For this world premiere, composer Philippe Boesmans asked author and stage director Joël Pommerat to rework his play Au monde – whose theatrical version was presented in Brussels earlier in the year by La Monnaie and Théâtre National – to make the libretto for his new opera. Here, they speak about this special collaboration, the role of words and music, and the adaptation of literary works for opera.
How did your collaboration take shape?
Philippe Boesmans: Apart from my first opera (La Passion de Gilles) after the text by Pierre Mertens, I have always used classical cult works, such as La Ronde or Julie, or Shakespearean works. Peter de Caluwe, Bernard Foccroulle and Christian Longchamp encouraged me to read several plays by contemporary writer Joël Pommerat, whose works I had seen performed on a few occasions. Two of them seemed suitable for an opera adaptation: Cercles/Fictions and Au monde.
Joël, what does it mean to be chosen by Philippe?
Joël Pommerat: It was a great surprise, an unexpected joy and an honour. I had never imagined being associated with a great opera composer and seeing my plays transposed into opera. I have worked with Oscar Bianchi, but our collaboration began without a true desire to work with my plays. This was decided later (the play Grâce à mes yeux became the opera Thanks to my Eyes). The collaboration with Philippe was immediately centred on my writing.
Why did you choose Au monde? What are the criteria of a good libretto?
Philippe Boesmans: The play must correspond to something I feel, contain a universe which may be transposed into music. All of the characters in Au monde correspond to the vocal archetypes of opera: the father/the bass, the young sister/the soprano, etc. I have worked a lot with Luc Bondy on libretti, but never in such a precise way as with Joël, searching for the hidden meaning in each sentence. Joël works as though the author is no longer there, tries to understand what he meant and asks questions. It is as though he is trying to adapt a play by a classical writer to opera. I think that setting a play to music is like paying tribute to it. It is an interpretation, an act of love – and at the same time something different: the rhythm of music is not the same. There is more lyricism than in spoken words.
Joël Pommerat: It is a little bit pretentious to say this, but I think that of all of my plays, Au monde, which was written in 2004, is the one which would work best as an opera. It is a combination of Chekhov’s Three Sisters and the atmosphere of Maeterlinck – references already made in Grâce à mes yeux. It is no coincidence that the two composers I have worked with have chosen these plays. They correspond to the period in which I wrote ‘false plays’, with characters who are seeking reality but who belong to an abstract, aesthetic and poetic world. The characters in Au monde are archetypes: the father, the son who returns from the war and the older sister. Next there is a modification of and personal work on these archetypes, to move towards an inventive, original piece of writing. These characters already have something lyrical about them, but there might be untraditional ones. We could create something new by going beyond the archetypes, starting with a model which cannot be identified yet: a living and entirely contemporary model.
Philippe Boesmans: Joël wrote Grâce à mes yeux and Au monde in a raw approach to Italian-style theatre. We might imagine making an opera someday with the audience surrounding the stage, as he often does with his plays, for example in La Réunification des deux Corées. It would be another approach to the musical performance.
Philippe used the word ‘tribute’ with respect to the choice of a play for an opera libretto. But there is probably also a touch of anxiety. Is there not a loss of freedom to some extent?
Joël Pommerat: There are two positions, each with its interpretation of the phenomenon: that of the stage director and that of the author. I try to link them in my theatrical work. In an opera, I must dissociate them in time. The transition from play to libretto may bring tensions, disappointment and frustration, due to the composer’s approach to musical vision and the question of time. In order to write a coherent work, one must be able to evolve within a certain duration and a concrete literary mass of words and sentences; one must have the room and time to open out. The composer and the author are constantly negotiating these questions. The more I am aware of what an opera is and what music is, the more I am able to anticipate and avoid feeling frustrated at the last moment. I felt somewhat frustrated with Oscar Bianchi due to a lack of anticipation; the gap between my theatrical temporality and his, which is musical, was more pronounced than it is today with Philippe. The sacrifice was bigger because we were not able to include in the temporal economy of the opera things which seemed essential to me in terms of dramaturgic development. Today, this is less the case with Philippe, perhaps also due to a longer duration. With Oscar, we had chosen a short format of one hour and ten minutes (the opera lasts one hour and twenty minutes), which forced me to reduce, thus illustrating the importance of the question of time.
Joël, as the author and stage director of your work, you are your own dramatist. With the transition to opera, the composer becomes your dramatist: the characters will be predetermined, no longer leaving you the freedom to interpret them as you imagined them in 2004. How do you feel about this?
