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The walls of his home in Amsterdam are covered in art works. Beautiful books and limited editions by his favourite artists are treated like precious objects. There can be little doubt that the director Pierre Audi is passionate about the visual arts. On the occasion of the revival of his production of Pelléas et Mélisande, for which the sculptor Anish Kapoor designed the set, he talks enthusiastically about the particular challenges involved in working on an opera with painters and sculptors.
Working with visual artists seems to have been a leitmotif throughout your career as a director.
The desire to collaborate with sculptors and painters does, in fact, go back a long way. You will have noticed that these artists all have a very different and contrasting aesthetic. So yes, a leitmotif, but one which has taken many different forms. I will start by saying that the one thing all these artists have in common is that they are, at one and the same time, intimidated by the theatre yet lost in admiration for the singers and musicians. They all accepted the venture I proposed with humility and enormous curiosity.
When I first approached them with the idea of working alongside me on a new production, I had to, each time, make them understand that their job was more than just producing a work, albeit signed Kapoor, Kounellis or Baselitz. They are all very conscious of their position in the history of contemporary art and they know, better than anyone, the long road they have travelled in order to become the most sought-after artists of museums and collectors with their work displayed in the top galleries in both the States and Europe. Not only do they appreciate the fragility of this status but they know, better than anyone, its economic value. They realise that there are always people waiting for them to put a foot wrong and an encounter with opera is, by definition, risky. I must underline that I have never had a problem about money with them. They all saw their engagement as a prestigious invitation and the amount of their fee was almost a minor detail. It goes without saying that without that I would never have been able to bring these various projects to fruition.
Have you found similarities in each of these experiences that seemed linked to the nature of these particular collaborations?
One of the possible stumbling blocks, which can sometimes be a real drama, is how the artist’s feelings are translated on stage. It’s one thing to create a sculpture, it’s quite another to create a set. Certain artists are used to working with a particular material which is not suitable for use on stage due to its cost, its fragility etc. Sometimes, in order to produce a set, they have to renounce a part of what forms their identity as an artist. With Jannis Kounellis, for example, we were able to use the iron panels that he uses in his sculptures and installations. However, used as part of a set, they were subjected to a lighting that was not that of a gallery or museum. Set on a stage and lit for a performance, the panels looked, to the artist himself, like a different material. In the two ventures I have undertaken with Anish Kapoor, for Pelléas et Mélisande and Parsifal, the question of scale arose. Stages like those at the Monnaie and the Nederlands Opera, both very different by the way, require the artist to work in volumes sometimes much larger than he is used to. These new situations demanded that he find new solutions.
Another major difference is the time/work ratio. To put on an opera with sought-after singers, who usually have more than one production in hand, means also trying to impose a work rhythm on the artists that is perhaps onerous in their eyes. The performing arts make demands that they are not used to. They have to be freely available to react to changes during the preparatory stages of work, at the moment when the world of the production begins to take shape. And often, they don’t have the time or the patience to follow the progression of the project, which for them has nothing to do with their life as an artist. I would even go so far as to say that the rhythm of the theatre castrates them, frustrates them and bores them. The creative act is generally limited in time for them. They are always moving from one idea to another. In their workshops they have people working with them to realise their visions, who really produce their works. In an opera, the stage designer has to give the project his total attention. Here it is not the case. When I decide to use artists I know I will have to work differently. But to lead an artist, whose work I admire, on a new path is very exciting. And I have always learnt a lot when they share their thoughts with me. Each of these experiments has been a gamble, but a gamble that has usually paid off. The quality of the result depends on many things – for example, the number of work sessions I manage to get out of them, given their very busy diaries. Often, those sessions have taken place in restaurants during their journeys to the four corners of the world. Ideas have been scribbled down on tablecloths spattered with coffee or tomato ketchup. That was how the set for Lohengrin with Kounellis was conceived, for example.
Working with artists is to live dangerously. I realise that, as a director, I don’t have total control over the project as I would normally. An exact idea of the space that will be available to bring my characters to life only comes very late in the process.
What do you get out of these collaborations?
In retrospect, I have understood that what really excites me in this is less the big visual gesture, an image, but more the theatricality of it. I discover, listening to the artists’ suggestions, the way they don’t want to tell this or that story. I learnt from Klaus Michael Grüber – who has not only been the director who has worked most closely with visual artists when collaborating with Gilles Aillaud and Eduardo Arroyo, but who, in his approach to theatre, is himself something of a visual artist – that what defines an artist is as much about what he doesn’t do as what he does. I have tried to learn from his work and apply it to my own in the ventures we’ve been discussing. What doesn’t interest the artist in this story? That’s what I’m after. This is where something can happen. In general the artists are very generous and relaxed. They understand that I am the director and that, therefore, I know how to bring a set to life and how to allow the music and the acting to enliven it.
