not sure if there is a performance more beautiful than Alcestis. The way it concentrates on stillness, it deeply coincides with my thinking: fantasy soars between the mountains differently...

- Are there a few performances like this?

- Yes. Peter Stein’s directing, Pelléas and Mélisande, was similar to this, and Julie Taymor is trying to do something like this as well, and she gets the formalist label for it. But I don’t think the form is the enemy of the content.

- It is not by chance that in your decisive experiences you do not mention authors and operas, only directors and performances. While in your directing –though you’ve chosen the prosaic stage as your calling- music seemed to play an increasingly prominent role.

- Undoubtedly, I strive to make music a major determinant when I am directing a performance. Not for my own sake: I always try to find the most accurate music sheet for thought or content. Let’s take Pelléas and Mélisande for instance. I could have directed Debussy’s opera, but I opted for the prosaic version, but with Pravoslav music. Because when reading Maeterlinck’s text, the world of Parajanov appeared in front of my eyes. This is how the three bassists, who as creators and death angels, accompanied the story as an orthodox choir. This gave birth to a very special sound that determined the facade of the whole performance.

- A slightly different formula is the Storm. Leoš Janáček wrote Katya Kabanova opera based on the drama of Ostrovsky. Why did you choose the drama instead of the opera, if you used Janáček’s music anyway?

- This has been my first story-centric directing in years. But the concrete story served as an alibi. I’ve long been interested in the presentness of film in the theater, which I’ve first experienced in Lars von Trier’s Dogville. Beyond the motive, it takes a lot of time, work and thinking to blur the boundaries of film and theater, so I keep trying it as much as possible. In Empedocles, for example, I thought that if I couldn’t compete with the speed of a movie, I would do it in slow motion so I could see the actors moving almost frame by frame. I wanted to move forward in the Storm. There, I wanted to capture a different kind of symbolism of the storm and lightning, the urban projection. The cameras, which are reflectors here, illuminated the Kabanova's life for a second. In the transient light, there is the possibility of an escapement in the darkness. Besides the prosaic text, the music itself reveals a wonderful new dimension for me. I felt it makes it fly away, quotes it, continues it and counterpoints the story. It’s like a widescreen Hollywood movie soundtrack like Gone with the wind or Doctor Zhivago. That’s why it was very important that at the very end, at Katerina's death, the actress to sing a Russian song with her voice, in a kind of profane, sacred way.

- You said earlier in an interview that nowadays there is no theater without opera, dance and film. Isn't this an exaggeration? After all, the film is a much younger genre than opera.

- It is true, at the time of Puccini or Verdi, the knowledge of today's film did not exist. The possible mixing of genres is in the air. We can’t play opera with our hands clasped and by talking propping up the midriff. For example, in The Mikado, the actors are singing while they are sliding on their belly, they are singing standing on their heads. Opera is a theater where everything comes together: dance, music and film.

- Many people are hesitant about a director “using” the opera, to make it his piece if you like it better this way. It is not a coincidence that Peter Brook has given his Carmen a new title. In Gianni Schicchi, directed by Silviu Purcărete, premiered at the Spring Festival, there is a figure, which does not exist in the Puccini opera.

- I think if you don’t offend Puccini’s world, a director or creator has the right to reinterpret the work for his era. Otherwise, this idea, represented by the newly introduced character in Puccini’s Opera by Purcărete is very close to me. It’s about the relationship between objective and subjective time. In the Blacks, for example, a boy and a girl were running on both sides: they were measuring the time of the performance. But their running transformed into a subjective time because when they stopped at the end, you could feel: all of this happened for them to meet.

- You’ve called the Genet piece, The Blacks, an opera.

- It was a contemporary opera: László Sáry wrote the music. Genet creates an incredibly complex system, the mirroring of mirroring. With the help of the music, one more thing was added, because in the piece Genet prescribes masks. I didn't want to use classic masks, but I remembered, that sound can also be a mask. This is how five opera singers were added to the performance, who lent their voices to one “black” and one “white”. For the singer, this type of task required incredible attention, it was like a live playback. But the actor couldn’t use his voice. Think about it how much of a resignment is for an actor to act by not using his voice. Again, it is a typical case of a circus risk: if someone makes a mistake, the whole thing will fall and the miracle of that day won’t happen. It would have been a crime not to use this suje as an opera.

- Now here’s The Vampire. It’s a richly-flowing romantic grand opera. Wagner also wanted to stage Marschner’s piece. His autobiography reveals that he appreciated it, but at the same time found it very difficult. Since its premiere in Leipzig in 1828, The Vampire has never been played in France or Hungary. Why did you choose it?

