Opera, a gesamkunstwerk? On the occasion of Ivo van Hove’s new production of Boris Godunov at Opera Bastille, and in order to ascertain whether the term inherited from German Romanticism is still applicable, the writer and chief editor of Philosophie Magazine, Alexandre Lacroix set out to meet all the artists and craftsmen whose skills and sensibilities contribute to the creation of an opera production – dramaturge, director, conductor, scenographer, film-maker, singers, musicians, costume and lighting designers … In partnership with Philosophie Magazine.
Ninth Encounter Beneath the grande verrière, galerie des balcons, at Opera Bastille, June 1st
Ivo van Hove asked me to join him on stage, on the bare boards of the opera house. The stairs that will be climbed by the soloists and chorus have been covered with a dust sheet. Stage hands roll up cables and put away the black storage cases on their casters. Ivo is alone in the middle of the space, his back to the dark, empty auditorium. He is wearing jeans, a petrol blue shirt and the trainers I’ve seen him with in all his recent photographs. Meditating, on an immense stage: anyone who holds power has no other choice but solitude. He must retreat into his inner self to make his decisions. In whom will he trust if not in himself? Power is a summit where there is no room for two. Such is the position of Boris. But also that of Ivo, the director, a few days before the opening night.
We leave the stage, exit on the balcony side and sit down in a gallery beyond, under the grande verrière. Outside, the late afternoon sun, slanting low, bleaches out the traffic with its rays; the metal tops of cars are dazzling. In two hours, Ivo will watch the final run before the dress rehearsal: he will see his opera in its entirety for the first time. The sixty-year-old may well have directed a hundred and fifty operas in his time, but the tension is still palpable. The conversation must speed along, like a perfectly tuned mechanism.
Did you have a rendez-vous with Boris Godunov in 2018?
Ino van Hove: It was Stéphane Lissner [the director of the Paris Opera] who asked me, three or four years ago, if I was interested in directing Boris Godunov. I replied in the affirmative, but on one condition: I wanted to stage the first version, that of 1869. Today, the most frequently performed version is that of 1872, which is longer and very different. I then contacted Vladimir Jurowski, who joined us for this adventure. It’s not an obvious choice for a conductor, because the second version is perhaps more interesting musically. But the first is much more exciting in dramatic terms.
Why is that?
It’s more political. There are no digressions, the drama is concentrated around the figure of the Tsar. Boris Godunov and the common people are the two principal characters.
Six months ago, I met your dramaturge, Jan Vandehouwe. He drew a surprising parallel between Grigoriy, the adventurer who passes himself off as the legitimate heir to the throne of Russia, and Donald Trump. Grigoriy’s popularity is founded on a lie, fake news: he has usurped the identity of the young prince Dmitri who was assassinated! In your production, does Grigoriy represent a populist leader?
No, no, Grigoriy is not a populist but a careerist. He has been manipulated by Pimen, the monk, who has fuelled his desire for this epic march to the Kremlin. I consider Pimen to be an ideologist, a sort of Steven Bannon. He is very conservative. He believes that the solution for Russia is to return to the past, a reactionary dream, one that is flourishing everywhere in the world today. Grigoriy is just his mercenary. He’s an opportunist bereft of any ideology. Another character that interests me is Prince Shuysky.
One of the boyars
Yes, one of the great men of the Empire. He is one of the elite, but he has a strongly strategic side to him. History teaches us that, after Boris’ death, his son Fyodor was on the throne for a few months, after which Grigoriy became tsar for a year and finally, Shuysky came to power. This makes sense to me. Shuysky has a long-term vision.
Jan suggested that Boris Godunov, who takes pains to govern the country well, to carry out enlightened reforms, without really gaining popular support, is like a modern technocrat and that one could see him as a sort of Emmanuel Macron. What do you think of this?
