Interview by Joshua Cody, November 1994
Pierre Audi, the artistic director of the Netherlands Opera, was born in Beirut and was raised there and in Paris. He read history at Oxford, and in 1979 he launched the Almeida Theatre, a innovative and international performing arts center in Islington, London. A director of both plays and operas and a recipient of various awards, he has commissioned numerous operas by living composers, including Wolfgang Rihm, Michael Finnissy, Sylvano Bussotti, and, presently, Louis Andriessen. His personal repertoire at the Netherlands Opera, where he has served as artistic director since 1988, has ranged from Monteverdi to Feldman (Neither), from Mozart to Birtwistle (Punch and Judy). Some of his future projects with the Nederlands Opera include a Schoenberg Trilogy (Die gluckliche Hand, Von heute auf morgen, and Erwartung) and Holland's first complete performance of The Ring. We spoke to Mr. Audi during the first performances of Rosa, a collaboration between Dutch composer Louis Andriessen and British librettist and director Peter Greenaway.
The Netherlands Opera is celebrated for its unconventional productions; Rosa is already generating controversy in its first week of performances. Could the production tour?
I think in America, you could do it: at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, maybe. [The production was removed from the Lincoln Center 1996 Summer season, ostensibly for budgetary reasons. -Ed.]
But what's interesting here-and this wouldn't necessarily be the case somewhere else-is that it's done by an opera company, inside of a complete season; it's not hived off as a piece of avant-garde art stuff. It is an opera, just like Mozart's Figaro, or Johann Strauss's Fledermaus, which are playing on either side of it this season. It is part of our opera's normal program. It belongs to the stream of opera flowing through the veins of an opera company, the duty of which is to talk about the future and commission new works.
Do you have any predictions as far as the opera's reception?
Well, there's a massive dance public here, there's a massive film public here, a massive visual arts public, and we've worked very hard to appeal to all of these audiences. Our audience is not just a typical, old-hat opera crowd; it is a very mixed art public. The tickets are, thankfully, cheap enough, compared to other opera houses, to allow accessibility, particularly to younger audiences. That's why such an opera stands a chance. If it was playing in a house where ticket prices were too high, like most opera houses, it would get a very unfair deal.
This opera uses technical resources to an extent that I've seldom seen, in terms of film, lighting, and movement on stage.
Well, that was the whole challenge of working with Greenaway in the theater. There are a lot of directors working in opera that are doing very virtuosic work but are not filmmakers; Greenaway brings the possibility marrying theatricality and film-making imagery in a musical manner, and with Rosa, that's exactly what you get. Our house is pretty good technically. It has its faults and problems, like all modern buildings. But it's a very good tool, particularly for the sort of production that Greenaway did.
Do different levels of technical sophistication in different opera houses on the international circuit pose a further problem to touring productions and collaborations?
The problem with our house is that it is very wide; the stage is too big, really. That makes it very hard to find compatible opera houses. The only ones that are truly compatible are the English National Opera, the Bastille in Paris, and the new theater in Genoa. I could add the indoor opera house in Bregens, and the big house at the Salzburg Festspiele. These are the only houses that are really possible for collaborations.
When you produce older works-Mozart, or Monteverdi, which you just completed-do you have certain feelings as to the use of modern technology?
In my productions, I tend to use almost no technology. But I enjoy the work of other directors who use it a lot. I like the two extremes, and that's what I try to show with the company: that in spite of the technological wizardry of our theater, the emotional content of opera must at times be expressed without calling upon it. When technology is called upon, then it is used in the most extreme fashion, to create the kind of experience that you have with Rosa; the two extremes interest me.
Opera is of absolutely no interest unless it is searching to justify its future.
In the US, all the opera companies must depend on the 19th century repertoire to a great deal; then, every couple of seasons they do a pre-Gluck work, or a modern work...