Joël Pommerat: This does not escape me totally, as we make certain choices together. Working with Philippe involves meeting up a lot, thinking together about each sentence and each word, discussing and cogitating. Almost nothing is done without a dialogue. Of course, the transition to music escapes me. Before writing, Philippe and I search for a colour and a rhythm; he needs to feel that he is in harmony with me. Of course I will be surprised when I hear what he has written – it would be disappointing otherwise. I must imagine that I am witnessing a creation, even though I will recognise things we have spoken about together. I will find myself in the position of a stage director who is surprised even though he knows the subject and the approach.
Philippe Boesmans: The composer is a dramatist because he is in control of the rhythm and the tone. But during rehearsals, meaning is given to the music. At first, just the notes are played; once theatre is added, the way of singing a sentence makes it more moving or more sombre. All of this is done during the work with the stage director. A score is objective: there are notes and instruments. During a rehearsal, we may lengthen a silence, work on the tempi and be less precise than the score if we wish to give it meaning.
As a composer, did you feel free to interpret the characters? Did the two of you always agree in this respect?
Philippe Boesmans: It usually came out right. We discussed the breaks and the length, because the sung text takes longer than the spoken text. The music and the orchestra provide a commentary on what is happening. The music reinforces the feeling of sadness which emanates from the play, and takes a compassionate look at what is happening, and at the characters and their world. The problem of freedom does not exist. I cannot write if I am not free.
Joël Pommerat: We did not have any major disagreements regarding our interpretation. Philippe is very open. And as he said, I look at my play with the objectivity needed to revive its meaning; I do not have fixed ideas regarding the characters or the meanings of things. Thankfully, our literary and imaginary sensitivity is very similar.
Must we therefore assume that the characters in the opera are the same as those in the play?
Joël Pommerat: They are cousins, with a different nature and form. Different layers are revealed one after the other: the transition from theatre to music and from music to interpretation – as the singers will provide their interpretation. There will also be a surprise ‘layer’: the combination of these different interpretations of a work which I have partly written alone, will generate something which will escape me in the best sense of the word, which I will have to reshape and redefine with all of these new and surprising parameters. The performers will also surprise me, even though I participated in choosing them.
The play Au monde will be performed at Théâtre National in January, and at the end of March the opera will be performed at La Monnaie. Will there be big differences between them?
Joël Pommerat: No big differences, but continuity. In the opera, there will be the same characters and use of space. It would be absurd to want to reinvent a space. In that case, a new work may as well be written. It is a musical and opera version of the play; not of the play as a text, but as the object of a performance. I wanted to keep the title rather than use another name, as though it had been something unrelated.
Philippe Boesmans: The differences between the play and the opera correspond to the transition from one to the other. As regards space and location, I saw a video of the play, whose universe also influenced me. People falling asleep in the chairs, the white tablecloth, a table. All of this evoked many things from a musical perspective – sleep, for example.
Joël Pommerat: It was a moment in my writing in which I felt like confronting a very delicate element in theatre and opera: boredom. That of the characters, of course. The aim was not to explore the limits of boredom of the audience, but rather not to envisage the ‘dramatic action’ necessarily as a restless and passionate action. In theatre and cinema, we must be able to represent human psychological states which are not thundering and restless. At dramaturgic level, this boredom is related to the power of the characters. And this is what interests me – to show the link between power and this floating, this boredom.
Philippe, you once spoke of your fear of writing in French. What would you say about Joël’s language?
Philippe Boesmans: French is a language which is difficult to sing. I have already written Yvonne in French, but it is a special play with a focus on derision and caricature; things are often exaggerated. Here, people talk straight, and the text, the language and the atmosphere of the play require one to be closer to Debussy than in Yvonne.
Do you feel an evolution in your music? Did you set new challenges for yourself after Yvonne? For example, head in a certain direction, try to go beyond certain limits?
Philippe Boesmans: I can’t speak about my music like that. It is possible to speak about it much later, but when I compose I don’t consider the problem of language. Au monde is so different from Yvonne that it allowed me to do something completely different, to work in French again and try not to be afraid of doing things which more or less have already been done. History gives us models. Just as Chekhov is a distant model for Joël, French opera from the beginning of the 20th century is a model for me. My music is of course not that of Debussy, but elements of its prosody will remind us of it.
You have mentioned another collaboration. What can you tell us about it?
Philippe Boesmans: It is still in its planning phase. Bernard Foccroulle has asked us for a new opera for 2017, possibly based on a fairytale. A little bit like Cinderella.
Joël Pommerat: We are free to propose anything: base a work on an existing play of mine, find a fairytale which I have never worked on, invent an argument or create something totally original. I would like to work with Philippe again. But it is difficult for me to commit to something which will take place in four years. My work with my company is a priority. I don’t want to do too much at once. Philippe is very demanding. He doesn’t do a lot, but he does everything thoroughly. I have always tried to follow this model because I don’t want to get pulled into a spiral; even if I am drawn to certain projects, I have to remain coherent, otherwise I put myself in danger.
Interview by Reinder Pols