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Peter Sellars: 'This opera is a paradise on earth.'

What does the future of opera look like? The National Opera tries to answer this in the Opera Forward Festival: new visions new voices, which is being organised for the first time this year to mark its 50th anniversary. The ten-day festival kicks off 15 March with the world premiere of Only the Sound Remains By Kaija Saariaho.

About this double-bill based on the Japanese Nôh theatre I spoke earlier featuring the Finnish-French composer. This small-scale production is directed by controversial American Peter Sellars. The lead role in both short operas is sung by French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky. After a rehearsal, I asked them about the usefulness and necessity of this festival.

Philippe Jaroussky, 'Only the Sound Remains' is opening the Opera Forward Festival, to what extent does this production promote the future of opera?

Peter Sellars said on the first day of rehearsals: 'Many people think the story of the opera is coming to an end, but this is only the beginning!' I found that surprising. He has an open mind and this production shows what we can do. We have just two singers, a four-piece choir, seven instruments and electronics to bring these moving stories from the Nôh theatre to life. These elements harbour all the possibilities we can explore in the future.

Philippe_Jaroussky (photo credit Wikipedia)
Philippe_Jaroussky (photo credit Wikipedia)

Opera not only exists by the grace of big performances, but also thrives in this intimate setting. That intimacy appeals to me enormously, which is why I decided to participate: we can really work in depth. Of course, opera can mean going big - see the production of Mussorgsky's opera Chovantchina which is also part of the festival. But so it could also be these two small pieces lasting less than an hour in which we explore a world full of magic.

What exactly is so new about this production?

I am singing Kaija Saariaho's music for the first time and am deeply impressed by her knowledge of textures, colours. She explores all the possibilities of each instrument. What I feel deeply is that this is not her first opera and that she is immensely adept at rendering text. Of course, this kind of music is a bit harder to study, it takes more time to learn it by heart. But once you know the piece well, it is not at all more difficult than an opera by Handel or Mozart. In fact, it is even easier because everything is written out and it is more like spoken dialogue.

I'm super excited because this is the first time my voice is being edited using a computer. It's happening live and I feel like I can focus much more on the clarity of my voice and thus play with the electronic effects. Each performance will sound different as a result. The electronics are very different in both parts. In the first part 'Always Strong', my vocal lines are manipulated in such a way that although I sing very high, I sound very low, an extraordinary experience.

Peter Sellars, how exactly is opera the genre of the future?

Every day we hear the news from the world, and it is crushing. Every day we are disappointed in our leaders, disappointed in whole sections of society. We are also disappointed by ourselves. We are disappointed at the inability to achieve even any kind of harmony in the world. And this amazing art form is all about how people achieve harmony. About people working together. About people finding a way to listen to each other and strike a chord with each other. Not just on a friendly level, but on a deep level of mutual understanding and agreement.

To understand that, of course, you have to know that everything is a dance. Everything is movement, you move with someone. It doesn't just happen, it involves an exchange, a shared universe, shared space, shared breathing, shared ecstasy, shared pleasure and shared purpose. There is no art form other than opera that accomplishes this. Opera brings all these people together, to say: okay, what can we achieve together?

But surely the same applies to an opera by Wagner or Verdi?

I'm not so sure about that. The Wagner and Verdi operas were written from a nineteenth-century top-down power structure. In the play Kaija has created, everyone meets as equals. You see the flute player and the dancer meeting each other as equals, you have Philippe, that amazing artist who offers all these incredible things in beautiful duets with the tilt player, with the string quartet.

Everyone meets as equals, our generation experiences less of that wild, frenzied physical pressure. In the nineteenth century, you feel a strong need to go over the top. Instead, in the here and now, we feel the need to live with each other and enjoy each other. The tone, the temperature is more modest. - Like paradise on earth, not just a day in heaven.

Do you think the audience will sense this?

I never worry about the audience, they are ok. They are all deeply feeling, human beings and they will experience something totally beyond anything I experience myself. That is true poetry: there is no one way to understand it. Everyone finds their own entrance and discovers their magical universe. That is the beauty of art!

An overview of all activities can be found here.
Peter Sellars is also the speaker at the Sharp Thinkers series on 17 and 18 March in Eindhoven Music Building and Concertgebouw Amsterdam; Reinbert de Leeuw plays Via crucis by Franz Liszt.

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Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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