The productions that Karl Ernst and Ursel Herrman have mounted at the Monnaie since 1982 remain engraved on the public’s memory. With La Dispute they take on a new challenge – the first production of a new work. On this occasion, another first for Ursel Hermann who has joined forces with Joel Lauwers to draft the libretto, which takes its inspiration from Marivaux’s work of the same name. As is his custom, Karl-Ernst is not only responsible for the direction but also for the sets, the costumes and the lighting of this production.
This is the first time you have worked on a contemporary first production. What made you want to set out on this new adventure?
That’s true, we had never worked on a modern opera, but we were very keen to try it at least once in our lives. We didn’t choose the Marivaux play; it was suggested by Benoît Mernier. We liked the idea and especially the thought of writing the libretto ourselves.
How did you work with Benoît Mernier? Did you already know his work as a composer?
We knew a little bit about his work. During the drafting of the libretto, the preparation, the composition, we worked together. We really collaborated closely. Now we are into the second phase during which we have to bring the opera to life. It’s another stage in the development, as the conductor of the orchestra and the singers are added to the mix and we will see what is really feasible.
Marivaux’s La Dispute is the basis of the opera but it is not the only...
First we all read Marivaux’s play, and we all had the same feeling that, in spite of its attractive qualities, the work was too short and too thin to make an opera. We then read other texts by Marivaux and added them in. This was our material for the libretto: all Marivaux’s existing texts. Of course, in the beginning we still didn’t have the musical content. We, therefore, could write the libretto with no constraints, everything was possible. Whilst delving into the world of Marivaux we discovered certain works that were completely unknown. As we wanted to add depth to the characters of the Prince and Hermiane, we took bits from here and there to make them stronger. We weren’t interested in re-writing using Marivaux’s words, but we went looking in other plays for situations that fitted La Dispute. Marivaux’s themes, in reality, are always the same. They are always about relationships between beings that love each other and tear each other apart or who no longer love each other and still tear each other apart.
How does this theme play out in La Dispute and how do you see it?
Marivaux is always asking the same question - whether we can trust our feelings or the feelings of others. Therefore he talks about the uncertainty of feelings of love, the complexity of relationships between lovers, the use of lies and the truth. In the drafting of the libretto we introduced two new characters, taken principally from La Réunion des amours, a little pearl of Marivaux’s, in which the writer presents the God of Love divided into two characters, Eros and Cupid: the ideal of platonic love set against the lighter, more licentious love. By introducing these two new characters, as well as their original argument about the true nature of love, our argument is then conducted on three levels: that of the gods, that of human beings - in fact a couple of experienced lovers – and that of the youngsters. The experiment then is not only restricted to the youngsters but also touches the older couple who, in their turn, are also manipulated, moved around and watched by the gods. By separating the story into three levels of observation the feeling of being in a laboratory is more accentuated and it chimes with the fact that today people feel watched and scrutinised in their daily lives. This is where we see Marivaux at his most modern; we find this today amongst young people who use the social media to reveal themselves and open their hearts to everyone.
How did you visualise the world of the young people and the world of the mature couple?
The youngsters’ world is very straightforward. The experiment consists of making these young people – who previously only knew each other and their tutors – learn everything that has to do with relationships differently, learn that everything stems from relationships. Everything that happens to them is new, there is always a first time. Love, friendship, hate, doubt – the world of emotions that was previously unknown to them opens up little by little. This is very different from what happens to Hermiane and the Prince who have already lived a whole life. They are already, in reality, at the end of their relationship, on the edge of a crisis, and they are wondering if they want it to go on or end. It is a completely different stage of life, a world away from that of the young people. Their reactions depend a lot on their motivation, their weariness. For them, the euphoria and certainty has worn off. The youngsters think they will always feel the same, whereas Hermiane and the Prince are not sure that feelings can endure. They know they are not eternal. So we have, on one side, the young people who believe that everything will last forever, that love will know no end, and, on the other side, the older couple who demonstrate that there is a limit to love, that it can be destroyed and that there is no such thing as forever.
Do you prepare a new, modern production in a totally different way from an opera from the repertoire? How did you tackle it?
The work is not so different from, for example, producing Don Giovanni. The time that passed between the birth of the libretto and the first introduction to the music was absolutely fascinating; given the number of working sessions we had with the composer.
Karl-Ernst Herrmann, as well as directing the opera, you are also responsible for the stage-set, the costumes and the lighting of this production. Would you say that opera is an art form in which it is impossible to separate the different disciplines?
Effectively, it is impossible to separate the different arts that make up opera, but on the other hand it is possible to have multiple artists involved. It is a question of working together. When several people are involved you need very close collaboration. The various artists need to get on well together. It can be risky when it comes to controlling the various elements that make up the opera. It is important not to separate the disciplines. Either the different spirits can work together or you do everything! It is probably easier to control the different aspects of an opera alone. Both methods have their advantages. The one method has the advantage of many eyes but then you have many opinions. It depends on the people. However the essence of opera is the fusion of the arts of which it consists. The objective is to have unity at the end. It’s the same in music.
What are your main sources of inspiration?
Our inspiration is wide-ranging, whether it is from a film, a book, a particular event. For La Dispute, nature played a big part, to be more precise the conflict between nature and civilisation, and the journey of the young people from one to the other. Everything influences us! There is no absolute answer. Our main line of action always begins with the text and the music.
Interview by Marie Goffette