It can’t be easy with visual artists, I imagine, imposing on them other artists who, by the colour and shape of their clothes particularly, affect the look of the set.
Yes, exactly. Sometimes it is difficult, and you can add to that the lighting. There are so many factors that can ‘disturb’ a set, redirect your attention in a direction that was not at all the one imagined by the visual artist. You need diplomacy; you have to make him understand all the qualities inherent in his set, the richness that he gives me. I have to exploit that and use it. A piece of art opens up possibilities, suggests dramatic pathways that I can realise theatrically afterwards.
So you find yourself having to adjust to a set, whereas when you work with a set designer, who is used to the demands of opera, you can tell him very precisely beforehand what you expect from him.
It’s exactly that. It’s what I call living dangerously. Sometimes it’s refreshing, other times very worrying. One thing is sure, and that is a rule for me: I don’t manipulate the artist in order that he gives me what I want. When you set out to work with an artist you have to be completely open. I have to let him move forward in the dark, alone. I need to intervene at the right moment. It’s a question of intuition. I mustn’t help him too much if I want to be surprised. In the end he gives me an idea that both limits me yet frees me. He delivers a kind of ‘liberating obstacle’ to me. The constraints he imposes on me are incredibly stimulating.
Is the way you get the singers to act in any way different when you get them to develop a role on a set designed by a visual artist?
Yes, absolutely. The acting must be far more stylised. A realistic style has always been out of the question for me in these conditions. With the exception, of course, of Schoenberg’s Von Heute auf Morgen with stage design by Kounellis who had created a Viennese apartment above an abstract apartment – an extraordinary set. So, apart from that occasion, I have always stylised the acting, I have always tried to invent a specific body language. With Kounellis again, I did two versions of the same production of Schoenberg’s Die glückliche Hand. The first was with actors and the second with dancers, because I thought that it was necessary to go further still with the stylisation so that the link between the music and the set would be stronger, more intense. The dancing allowed me to accentuate the stylisation. That was also the case with The Magic Flute that I did with Karel Appel.
Of all the different artists you have worked with I suppose that it is Jannis Kounellis, because of his installations at the end of the 60s at the Attico Gallery in Rome, who has the most experience in the field of live performances.
Yes, Kounellis had already worked in theatre before I approached him. He had a friend who was a theatre director and he had, in fact, put on performances which were a bit like rituals. But don’t forget that Herzog and de Meuron, before our production at the Met, had already created a set for a production of Tristan und Isolde at the Berlin Staatsoper and that Appel had created sets for a dance production in Paris. As for Jonathan Meese, even if he had already designed for performances, he was still very overawed by the theatre. The two productions I put on with him – Wolfgang Rihm’s Dionysos at the Salzburg Festival and Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Médée at the Champs-Elysées Theatre – helped him to discover a world he knew nothing about and led to him accepting the job of set designer for the next Parsifal at Beyreuth. Our second production together benefitted greatly from the experience of our first project. I’m very happy with what we achieved together in Paris, from a baroque work that was light years away from his artistic world. By way of an anecdote, I would add that, as the composer of Dionysos was late delivering the score, Meese designed the set without ever having heard a note of the music. That was another extremely risky situation. I learnt a lot working with Kapoor, and particularly on the Parsifal production, which helped me understand that we could find a different way of working, as different for him as it was for me. Because of that I’m sure we’ll work together again in the future.
Why did you think of this particular artist for the sets of Pelléas et Mélisande, which the Monnaie is reviving sometime this Spring?
Two of the projects where I worked with artists were suggested to me by the managing directors of opera houses. Peter Gelb gave me the chance to work with Herzog & de Meuron in New York and Peter de Caluwe had the idea of bringing Kapoor and me together in Brussels. In the first instance, for many different reasons, it was far from easy, but the experience was amazing. With Kapoor, it was something completely different, of course. The Brussels’ experience was as exciting for him as it was for me. At the time he told me that the only work that really interested him was Parsifal. I told him that, sadly, I had no Wagnerian project to offer him. Afterwards things moved on and when I decided to direct Parsifal in Amsterdam I naturally thought of him and he accepted the offer. I would like to add that in the case of Pelléas et Mélisande I was working with an artist that appreciated this work. And for me, who previously had not dared to approach Debussy’s masterpiece although it had always fascinated me, Peter de Caluwe’s invitation was decisive. He knew that alone I wouldn’t have dared include Pelléas in the programme during my time in Amsterdam.
Amongst those visual artists no longer with us, is there one in particular with whom you would have liked to work on an opera production?
That’s a difficult question. Without a doubt, to have worked with Joseph Beuys would have been fascinating, very complicated but fascinating. But in that case I would have liked to help him with the stage direction.
To finish off, do have you any more projects with visual artists planned for the near future?
No, not in the immediate future. I would like to work with James Turrell one day.
Interview by Christian Longchamp