Six years after the première of Frühlings Erwachen at the Monnaie, the Belgian composer, Benoît Mernier, brings us his second opera, La Dispute, in which he once again explores the birth of desire. In close collaboration with the husband-and-wife team of directors, Karl-Ernst and Ursel Herrmann, as well as with Joël Lauwers, he has taken as his inspiration the play of the same name by Marivaux, and adapted one of the most modern and disconcerting of moral stories about fidelity and infidelity by completing it with other extracts from the same writer. The result – a comedy in prose and music, which is very topical.
Here you are again back at the Monnaie after a gap of six years. Once bitten by opera there is no going back?
That’s right – it is truly a complete form of expression. It also offers the chance for a composer to be less alone in the creative act: opera requires team work. It is an art form where you have to constantly rethink your position, that’s to say you have to question yourself about what, at the end of the day, is really important. It is not the degree of complexity or the culmination of craftsmanship in the music which guarantees the success of the production. Opera is also to bet on a risk, for a group of disciplines must come together, must feed off each other: you have to think all this through and conceive everything together over a fairly extended period of time. For me opera is like a virus, it infects me, it touches me, it lives within me; opera is the rapture of the voice and the human passions. What also fascinates me is the part that magic and mystery always play in opera. There is a dimension that inevitably touches the world of myths, the universality of the human condition. Opera carries within it certain ingredients that, to my mind, no other form of artistic expression contains. I’m not saying that opera is the superior art form but, without a doubt, it is a field that goes very deep into the emotions.
How did you get started on La Dispute?
First the idea came to me. Of course, I was very keen, after Frühlings Erwachen, to write another opera. I swear to you that when Frühlings was finished, I couldn’t imagine how I would write anything that wasn’t operatic. The first piece that I composed afterwards was a piano concerto. The beginning of its composition was very painful. I had the impression that I could no longer write something meaningful, that only the voice could convey expressiveness. And then, of course, I eventually ended up finding other ways. Very quickly after Frühlings, I started looking for another subject for an opera. And that took up a lot of time. I also wanted to use my mother tongue and find a French text.
What made you turn to a text by Marivaux?
Originally I was thinking more about a play from the Symbolism period or even more recent. I had found a play by Maeterlinck which touched me deeply but when I started to imagine the music it sounded like Debussy, and, even though I adore that composer, that was not what I wanted! So then I thought to myself that I needed to look further back but I didn’t want anything in verse form. That’s how I discovered La Dispute. I was initially seduced by the format which seemed perfect to me and then, above all, by the fact that, unlike most of Marivaux’s major plays, the lines were fairly short. The language seemed to contain a modern element and I felt that it could, quite naturally, be transformed into musical speech. Moreover I saw the splendid staging of Marivaux’s La Nouvelle Surprise de l’amour by Luc Bondy where the set was designed by Karl-Ernst Herrmann. For me, this play sounded like a contemporary text! I thought that was rather a good sign.
What were your initial concerns?
From the very first meeting with the Herrmanns we talked about what form it should take. I felt that we had to treat the play in a very theatrical way, very animated. I was thinking particularly of a small orchestra. They had the same feeling and they thought we should create a form that mixed the spoken word with singing. In the beginning I had my doubts about this idea, it frightened me. However, when I thought about it I realised they were right. For such a play it could be very invigorating, very striking. But we had to give the music its importance, as well as find a way to move easily from song to word and from word to song. That pushed me to find something new in the way of expression since we will hear different levels in this opera – which elsewhere has been labelled ‘a comedy in prose and music’.
Do you work in close collaboration with the directors?
Yes, we’ve got together on numerous occasions in the last three years. During long sessions of four to five days of continuous work, we constructed the text. First Ursel Herrmann and Joel Lauwers worked together on the libretto, then we looked at it together, and then we cut and added some things. We worked very closely together during the initial conception of the text. It was interesting because they were waiting for my reaction to the script and I was waiting for their reaction to the score. We didn’t try and tell each other what to do but we did have lots of discussions. When I began to write lots of points were fairly clear in my head, particularly regarding the meaning of the play and the feelings experienced by the characters. All this careful thought meant that we ended up thinking the same about a number of things. This is also what pleases me about this kind of work.
Did you write it chronologically?
Yes, but even so I had an idea of the whole. Sometimes I worked on parts of the text that were unfinished or that changed as we read them. I was also faced with the eternal battle – that is maybe a rather too violent word – between musicians and theatre people who do not have the same feeling for time. In the theatre a gap of thirty seconds between two lines is long. For a musician thirty seconds is nothing! Even regarding the concept of time we have a different sense. My fear was that we would end up with too much text. My final position was that ideally there would be just less than two hours of music. At the end of the day that’s what I arrived at and I am very happy. I didn’t quantify the length. It was really by going for the essential, working, rereading, filtering and refining things that the work was born and found its rightful timing.
