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In the Valley of the Living

On Tout là-bas, les montagnes (Over there, the mountains)

By Solène Souriau 22 June 2018

© Studio j’adore ce que vous faites ! / OnP

In the Valley of the Living

To end the season at the Academy, Paul Balagué, director in residence, was given carte blanche and now offers a workshop structured around 20th century American music. After a year’s immersion at the heart of the Paris Opera, the time had come to put into practice his observations and the lessons learnt from this apprenticeship. And to explore, with the singers of the Academy, the difficult situations that can be engendered by loss and the porous boundaries between dream and reality. Encounter.

What was your starting point for the composition of this workshop?

The directing workshop is the culminating point for the director in residence at the Academy. It takes shape gradually throughout the year. At the beginning of the season, there was a death in my family, which confronted me with sensations and colours I had never before experienced. I found myself face to face with highly contrasted, almost contradictory emotions. I swung very rapidly from sadness to joy; the desire to cry but also to laugh. Even if it’s not a matter of autobiography or of therapy here, I encounter some of these emotions in certain scenes. Paradoxically, the stage, the place where we are most exposed, allows us to portray the most intimate feelings. That state of self-questioning, loss, melancholy, it was in music that I felt it the most. My work can be summed up in one word: saudade. A Portuguese word that is very difficult to translate and refers to a delicious nostalgia, the tension between absence and desire. It’s doubtless the richest emotion that one can feel. A way of being present in the past or past in the present.   

Your workshop is structured around American music from the second half of the 20th century. Why?

The Academy doesn’t impose any rules or instructions. However, I wanted to give the production a unified structure. I started from three pieces: Bernstein's opera Trouble in Tahiti which I first heard at the beginning of last year; the song, I’m Coming Home by Clifton Chenier which has been a travelling companion for a long time and Mad Rush by Philip Glass which I listened to a lot while I was reflecting on this project. Three works that exemplify the eclecticism and the richness of American music. So I wanted to continue exploring this musical universe. With the exception, quite deliberate, of the piece by Queen, Somebody to Love, with that Baroque extravagance that I love and which isn’t that far from opera. Moreover, the English language allows one to conjure up poetic images that are seemingly simple but of great profoundness with an economy of words that I find very pleasing. Like a style of cuisine employing few ingredients but all of them carefully chosen.

The project brings together operatic extracts and pieces of American popular music. How did you articulate the two?

There are fifteen extracts in all: six from opera, one from a children’s song by Bernstein, two extracts from musical comedy, five from pop songs and a piano piece.

Access to downloading has profoundly changed the way we approach music and associate different genres. In my playlist, Mahler’s Lied, Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen is followed by I FINK U FREEKY by Die Antwoord.

Mixing genres has almost become the norm for our generation. I wanted to take this particular cultural phenomenon into account. On the other hand, if you mix it too much, there are no more colours. And the entire balance relies on the choice of universe and tones in which one gravitates. The only constraint is the strange-coherence, the agreeable-dissonance of the whole.    

Académie de l’Opéra de Paris, Amphithéâtre Bastille, 2018
Académie de l’Opéra de Paris, Amphithéâtre Bastille, 2018 © Studio j’adore ce que vous faites ! / OnP

What narrative thread have you constructed between the extracts?

The production tells the story of a young man who returns to his home town to complete the sale of his parents’ house. Whilst packing boxes, he says good-bye to the life that is now behind him. The recent loss of his mother has left him highly sensitive and when he steps into the house where he grew up, memories coming flooding back: his parents, their arguments and their love. He also sees his childhood friends and is confronted with past desires and present failings. He plunges into that strange, dreamlike state that mixes different times and emotions. Little by little he returns to the land of the living.

Several Academy singers interpret the same character. Why is that?

When you look at photos going back ten, twenty, thirty years of a member of your family, you discover someone who doesn’t at all resemble the person you know, in clothes you don’t recognise, in a strange place, surrounded by people unknown to you. It’s someone else, another life, often a life before you were born. Each person conceals dozens of lives and stories throughout their time on earth. And every change of wardrobe or hairstyle is just the outer manifestation of this inner turbulence. Theatre explores this diversity of identity in one and the same person through different bodies and different voices.   

Your project contains several spoken passages. How did you work on these with the singers?

I wanted to experiment with acting with the singers but without security of the singing voice which can act as a protective mask. I wanted to confront them with another type of music, that of simple phrases, brief moments. We worked on ways of committing to each word, of understanding it and feeling it resonate.   

You have spent a year in residence at the Academy of the Paris Opera alongside young singers and craftsmen. Among your experiences, which have marked you the most?

The Academy offers a varied programme providing many different experiences. I acted as assistant on two Academy productions: Reigen, an opera by Philippe Boesmans, directed by Christiane Lutz and Kurt Weill Story, a workshop directed by Mirabelle Ordinaire. The job of assistant provides a thorough grounding in the business of opera direction because it brings you into contact with the team as a whole and you discover just how compartmentalised the different tasks are at the opera. It also means listening to everyone, taking on board the tiredness and the anxieties of each person. The assistant helps to carry the team along. I was also lucky enough to work as stage manager for Only the Sound Remains, an opera by Kaija Saariaho, directed by Peter Sellars. In stage management, one plunges into the heart of the creative and organisational processes and learns to anticipate every eventuality. Working with Peter Sellars is to experience absolute professionalism combined with the profoundest joy. I was also able to work on the staging of recitals in various venues: at the Palais Garnier as well as at the Pompidou Centre. Each time, it was a real pleasure to help the singers use their bodies to serve the music, to plan their positions and construct a story. The world of opera is very demanding and two-fold: impressive in its rigour but ultimately very poetical.

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