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Lost in Cellini

When Terry Gilliam moves over to Opera — By Simon Hatab

Terry Gilliam cultivates the art of being where no one expects him to be: with Benvenuto Cellini, the director is producing his second opera and bringing his madcap humour to the stage of the Bastille. We met with director and choreographer Leah Hausman who is co-producing the revival with him, and we talked with her about the Gilliamesque artistic adventure. 

When we met up with Leah Hausman in the cafeteria of the Opera Bastille, she was taking a break. She had just completed a week of highly-charged rehearsals and seemed exhausted by the devilish mechanics that she had helped to set in motion. One has to say that immoderation is the watchword for this production, which has already triumphed in London (English National Opera), Rome (Teatro dell’Opera) and Amsterdam (Dutch National Opera). When he evokes its 2014 London premiere, Terry Gilliam* himself admits in his recent autobiography Gilliamesque: “I was seized by delusions of grandeur: a hundred artists on stage, singers, acrobats on stilts, jugglers, swordfights, giant carnival marionettes, and too little time for rehearsals: the same nightmare that Cellini experienced when confronted with the impossibility of casting his famous bronze statue of Perseus. He and I are one and the same! Up until the last minute, I was sure that we would never get there. But by some miracle, the show came together and went ahead.”

And yet Benvenuto Cellini was not Terry Gilliam’s first foray into the genre. In 2011, the onetime animator—who would gain widespread recognition through Monty Python, then as a scriptwriter, an actor, [Piovesan 1] [HC2] and a producer— took on the new role of opera director for a version of La Damnation de Faust, also by Berlioz, and again commissioned by the ENO. In his own words, Gilliam had “coped rather well” with the metaphysical wanderings of Faust and Mephisto. However, don’t think that the ever-malcontent Gilliam would wallow in self-satisfaction. He is well aware that his success has something to do with past achievements, particularly the time he spent as a member of that comedy team which—between 1969 and 1974—ushered in a golden age for the BBC: The vast majority of my audience is made up of Monty Python fans, which is not to say they lack culture or are incapable of appreciating great music and opera. I think it’s important that people who have never been to the opera see this production.” It is also worth adding that almost half of the people who did go to see his “Faust” had never set foot in an opera house before.

La Damnation de Faust also marked his first encounter with Leah Hausman and his first artistic collaboration with her: “For ʺDamnationʺ, Terry immediately thought of an all-encompassing dramaturgy: to re-examine the history of Germanic art—from romanticism to expressionism—while at the same time confronting Germany with its demons. With ʺBenvenutoʺ, it was more complex. We spent a great deal of time listening to the music over and over again in order to imagine the context in which we could set the opera.” In terms of visuals, the two of them settled on the etchings of Piranesi—"because, like Cellini, he was an artist who looked towards the future”. As for the era, they imagined a plot narrative corseted in the tight-fitting costumes of Victorian England. No doubt, evoking those two sources of inspiration here is not enough to elicit all the exuberance of the production: “I don’t change my way of working just because it’s a different type of production. I use the same approach whether it be Monty Python, a cartoon, a film or an opera. In Benvenuto Cellini, we tried to create a two-dimensional world in a three-dimensional space. It was very similar to the work which I did when I was making the cartoons for Monty Python. We worked in a rather odd world, made up of silhouettes. It’s all a question of balance; to strike the right mix that makes the performance: romanticism, scandal, excess and artistic talent.”

Leah Hausman en répétition avec Pretty Yende (Teresa) et Maurizio Muraro (Giacomo Balducci), Opéra de Paris, 2018
Leah Hausman en répétition avec Pretty Yende (Teresa) et Maurizio Muraro (Giacomo Balducci), Opéra de Paris, 2018 © Elena Bauer / OnP

That excess which characterises Terry Gilliam and Leah Hausman’s production is entirely in keeping with the larger-than-life existence of Benvenuto Cellini, after whom the opera is named—an eccentric genius, a draughtsman, a goldsmith, a foundry-man, a medal-maker, a sculptor, and a writer, born at the dawn of the Renaissance, who led a mercurial life in Florence. The Life of Benvenuto Cellini, the largely fictional autobiography he wrote towards the end of his life, is a potpourri of larceny, inspired artistic insights, acts of war and court intrigues, which would lead him to prison, the Castel Saint Angelo and the court of François I. Terry Gilliam devoured those memoirs and saw a lot of himself in the Florentine figure: “You were endowed with this gift, this talent, and you are destined to do something extraordinary with it. But everything conspires to prevent that from happening. And you lose faith. I really ask myself why I identify with him…”, he says with irony. Initially, he thought about making a film but the project remained in manuscript form in one of his desk drawers. Then, when approached by the ENO to direct Berlioz’s opera, he saw it as a sign and accepted right away, “without even listening to a single note”, adds Leah Hausman with a smile.

