If you ask Pascal Dusapin, he has “seen everything on film relating to Macbeth.” So it is hardly surprising that the history of cinema greatly inspired the French composer’s new world creation Macbeth Underworld. From Judi Dench, through Orson Welles with a leading role for Roman Polanski.
The freedom of a film student
“Macbeth is now something of a European myth. Nobody is sitting waiting for me to make the umpteenth version of it,” says Pascal Dusapin candidly. Premièred in the iconic Globe Theatre some four hundred years ago, the tragedy has since become a canonical work. A tragedy performed by the smallest local theatre groups and the most prestigious theatre companies. But handfuls of film directors have also drawn inspiration from Shakespeare’s most famous play. The first Macbeth film was screened in 1908 and today the IMDB film database lists over a hundred Macbeths.
So no shortage of material for composer Pascal Dusapin to feast his eyes on, for it was primarily the history of Macbeth in the cinema that inspired his creation of this new world première. “I didn’t study Verdi’s opera in any depth. I know it, of course, but I was drawn more to the cinema.”
Dusapin is certainly not only referring to silent films, Hollywood blockbusters and Orson Welles’ classic. “Macbeth is used by film students all around the globe. And it’s because I have seen all those versions too that I dared to treat the theme with such freedom. No matter how you manipulate the text, the subject always remains intact. So everything in Macbeth Underworld was rewritten. The whole text was copied and then cut; I wanted to begin my opera at the point where all the characters are dead.” So just as he did in one of his previous operas Faustus, The Last Night, Dusapin plays with time in the story of this new creation. “All very different from working on his last work, Penthesilea, a monument in German literature, where I remained far more faithful to the essence of the text.”
Inspiration from Polanski
When asked why it has taken him so long to get round to Macbeth, Pascal Dusapin answers with a chuckle: “Penthesilea was such a ghastly story that I wondered how I could possibly cap it. All you are left with is Macbeth!” His face becomes more serious, and he continues unperturbed. “Actually I had been mulling over Macbeth for a very long time. That is typical of my opera projects. For example, I had Penthesilea in mind when I was twenty-four. In 2015 I was slightly older than that!” He laughs again.
“When you produce work for the stage, Shakespeare is always an option of course. But I finally took the plunge after seeing Roman Polanski’s Macbeth. It’s a fantastic film. I’ve met Polanski a number of times and I’ve told him that. He was really pleased because it’s not a film the general public is that familiar with.”
The longer we talk to Dusapin, the clearer it becomes that Polanski’s film was a major source of inspiration for Macbeth Underworld. “I took the character of the Porter straight out of the film. Up front, straight talking, obscene almost. The image of that man has stayed with me. It was such a pleasure to write him in that his role grew and grew. He is full of joie de vivre, but he is also a philosopher of sorts. You could even say that he is the only sensible character in the whole opera.”
But the influence of the cinema on the opera is not limited to Dusapin’s treatment of the theme or the borrowing of a character. Even for his lead roles, he drew inspiration from the big screen. “Judi Dench was a great model for the scene in which Lady Macbeth washes her hands. The rhythm of her words is spot-on. I copied them out and used them in Macbeth Underworld.”
It is not long before Roman Polanski’s name crops up again. “We usually see Lady Macbeth as a perverse narcissist who dominates the world around her and always gets her way. That is not the case with Polanski. His Lady Macbeth is a frail blonde, very seventies-looking too. That helped me build my own version of Lady Macbeth. I didn’t want an extrovert mezzo, but a fragile voice also suited to chamber music. When it came to casting, Peter de Caluwe gave me a list of some ten mezzo-sopranos and Magdalena Kožená’s name was among them. She is perfect, because you don’t associate her with the exuberant Elektra type. So I could make the character totally hers, not only psychologically but also vocally. We won’t have a delirious Lady Macbeth but one who is inward-looking at times.”
“For Macbeth himself it was all much more straightforward. I wanted Georg Nigl. It is my fifth production with him and he can take on anything, from incredible expressiveness through tenderness to absolute folly. The short description on his score just says ‘Macbeth est fou’ – Macbeth is mad. He doesn’t need more than that.”
Sound with the image
Dusapin came to Magdalena Kožená via Judi Dench and Roman Polanski. And it is thanks to the mezzo-soprano that the instrumentation in this world creation also falls into place. Whereas in Penthesilea Dusapin was still looking for the musical expression of classical antiquity, here the composer went out of his way to create the Shakespearian era by means of the archlute. “That instrument is so Elizabethan and so well suited to Magdalena. I saw her in L’incoronazione di Poppea in Paris a few years ago and it came to me like a bolt from the blue that the instrument was made for her.”
The Frenchman immersed himself in the early music of the British Isles so as to create Macbeth’s world musically. “I incorporated a number of typical instruments, but the most important thing is my use of a specific interval, a fourth. I was looking for a sound that conjures up the right atmosphere, and that interval is prevalent in Scottish popular music. Stack those fourths one of top of the other to form a chord and the sound is awesome, almost like a harmonium. That chord recurs several times in the opera, and I transform it too: sometimes I base it on a fifth, at other times a diminished fifth. It sounds a bit like a hurdy-gurdy.” Yet the influence of the cinema is never far away in the music either and inevitably we return to Roman Polanski. “His Macbeth feels very earthly, very green. It provides respite after the barren deathliness of Penthesilea. I composed an organ section for Macbeth Underworld, because that instrument conjures up the same earthly atmosphere.” The use of sound effects in his score have also come straight out of the film industry. “That is real foley. At the end there is a duel between two characters and I wanted to create the sound of clanging swords without using electronics. We had special swords made which the percussionists can play, because my sound effects are composed naturally.”
From the instruments, via the cast to the libretto. It is clear that Dusapin frequently drew inspiration from the film’s history. But that doesn’t tell the story of his new opera. In the autumn edition of our in-house magazine MMM, out in September, he discusses the process of creating his new world opera with journalist Martine D. Mergeay.