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The story of Jenůfa and her stepmother, the sacristan, is set against the background of a remote and traditional community in Moravia. Rivalry, jealousy and social control degenerate into the murder of an innocent, illegitimate child. The Latvian director Alvis Hermanis, who until recently has concentrated on directing stage plays, makes his debut at La Monnaie with Leoš Janáček’s third opera. A conversation about beauty in the theatre and in the opera and about Hermanis’ approach to stage direction.
Is this the first time you have worked in Belgium?
My work was shown at the Kunstenfestivaldesarts, but that was a long time ago …
Your roots lie in the theatre... So what was it that led to opera?
I had heard that opera directors are better paid (laughs), only to discover that it isn’t true!... not even if you have worked, as I have, at the highest level in the German-speaking theatre world. No, but seriously, there are several good reasons for venturing into opera. What really attracts me to it is the set: I want to visualize a story and music. I see that as the great challenge. And also I feel a tremendous ‘hunger for beauty’ and that aesthetic component is rare in contemporary verbal theatre.
Why can’t you have beauty in the theatre?
Good question! A hundred or perhaps even fifty years ago things were different, but today nobody expects to find ‘beauty’ in the theatre. Not beauty in the ironic sense of the word, but beauty as an aesthetic category. Sometimes I feel that in modern verbal theatre the organ for experiencing beauty has been ‘amputated’. In music, on the other hand, you can’t escape it; what we call music is architecture, form – it has to do with harmony and in that respect it is synonymous with beauty. The trouble with contemporary verbal theatre is that it concentrates entirely on the statement, the content, on the socio-political message, while ignoring aesthetics. There are of course exceptions. A wonderful example is Romeo Castellucci, who is obsessed with beauty in his work. But these days theatre directors more often behave like political activists than artists.
Where do you stand in this? You have a reputation for being a director who looks for hyperrealism, who takes a documentary approach, focusing on social reality. Isn’t that politics?
Hyperrealism is just one side of my work. As for politics, I would just like to say this: I come from Eastern Europe and from a generation that has developed a certain allergy to anything that smacks of ‘political’ art. I witnessed the transition from Communism to capitalism and learned that fundamentally nothing has changed. Art is too complex and subtle an instrument to be used to improve socio-political conditions. That’s why I’m so obsessed with opera at the moment, because I imagine it allows tremendous freedom – as if it was a different reality. Also, at a certain stage in your life, it is good to change direction. I am now forty-eight and a novice when it comes to directing opera, but I have decided to concentrate exclusively on opera for the next four seasons. I feel I’m beginning a new life!
How do you set about deciding what you are going to direct?
In the opera it is different from the theatre: opera directors are not in a position to come up with their own projects, but I am able to choose between different projects. In the verbal theatre, the director is in charge, which can be very lonely. In opera you aren’t on your own because there is the music! And the music has a structure that has to be respected. This is all new to me and, so far at least, I think it’s wonderful. At the moment I’m preparing Così fan tutte as my third opera and so Jenůfa will be the fourth opera I get to direct.
I believe you also describe yourself as ‘old-fashioned’?
Yes, and with pride! I am quite old school. In the next few years I am going to work on various projects: Verdi, Puccini, Berlioz, Wagner... I always begin by trying to steep myself in the historical context in which a score was written. I really believe that the sounds we call ‘music’ are determined by the time and place in which they were written. But there is a difference between gaining a thorough understanding of a work and representing it. Here I am talking about the spirit of a work, not so much its exact reproduction with props, costumes and so on. I want to understand how the music is generated by a specific context. It’s a question of finding the ‘code’ for each period in time. That is my starting point, but that doesn’t mean its scenic rendition can’t be thoroughly modern. For Jenůfa I have followed a similar approach. To understand Janáček’s music, I went to Moravia, to the isolated villages where at the end of the nineteenth century Janáček went and studied the local music traditions. What fascinates me about his music is its blend of modernism and ethnography. That was crucial to our concept: at the beginning of the twentieth century modernism in music and in the plastic arts was not opposed to ethnography. In fact, folklore and traditions were its greatest source of inspiration. Think of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Jenůfa illustrates that same influence and fusion. Another good example of modernism at the time was the Czech variant of Art Nouveau – with Mucha as its number-one exponent. For me the extreme refinement of this belle-époque style, with the flower as an important motif, corresponds to Janáček’s aesthetic – of almost unbearable beauty. The Moravian village culture and in particular the exuberant traditional costumes of that region, along with the Czech Art Nouveau, are the two cornerstones of our concept. We want to show that even today tradition and modernism (together with high-tech artifice) can go hand in hand. It is never a literal translation. The costumes, for example, are never an exact reproduction of Moravian national dress, but a reinterpretation of them, based on their extraordinary wealth of detail and artisanship. I was so impressed by La Monnaie’s costume department when I visited and by the standard of workmanship there! In the set the work of video artist Ineta Sipunova will help us translate music into movement, into ornament. Abstract and expressionist body language will preside over the acting style and the choreography, whereas the corps de ballet, in Alla Sigalova’s choreography, will serve as a sort of moving ornament.
What is Jenůfa about in your opinion?
Oh dear, I was afraid you would ask me that... People always say that opera libretti are so incoherent, but I believe you should approach an opera libretto as a metaphor for something bigger, something deeper. So Jenůfa is a story of the pain and sacrifice which are necessary to achieve happiness. That’s the way things are in life; pain and happiness are inextricably linked, as you see at the end of the opera. I don’t think there is much more to it than that. I certainly don’t see it as social drama. But the story is well written! It could easily be a Bergman film script or an Ibsen play. A hundred years ago there were strict rules of course – but today we don’t need to concern ourselves with the morality of that time, with the incident of a woman’s child being sacrificed in a Moravian village so that that woman can marry another man. I think it makes more sense to see it as a poetic metaphor.
You mentioned the end of the opera...
The ending is positive, isn’t it? At least that’s what the music suggests... There are famous productions in which Jenůfa meets her fate. Personally I believe she does find happiness in the end, but of course she has paid a high price for it.
Recorded by Marie Mergeay