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Mariusz Treliński, artistic director of the Teatr Wielki, the National Opera in Warsaw, is a celebrity in Poland’s cultural world. The successful film director made his debut in the opera with Puccini and for his La Monnaie debut he is conducting a work by that Italian composer: the rarely staged Manon Lescaut. His recent productions of Madama Butterfly and Turandot were extremely well received by press and public alike.
You started off as a film director and from the outset you showed great promise in the Polish film world. Then one day you directed an opera, which fascinated you so much that you bid farewell to film and theatre and became the artistic director of the Polish National Opera in Warsaw. Is opera such a drug that you instantly forgot your other artistic ambitions?
That decision is a mystery to me too! Madama Butterfly, my first opera production, was an experiment and at the time I regarded it as something of a whim in-between two films. But that production made me realize that I feel a real bond with opera: I was captivated by its sophisticated form, specific use of language and artificiality. This was the opposite of the cinema! It is true that in general those aspects do nothing to enhance the reputation of the opera, but personally they fascinate me. What is also important to me is the fact that opera has been part of the cultural world for so long. When I made a film or stage play, I felt I was telling a story, but when I stage an opera, I am dealing with a myth and stirring up ideas which are anchored deep in the collective consciousness. In other words, I enter the world of anthropology. I peek over the shoulder of the psychoanalysts to the sofas. I don’t tell a story, I wrestle with myths and archetypes. A film is shown, but an opera happens. It is one of the last rituals, a meeting place where community is created. The opera houses, those grand buildings in city centres, resemble churches where a strange religion is practised. In my view that just makes the juxtaposition of the long-established traditions of the opera with contemporary ideas about art in a ravaged, fragmented but stratified world all the more exciting.
The public has a clear idea of what opera is and entails. And at the end of the day they are usually titles everybody knows. Is it important to confront the audience with your own vision? Or are you interested in the tension between what happens in your head and what happens in the collective head of the audience?
Art requires opposition, a counterpoint. In a world stripped of reference points and authorities, the opera is one of the last places where we encounter something enduring. There’s no doubting the fact that most librettos are superficial on an intellectual level, but the themes touched on in the opera are much more interesting than the words in the libretto. Manon Lescaut, which I am now working on in Warsaw, can be seen as a trifling, bourgeois story about a man who tries to follow the shadow of an unattainable woman. But if you try and see it as a story about a fantasy, about the projection mechanism created by bewitchment, and about a woman who is the prototype of a femme fatale, then the whole meaning changes.
How does one discover in stories that are not challenging or inspiring intellectually, something that can fire the imagination, something that moves not only emotionally, but also makes you stop and reflect?
In every story I try to penetrate to the psychoanalytical or mythical level which underlies the origin of the story in question. I ask myself what it meant then, how it was received, what censorship problems it came up against. Abbé Prévost’s novel caused a shock; of course the work must have been scandalous at the time. Working with the same story today, I try and get at its enduring energy. The period and the costumes change, but human nature remains the same. Certain structures in us are still almost identical to structures of hundreds of years ago. That is why I always try and decipher the essence of the story and see how it is reflected in contemporary reality, in our world, our media, culture and dreams.
After all these years your repertoire of opera productions has grown considerably. You have directed Verdi, Szymanowski’s Król Roger – no fewer than three different productions -, there is Gluck, Mussorgsky, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, but Puccini returns time and time again.
For me he is a mysterious figure. Opera historians see him as the founder of verismo. He did of course introduce a certain sort of realism into opera, but for me he is essentially a photographer of the human soul. His verismo is like an X-ray. I believe Puccini is the only composer whose music stemmed from psychology, from dialogue: the word and energy of the human conflict set the music in motion. What is interesting is that in his operas Puccini never builds an equal relationship between a man and a woman; they are always vertical relationships. On the one hand he creates poor, silenced women, creatures like Butterfly who offer a man everything they have, who are destitute and go barefoot, who have no belongings apart from a little box with a pipe and a handkerchief, or they are women like Liu. Then there are figures like Turandot and Manon. Either the man dominates, or he has become pathologically dependent on a strong, destructive woman. In fact in photographs Puccini often wears the mask of the impeccable dandy. That is why the character is life-like: naked and real, I would almost say. It is an interesting psychological theme. Indeed, when making an opera I often talk to psychoanalysts or psychiatrists. We look at the characters in the opera as specific, clinical cases.