I have no real opinion about that, because I come from the world of new music. My commitment is to the living composer and to commissioning new works, and that was very clear when I was appointed here. So as far as I'm concerned, there is no doubt that opera is of absolutely no interest unless it is searching to justify its future. This familiar phenomenon of pseudo-nineteenth century ...these compositions are of no interest to me. I find them abhorrent, and extremely destructive to the form of opera. And very misleading to audiences. At the same time, I am interested in the form's future, and thus in the form's history. Therefore, I am interested in the most extreme historical contrasts. Opera is a very young form. It's only as old as the seventeenth century-which is nothing. It's perhaps the youngest art form, with the exception of film; it's the medium that really comes just before film. There's a very nice irony in joining of forces of these two forms, which are the youngest art forms in civilization. I like to continually visit opera's origins, its very pure origins, origins which are at the same time very non-purist, having begun with an impossible desire: the attempt to reconstruct Greek theater, basing the attempt in a dream of marrying music and text. The notion of recreating Greek tragedy through such a marriage is an absurd thought. And a very funny one. And out of it comes this form of opera, which is grossly imperfect, becoming monstrous in the nineteenth century. At this point, it starts to depend on the exercise of vocal expression, for its own sake: almost a circus type of display. And yet, it fascinated human beings, because it can be magical.
I think that currently, opera is retreating from the "art of singers." There are very few great singers today. What is happening to opera? It has started to remember that, after all, it can be theater. There is an interest in directorsrather than singers, directors taking opera and making it into a form of storytelling that draws on modern imagery, on several theatrical traditions; everything might be pulled into the form, to try to keep it alive. It's still just as desperate as it was in its early origins; this strange journey is what interests me about opera. And I just will not accept the American tradition of opera, which ultimately centers upon the most monstrous point of its growth, the nineteenth century, and which is ultimately about a display of vocal "achievements," and nothing else. The American understanding of opera is grossly primitive and extremelyculturally disconnected. I want to be coming from the natural source of opera, the source of the stream, as it comes through the seventeenth century; I want to explore what it means to go on with it. Rosa takes a place in that search, in that debate.
I'm not necessarily saying that opera has a future. Although I believe it does have a future, and that future is extraordinary. One positive thing you can draw from the nineteenth century outgrowth of opera as this mega-form is that it can be, as Wagner showed, a very extraordinary liberation of profound themes and ideas. When a master like Wagner is setting a text to music, it becomes a supreme form: very moving, very extraordinary, however demanding. I think that the next century can offer a further extension to the total artwork. Perhaps technology will play a part; but it can only ultimately occur through the discovery of a great genius, like Wagner. It would be a second outgrowth of an art form that is imperfect, one that is ultimately a hybrid. One must accept that it will never be pure, and that it will continue to outgrow itself, into areas that are crazy and mad; and that, ultimately, for me, is something one has to accept and even encourage. According to the American view, opera has to fit within a form, a mold, that the normal bourgeois audience can recognize and enjoy, and that's it. But that's actually protecting oneself from the madness of opera and its possibilities. It's not what you had with Lully and Rameau. You have to keep close to the genesis of the form, the hybrid nature of it; and you have to search for the imaginations that will push that forward, and that will not go backwards to some phony, artificial envelope, which ultimately opera is not about. It's striving to embrace a vision of the world that. . . that overflows itself.For me it's very interesting that the end of The Ring of Wagner is the overflowing of the Rhine. When the world collapses, the Rhine overflows, the stream overflows.
You get that sense also in the great masques of the seventeen and eighteenth centuries; images of a breaking through, of time stopping, of things overtaking each other, things that are disconnected; there is a desire to free oneself from narrative and, at the same time, to be as strict as possible. . . . When you look at the structure of The Ring and the history of how Wagner wrote The Ring, you find that it was far from a linear process. He intended it as one, then two operas; he wrote the third part before the first; et cetera. It's a very deconstructed process, imaginatively. Similarly, with Greenaway, we started by thinking of The Death of Webern and Others as one opera; he wanted ten composers in one evening; I said, "We will not be able to get ten composers of equal quality to do it;" then we decided on ten separate operas, written by ten different composers; and maybe it will change again into another form. Opera invites you to have an enormous vision, a very mythic, larger-than-life vision; at the same time, within that, because it does that, it encourages you to think in a deconstructed way, not always in a rounded or linear fashion. You can read a piece like The Ring of Wagner on different levels and in different ways, because its genesis is not as coherent as the end result may at first seem. Greenaway is also dealing with that form of coherence-within-incoherence, and the reverse of it. Music has the ability to do that, because at the touch of a bar of music, you can change an entire atmosphere, an entire emotion, instantly, as Andriessen also does with the score. It's fascinating.