In actual fact, if Terry Gilliam jumped at the chance to direct the opera, it was probably because he felt a profound affinity with Cellini—but also Berlioz. Leah Hausman confirms this: “It was all about Cellini, Berlioz and Terry.” The pitfalls that Cellini had to overcome to finally be able to cast his Perseus was similar to the hardships that Berlioz himself had to face whilst composing his opera: a libretto deemed too prosaic, a score that wasn’t melodic enough… In short, an unmitigated flop with audiences and critics alike which would join a long list of setbacks to beset the composer throughout his career and which would prompt him to ask for the work to be pulled from the performance roster.

In 1990, Terry Gilliam worked on a film adaptation of Cervantes’ Don Quixotte. After a shooting schedule marked by a number of unforeseen disasters—including the illness of its principal actor Jean Rochefort, a sound recording disrupted by the noise of military aircraft, torrential rains and a double herniated disk—the project floundered. The film would ultimately become Lost in La Mancha, a wonderful documentary examining the role of failure in all artistic creation. In essence, all of Terry Gilliam’s films are infused with a sub-narrative about failure: he is never too far from happiness, just like the hapless hero in Brazil (1985) who believes he is kissing the woman of his dreams on a country road when in fact he is really being tortured to death by the police in a totalitarian state. The director likes to flirt with danger by challenging himself with larger-than-life epics: “Like Cellini, he shares a desire to create a work greater than himself” muses Leah Hausman. And Gilliam likes to square the circle: “We present Cellini as an artist, but also as a scandalous figure, an inveterate womanizer. That’s how the real Cellini was perceived—the one who pushed back the limits of his era by casting that immense bronze Perseus, bigger than anything that had been done before. People at the time were eager for him to fail so they could scoff at him, but unfortunately for them he succeeded.”

Leah Hausman en répétition avec Marco Spotti (le pape Clément VII) et John Osborn (Benvenuto Cellini), Opéra de Paris, 2018
Leah Hausman en répétition avec Marco Spotti (le pape Clément VII) et John Osborn (Benvenuto Cellini), Opéra de Paris, 2018 © Elena Bauer / OnP

As the new production of Benvenuto Cellini at the ENO began to take form, rehearsals may not have been disrupted by torrential rains or the noise of military aircraft, but they did have their own set of issues: “In Act I, recounts Leah Hausman, Cellini pays Teresa a visit by climbing in through her window. To tell you the truth, I worked on that scene so much that I can’t even remember if we came up with the idea of making him climb in the window or whether it was written in the libretto. Of course, Terry couldn’t just settle for a ladder, he wanted Cellini to hoist himself up to the window using a balloon. However for the effect to be total, we needed the audience to see the balloon in the street in the preceding scene. The problem was that the balloon was way too heavy to be carried. After numerous attempts, we had to resign ourselves to using two different balloons.” And to continue: “It’s really quite simple: everything that seems easy and magic in this production required a great deal of effort from us. There was a point where we really believed that the more we tried to do things with precision, the less they actually worked.” Is that due to the switch from film to the stage? “I think it’s rather scary for directors when they switch over to opera, because with film, editing allows them to regain control, to regain control of their creation. At the opera, there’s no such thing! And yet, Terry really loves the theatre: he loves the scenery, the sets, all the tinkering about... Each time we visited a theatre, he was like a little boy. His films are very theatrical. Recently, I saw The Brothers Grimm (2005) and I realised that the film could be transposed to the stage without any modification.”

But the unexpected, the imponderable, the inconsistencies; those grains of sand which jam the machine for a moment are also part of the creative process, helping to build the performance. As such, during rehearsals, the Pope’s entrance in Act II was gradually pushed back until it became totally absurd: “Terry didn’t like the final sextet of the papal scene at all. He wanted to cut it entirely. I told him that he couldn’t because it added a lot of energy to the scene. So, he decided to rename the Swiss Guards who accompanied the Pope the “Switch Guards” and to have them dance in the vein of Loie Fuller (a dancer from the early 20th century who was famous for the diaphanous layers of fabric that she would twirl in her choreographies).”

Do such considerations distance us from the subject? Not necessarily. In the end, isn’t this reflection on happenstance, the accidental, and the fear of failure the real subject of Benvenuto Cellini? “The work is a chimera”, says Leah Hausman. “It starts out as commedia del arte and ends like a Wagnerian opera. Initially, Cellini’s aim is to cast his statue of Perseus, but that is soon eclipsed, because love, because Teresa… The issue reappears in Act II and gradually begins to spread until it becomes the primary subject of the piece: an artist who has not been able to realise his greatest work, the doubts he has to confront and the unfathomable abyss that opens up beneath his feet…” Berlioz says nothing less.    


*Unless otherwise stated, Terry Gilliam’s comments reprinted here are taken from an interview given in 2014 at the time of the premiere of Benvenuto Cellini at the English National Opera.

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