When one transposes an opera into the contemporary world, of course one seeks to build links with current events. But one mustn’t be too simplistic. What struck us, Jan and myself, after the presidential election in 2017 in France, was Emmanuel Macron’s awareness of the historic importance of this moment. The way he organised his slow, very slow entrance into the great courtyard of the Louvre, or composed his official photograph, testify to a profound sense of showmanship. It is tempting to draw a parallel with the coronation ceremony in the first tableau of Boris Godunov. But the similarity stops there.
In Brechtian terms
Since December of last year, I’ve been meeting a dozen or so people involved in this production, from the set and costume workshops etc. Now, it seemed to me that Ivo van Hove’s conception confirmed rather closely to Berthold Brecht’s recommendations in his preface to The Rise and Fall of the City of Hahagonny (1930).
In Brecht’s eyes, the goal of an opera is to portray on stage the power relations such as they exist in society so as to allow the audience to contemplate them objectively and understand them. Brecht wanted the décor to be sparse in the extreme to enable the spectator to maintain critical distance to avoid being completely caught up in the action. Ivo chose to present the audience with an almost bare stage, with only a staircase and a giant screen. Brecht was against period costumes – and the chorus here resemble commuters on a train. Brecht considered that the music should communicate the text, but not try to impose it or to enhance it – and Vladimir Jurowski explained to me his aim to treat the music as the production’s subconscious mind.
Has Brecht been an important source of inspiration for this work?
Every director at some time or another uses something that Brecht invented. However, I don’t much like his plays and I’ve never directed one of his works. I prefer to consider Boris Godunov as a prolongation of the great political tragedies of Shakespeare, which are a constant source of inspiration for me. Brecht is too didactic. He wants to denounce the class struggle and prepare the way for communism. He would probably have chosen the second version of “Boris”, which culminates in a revolution. In the first version, the ruling class remains in power and the people are frustrated. In the finale, one has the impression that the people are reduced to a state of passivity and relative indifference. It seems to me that this is what is happening these days. I don’t believe that revolution is imminent.
The veritable art of management
One has lost count of the management treatises destined for company directors. However, the English word ‘management’ has a more remote origin: it comes from the Italian maneggiare which means ‘handle’ from the Latin manus meaning ‘hand’. Isn’t directing a play or an opera a job that touches the very essence of management? How can you push each one to the maximum expression of their talent unless you practise a ‘management of minds’ of the greatest finesse?
I imagine one can push people – singers, instrumentalists, technicians, to give their best in various ways: persuasion, authority, maieutics … How would you describe your own practice?
First of all, I prepare really thoroughly. I don’t begin on the work of staging without a profound knowledge of the text. In an opera, the libretto doesn’t play a fundamental role, I’d say it represents 20% of the work. I need to know what is important on a musical level, the information behind the notes on each stave.
Yes, but that’s still intellectual, it doesn’t explain how you handle the artists.
Let’s just say that I consider each singer as an individual.
Is that all?
I’m often asked about this, but there is no other valid method. I observe, I listen and I find a way of addressing every singer. I treat each of them as an individual human being. With X, I find I need to discuss things at length, whereas with Z it’s better to limit oneself to “You have to come on stage here and exit over there”. It’s the art of psychology really.
How do conversations with a conductor like Vladimir Jurowski go?
Listen, I worked with David Bowie. And I approached him just as I would any other collaborator. He never took advantage of his rank or his power. I convinced him to change the ending of his show Lazarus. I had profound reasons. He listened to them, then he said: “That sounds good to me, we should do it.” At a certain level, people have nothing more to prove. The intimidators, the bullies are always mediocre. Vladimir has helped me and I’ve helped him, it’s a partnership. For example, yesterday I asked him about a stage effect: “I need you, I need the music to emphasise this stage effect. On which note should it happen in your view, this one or that one?” There you have it, a conversation.
Human beings are nevertheless fragile. Some of them fall ill, others suffer from nerves or go through personal crises. How do you manage to get everyone to the height of their form for the opening night?
That’s my own personal touch! But whatever I achieve, I always owe it to a team, travelling companions with whom I’ve been working for a long time: there’s Jan Versweyveld for the scenography and lighting; Tal Yarden for the videos, An d’Huys for the costumes and Jan Vandenhouwe for the dramaturgy.