In great art, what counts is what the artist has not done,
rather than what he has done.
Certainly in the 20th century, opera has been a kind of arena within which certain composers have been able to work out discontinuous ideas about music. Berg, for example, or Ligeti's Le Grand macabre, or Zimmermann's Die Soldaten.
Absolutely. Die Soldaten is a supreme example, I think it's one of the very, very great pieces. The Mask of Orpheus, by Birtwistle, also does that. It's a fascinating challenge and a fascinating prospect.
Do you think that some composers are better suited than others for opera?
Yes, I think so.
Is it a theatricality, or a way about thinking of time, or drama?
I don't know. With Rosa, I really was very astonished, and very happily surprised by the result. I've always known that Andriessen was a composer of great quality. But I never expected him to write a score as theatrical as this. I never thought he would end up writing something as dramatic and as convincing. Now my original feeling was not a judgment on his quality as a composer; I've always regarded him as at the very, very top of all these composers who are writing in this similar idiom; he really is at the very top and always has been. But I never thought that his music would end up as theatrical as this, and as convincing in its relationship to what Greenaway is trying to do. Which is not easy. Composers can surprise you! In fact I was a bit disappointed by Birtwistle's recent opera [The Second Mrs. Kong]; it has had extremely good notices, but I found the music extremely hermetic, and very unfree. I was surprised that Andriessen rose to the challenge of Rosa in a much more free, liberated, theatrical, forward-looking way than Birtwistle rose to the challenge of the Russel Hogan libretto. Now I'm no critic, I'm just speaking as an audience member and as a lover of new music, and, incidentally, as someone who adores Birtwistle-I did his Punch and Judy here in the main house, and I know him very, very well, and I think his operas, like The Mask of Orpheus, are phenomenal; I regard him, again, to be at the very top. I just never would have thought that Andriessen would have been able to break away, to some extent, from his formalistic, more abstract way of writing music: and that surprise was very, very nice. When we commissioned The Life of an Idiot by Schnittke, again, I've always known that Schnittke was a great genius, but I didn't know what we would get, dealing with a subject as complicated as the short story he had to adapt. And he produced a phenomenal opera.
In what possible ways can opera and film interact?
When you consider film and opera, you first of all have to remember that, after all, the live human voice plays a large and very important role in the evening. While I deride the role of the singer as a circus object or a vocal magician, I can't deny that I enjoy it enormously. However, I don't believe that such an interest can be maintained by anything but a handful-one hand-of singers in the world today. The rest have to take part in the complete experience of opera as such, as a total form. It is ultimately the vocal part that gives you the opportunity to react to a text, dramatically; it makes the text vocal and also physical, as you saw in our performance. That is ultimately one of the very beautiful, magical elements of an opera. It is something very specific that film alone is not able to deal with very well. You can already see this when operas are broadcast. The idea of a camera shooting a singer singing is not an image that really works. While good filmmakers can make it survive the camera, it is not something that really works. It works in the theater. And I think that Greenaway did not make the mistake of ever showing you a singer singing on film. He doesn't use video in this way; it would have been a very obvious, and actually very boring, way of telling a story. Video images work only inasmuch as they are a sort of pulsating picture of the rhythmic power of the evening. It's moving colors. It is nothing else. It cannot be anything else. I defend the very, very intelligent disconnection between elements in Rosa, and the absence of video. What there is not in the performance, is what there is. In great art, generally, what counts is what the artist has not done, rather than what he has done.
Pierre Audi, director of the Nederlands Opera, was interviewed in Amsterdam, in November 1994, by Joshua Cody, then Editor of the Paris New Music Review.
Photograph of Mr. Audi by Ruthwalz Fotografin, Berlin Article copyright 1994 and 1999 by Paris Transatlantic Magazine.