- I did not choose it. Each of the five invited directors met the five opera directors, whom Ágnes Havas, the organizer of the competition found as a partner. The couples were formed based on mutual sympathy and common thinking. It is no secret that for me the French opera director, the M. Surrence from Rennes was the most likable. From the beginning, I felt, that his perception of the arts, to the world, was similar to mine. He is a very modern, yet extremely conservative man. What he did not dare to risk, put it in my hands. As if I had extended his ambitions. The Vampire was his idea. He said he’d wanted to stage it for so long, but he couldn’t find a director for it. As I searched, I found Polidori’s horror short story, The Vampire, based on which and opera was made, I’ve read about Frankenstein’s Night, I delved myself into Byron’s gothic, and I became interested in this strange, sensual, lustful, sick, yet exotic world. And, of course, the essence of vampires. As a Transylvanian, I will always live this “Kamchatka” feeling, that I have come from the end of the world and I am and will stay a mountain Yeti.

- Is this a fairy tale like “the lamb is outside, the wolf is inside”?

- To the greatest extent. Archetypical, weird, circular story. In a strange night before midnight, the vampire master summons the ghosts, demons, and Ruthven, who is still alive but is a vampire. He wanders the land between the living and the dead. He asks for a plus one-year extension of his mortal life, which he will get if he kills three virgins within 24 hours. Ruthven is unable to complete the task because his attention is weakened at the last minute. And this is caused by none other than his opponent Aubry. They are like yin and yang. Or like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in schizophrenic lacrosse. Like when the dwarf disappears in a Lynch movie and the giant appears. The dwarf entered, how did the giant come out? The giant disappeared behind a curtain where a woman comes out. But how could a woman come out if a giant went in? So the whole thing has something strange. I don’t know if my eyes are dazzling or this is reality?! It adds to this feeling that I replaced the melodramatic parts where, according to the period’s style, the opera singers are saying prose during the musical passages, with a much more mysterious system, because the characters are working with signs. The audience may feel that the characters on the stage understand each other very well, but he/she must be very attentive to understand them. I don’t want to give this weird, in and out story some kind of a Dracula aspect. I don’t want a vampire running around with false teeth, black robe. I know, this is how its usually done, but I’ve long considered this a fairy tale. I’m interested in vampirism. What is someone’s inner vampire? What is he/she consuming? What is blood? What is a bite? What is showing sacrifice? How does the reproduction of my personality depend on how much I can bite from the environment I am sacrificing? What’s exciting is the symbolism of everything. This is why we’ve put on stage a Japanese world instead of the XVII. Centuries Scotland, Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe’s also fantastic environment. A clear, straight, transparent world, in which touch, the victim and sacrificer role is more dominant. Vampirism, in this case, is a mask. It is not the vampire that is interesting, but the person who makes... 

- What’s is the opera’s music like?

- Extremely flowy, romantic- I love it. But it’s difficult.

- How much respect does the directing have for the music? Does it change its length, accents?

- They are bolder changes, but basically, we were not looking for a solution in reduction. The locations change quickly, which makes this whole thing very cinematic. The solution to this is particularly exciting because one of the requirements of the festival is that the playground can be prepared fast, so we could not work with large sets, complicated elements. While we have a fifty member band, a choir of thirty people and fourteen soloists. The choir is very dominant, it comes back nine times during the play and it is singing for twenty-twenty five minutes. It is not a decoration, it is not the background, it has an important dramaturgic role. The solution to all of this, the dynamics, the whole habitation of the opera is determined by the Estonian conductor, Olari Elts. He is a fantastic musician and an ideal colleague who has been extremely responsive and open to all of my suggestions so far – which are not usually classic suggestions-. Olari is an unusual phenomenon: if I was to cast the vampire to a conductor, I would choose him.

- You should cast him in the play.

- I will do so, he is a brilliant figure.

- More than three hundred singers applied for the casting of the five opera singers- was it difficult to select?

- Yes and no. My vampire, for example, was instantly found. He came in and I said, there he is: Nabil Suliman, a Syrian singer, just stunning. The girls are also great: an Irish singer, Helen Kearns with snow-white skin, a perfect victim figure. A half-German, half French boy plays Aubry and a French girl will be Malvina. The vampire is a high baritone, Aubry is thick and strong but also a soft tenor, and the girls are dramatic and lyrical sopranos. These roles are exceptionally hard, requiring special abilities, serious singing skills and presence. When the team was formed, I felt it’s the same I was dreaming about.

Judit Petrányi,, 2008

Translation by Brigitta Erőss