Otherwise, with everybody I think one has to be sincere. People can sense whether you’re being false or genuine with them. During rehearsals, I observe and I communicate my emotions. When I am in doubt, I say so without beating about the bush.
Adorno amongst the gladiators
Whilst working on this Boris Godunov Journal, I’ve been constantly reminded of a reflection on theatre that I found in Theodor W. Adorno’s article Bourgeois Opera (1955): “It would be fair to consider opera as being a specifically bourgeois art form that, at the heart of a disenchanted world, seeks, paradoxically, to preserve the magic element of art whilst using the very means provided by that world.” The sentence is dense and abstract but it seems to me to strike at the heart of one of opera’s paradoxes: it is certainly an art form for a social elite, the bourgeoisie, and requires colossal resources and therefore also public and private subsidies and yet, at the heart of such a set-up, one which would not stand up to Marxist-style criticism, the challenge is to preserve an element of magic, that is, to bring out something in the order of truth or beauty.
I read the quotation aloud to Ivo to get his point of view.
“It would be fair to consider opera as being a specifically bourgeois art form that, at the heart of a disenchanted world, seeks, paradoxically, to preserve the magic element of art.” Does he agree?
I. van H: I don’t much like that sentence. I find it old hat. Talking like that, with that vocabulary, is really 20th century. Is football bourgeois? No. And yet it costs millions and tickets for the World Cup are exhorbitant. Are rock and reggae concerts bourgeois, on the basis that they are expensive? You see, approaching these realities in terms of social class is too reductive.
But Adorno also said something else: opera established itself as a major art form, as a ‘total art form’ even, in the 19th century, the era of Verdi, of Wagner, of Mussorgsky, at therefore the precise hour of an apotheosis of bourgeois society, and it has retained the stigmata of these origins. Even today, it is for the most part the bourgeoisie who go to the opera, and it’s not just a question of price but of the effect of social class on taste.
Not everything is rigidly fixed, every year there are productions of new operas! In the 20th century, there were the operas of Alban Berg, Igor Stravinsky and Leoš Janáček. And today, Thomas Adès is an outstanding composer, to give but one example. I think that citation from Adorno reflects above all his own prejudices.
All the same, in the present case the question is inevitable: Boris Godunov is an opera that exclusively treats the issue of the relationship between the people and the elite. Peter Sellars said that in opera, if you have something to say to the great and powerful, they are sitting in the front row! Is it possible to show and to criticise social domination in a place frequented by the elite and belonging to the State? Or is the criticism just a decoy, being neutralised in advance by the nature of the institution?
That’s not my way of thinking about things. As a director, but also as a spectator at the opera or the theatre, I detest being told what to think. I like dialectics. I was asked, in an interview, if I agreed with Boris Godunov’s way of governing. Now, when I stage a scene with Boris, I am totally Boris. When I do a scene with Shuysky, I am totally Shuysky. I identify with the characters, I don’t judge them. I consider myself as a subversive director, not as a moralist.
Let’s consider this notion of subversion in more depth. What does it mean to be subversive when you stage an opera in 2018?
Why, in your opinion, do millions of people every year in Spain make the journey to go and see Picasso’s Guernica? To contemplate that painting is a very intense experience. It represents a massacre. There is no hope in that landscape of war. Why do we go to see Medea at the theatre, when we know she’s going to kill her children? Great works of art are subversive because they explore what’s negative and it’s to their subversiveness that they owe their power to fascinate.
(Ivo turns and points to Place de la Bastille, still glittering outside through the window.)
In life, I like it when people stop at a red light. When they respect the law. I’m glad I live in an ordered society. But here, in this building, an opera house, we’re working with chaotic situations. Chaos and cruelty are within us, they are inextricably part of human nature. But it’s better to commit a murder on stage than in the street. Subversion in theatre or opera consists in representing these feelings of cruelty, these destructive instincts. To evacuate them, to deliver ourselves of them.
Does such an approach have its origins in Greek tragedy or gladiator combats?
For me, it’s exactly the same thing!