Have you ever stopped to consider that the leading characters in the opera are often women, but that their fate is determined by men? And you are a man too.
Yes, in this male world, the femmes fatales rule. They are our torment and nightmare, they are a threat to male domination. For five minutes it seems they hold us in their grip, but then the last act restores the balance in the world and the woman must perish so that people can sleep soundly again. That is a cynical habit and so I like to turn that male law on its head. Puccini tried to make an end to his story with Manon’s death. But what is essential in this story is the fact that she embodies something extraordinary which cannot be destroyed.
You try and bring legends, myths and stories from a distant past closer to modern-day sensitivities. As an artist you behave rather brazenly: instead of standing in the shadow of the story, you take a step forward and inject your sensitivity and your emotionality into the whole thing so that you yourself become the subject of the story. Does that reflect the behaviour of a film director or does it have to do with your need to recognize yourself in those stories?
Firstly, I have an organic aversion to art that is academic in its approach. If I cannot form a relationship with the piece, if I don’t have a personal bond with it, I don’t think I have the right to work with it. This is not a question of egocentrism, but honesty. I look for common ground with the stories in question and I set to work on them because they clarify something in me. Whenever I stage an opera, I create an archetype, I give it a contemporary meaning for the audience and for me personally. Only when these elements are combined, does my work become meaningful. You asked about films. Well, in all my films the rhythm determined the music. In the opera the situation is reversed, because the music has already been composed and I add my film to the soundtrack. To do that I use film language and editing techniques. Furthermore, every creation originates in the context of a number of films. In the case of Manon Lescaut, David Lynch and Louis Buñuel played a key role.
Yet on the stage you don’t use film’s most elementary instrument: the ubiquitous camera.
In the theatre the camera is an invention of the director. In the cinema we are in the image, in the absolute illusion, because we can’t see the camera.
To return to Manon, do you remember what your first thoughts were about this opera?
You find the same theme in Manon and Turandot. Turandot has its origin in a fairytale, Manon has its origin in reality. However, both are stories about a pathological, toxic dependence in a relationship. A story about a man who sees a woman and becomes infatuated with her, who allows himself to be humiliated to the depths of his being and effaced.
There is something else that links them too: Turandot and Manon Lescaut are operas in which a woman has the title role and drives the story, but is not the heroin.
Here we touch on the essence of all beguilement: when we are in a romantic relationship we don’t perceive reality as it is. We don’t see the other person, but just a sort of aura that we project. Manon seems to me a classic story about an undefined female character, about the fantasy of a dominating woman, a woman who intimidates a male subject, a woman who is mysterious and changeable and about whom it is impossible to say anything with certainty. Manon keeps up appearances, wears masks, deals the cards without scruples. When I spoke to the singer who is performing the role of Manon, I told her that each scene must be played as if by a completely different actor, and in such a way that the observer, actually Des Grieux, tries to put all the pieces of that impossible puzzle together. Manon is the prototype of a femme fatale and a femme fatale is a figure who is even more unreal than Turandot, because – as some claim – Turandot lived in China or was a Mongolian princess. A femme fatale on the other hand is non-existent, a vision we project onto the woman in question. Here the archetype of the relationship between man and woman surfaces and in that relationship the subject – the amorous man – creates an object of desire and ends up communicating with his own imagination.
And so we are back inside the head of the director?
That’s right, I have come to realize that the most interesting thing in art is always highly subjective.
Recorded by Piotr Gruszczyński