Frühlings Erwachen dealt with the early emotions and desires of adolescents. In La Dispute, four young people play a fundamental role in the story. Is this purely coincidental or are you especially inspired by youth?
There is no such thing as coincidence. I don’t know if it is youth that inspires me: in both cases it was not my initial impulse to explore that theme. But it is true that there is a certain rapport between the two subjects. La Dispute could almost be seen as a sequel to Frühlings Erwachen seeing that the adolescents in Wedekind’s play are fourteen years old and here they are young people of around eighteen years of age. In Frühlings the adults were absent but formed a kind of coercive super-ego, although in some scenes they were in a room nearby, taking a position on the destiny of the adolescents, yet avoiding communication.
But is it the same thing in La Dispute?
Yes and no: we find a couple of around forty years of age, a couple which has already existed and has a history, who are in crisis and, hidden, watch young people emerging from adolescence. What I find interesting in this play is that, at the end, the adults and the young people are as one, whereas at the beginning there is a huge difference. The young people are outside social conventions and have no experience of human relationships, but they learn fast. Finally there is a kind of communal disillusionment. For the youngsters, it is the shock of realising that they have been manipulated and that love is not a simple thing. For the Prince and Hermiane, it is the disillusion of having believed that they could learn something about themselves by watching two young inexperienced couples struggling, whereas they realise, in the end, that the problems are the same and that neither a return to nature nor reason can bring real solutions. At the end of the play, at the end of the experiment, there remains only one question, “What shall we do now?” It is, in a way, an invitation to take responsibility for one’s own destiny, as a couple or as a human being. It’s funny, and it never occurred to me before, but basically at the end of Frühlings it’s the same thing. The masked man who comes to save Melchior does not moralise – there is also no moral at the end of La Dispute – he holds out his hand to him and asks him to return to the land of men, in a way to choose and accept his destiny. There is, therefore, a relationship between the two, but I would say that is more to do with the outcome of each of these operas than with the idea of youth as such.
How do you work? Who or what is your inspiration when you are composing?
It is the characters that inspire me, what they say, but also the global context of the scenes and the feelings all that provokes in me. I recite the lines aloud to try and find the rhythm, and, once I have found the right rhythmic inflection, the melody comes almost in parallel. But there is a kind of induction or filter in relation to the voice, which is a product of elements of typology. How to treat such a character in relation to another? In La Dispute the musical treatment must, of course, be different for the three types of couples: on the one hand the gods Eros and Cupid, let’s say a metaphor for a complementary binomial, who are also the two instructors who manipulate, on the other hand the couple of Hermiane and the Prince, well established in social conventions, cultured etc and finally the youngsters who are virgins and have almost animal responses, even if they are educated and can express themselves. The musical treatment is different but at the end it all comes together. Not really because the characters have changed, even though there is a shock when the veil of the experiment is lifted, but simply because the experiment is over and, deep down, they all arrive at the same conclusion, the same disillusionment.
Your job is finished now … The score is now edited. How do you envisage the rehearsal period of this production?
Of course I‘ll be there for the rehearsals, especially at the end. If the composer is there it saves time. For example when the orchestra is rehearsing, from a practical point of view, there are sometimes questions about something in the score that is not clear or mistakes. Knowing what I had in mind, I can react and make corrections. During the singers’ rehearsals, you sometimes realise that certain parts could be improved, the nuances or the rhythm, to give a better interpretation of the text. And then, when it is a new work, the composer can play a certain role in helping the musicians lose their inhibitions when faced with the unknown. Often, the first contact with a work can give the musicians a fear of its complexity. The performer is then likely to become obsessed with what is in the score, even though the writing is only the interface of a musical reality of which we cannot note all the subtleties. By concentrating solely on the musical text, on its expression, we sometimes risk forgetting to leave a space for the performance, which is, for me, the determining factor. To be there at the rehearsals is to encourage the singers and musicians and to try and take them further. It is necessary to find a way, in parallel with the work on stage, to strive for the same result: that the work speaks to us, that the feelings are clearly expressed and that they can be strongly felt by the audience. Later on, during the rehearsals in the main theatre, I will be happy to be there for there is another question that arises, that of balance, the necessity for equilibrium between the voices and the orchestra.
And then there will be the satisfaction to hear and see the results of this lengthy process…
Interview by Marie Goffette