Only the Sound Remains

The colours of our dreams

Interview with the painter-decorator of Only the Sound Remains

By Anna Schauder 02 February 2018


© Elena Bauer / OnP

The colours of our dreams

On the stage of the Palais Garnier, Peter Sellars’ staging of Kaija Saariaho’s opera Only the Sound Remains hosts as its set two large-scale paintings by the artist Julie Mehretu. The paintings, which are slightly enlarged reprints of her works from 2014/15 entitled Tsunemasa (next to Kaija) and Invisible Sun (algorithm 7, spell form) exemplify what she has described as the “liminal third space” of “emergent possibility”. Peter Sellars invited Mehretu to be part of the project in response to an ongoing conversation and relationship with her work. Julie Mehretu reflects on her first participation to the making of an opera set.    

Why did you accept to work on a project for opera?

Julie Mehretu : For a very long time I’ve been interested in the relationship between painting and sound, and also in the inherent time-based experience with painting. During Only the Sound Remains, you sit for almost an hour looking at each painting. The paintings evolve over the scope of the opera, definitely due to the lighting design and staging of course, but you also appreciate the paintings differently, see them differently, depending on your emotional engagement with the sound, the narrative and the characters, which are in constant evolution. Sound, music, have always informed my painting, it is a part of my process, and to see how that relationship could be continued outside the studio, on the stage, was something I was very intrigued by.

How did the transition from the actual paintings to their reproduction for the set work?

Peter Sellars connected me with a stage designer, since I hadn’t had any experience with that language and together we thought through how many layers there could be, in order to keep the “whole” translucent. At first we thought there could be many layers on the stage that could seem like a painting stretched open, but it turned out to be much more compelling to have the complete painting be on a single layer and rather convert the stage into the ontological, metaphoric layers. The primary narrative, which takes place on earth, is center stage in front of the painting, the painting itself is the liminal space, through which the spirits move between earth and the heavens, and then the heavens, the universe, the space of the ghosts, is behind the painting. How can you make paintings of that scale come to life, through light? How could you make them work with the story to represent the various layers of life and death and the spirits moving between them? We needed to create that dynamic on stage, and we did that with choosing to print the paintings onto very translucent material, that could be read as a solid painting, but then could evaporate into air depending on the lighting. The light could move inside the paintings, through them, behind them. We (and the characters) enter the paintings, through light and shadow. The paintings become landscape, dream, death, imagination, ghosts, heaven, emotion, and nightmare. They also become the liminal space, through which the spirits move.

To what extent was Nôh Theater an inspiration for Tsunemasa and Invisible Sun?

The paintings are part of a larger body of work I was working on. Invisible Sun (algorithm 7, spell form) is actually the eighth painting of an eponymous series. When Peter brought me the libretto with the two Nôhs, I read them, continued working, read them again, but I did not try to paint those Nôhs specifically. Tsunemasa (2014) and Invisible Sun (2015) are related to them abstractly, in that I educated myself on Nôhs, studied them, their cosmic ideas of the world and their ancient, very condensed and specific form. Tsunemasa also relates to the tradition of having a tree in the background of the Japanese Nôh stage. This painting has the metaphorical aspect of being both a landscape and this other mystical space, a ceremonial space even, of the actual narrative. In the end, both paintings are very much about creating from within the great space, from within this other place of the ontological tree. Fundamentally, those paintings refer to the most ancient forms of creating a painting, of mark-making, by using Sumi ink and acrylic -- to invent and imagine something else from those marks.

In the staging of Only the Sound Remains, how do your paintings interact with music, dance and technology?

It is interesting, because those different artistic languages come together to make this complete work of art, the opera in full. To see this happen during the technical rehearsals was extremely inspiring. From Kaija’s magnificent score and listening to her work take form, the musicians playing it, and then the sound technicians bending it through the space. The layers of imagination, abstraction, ontological space, mark-making, to Peter’s staging of the opera, the singers, the lighting, the dance. My work relates to those complex stratas of existence and resonates with the language of dance, with music, the libretto and the manipulation of the singer’s voices electronically. They are different forms of imagination, but there is an inherent, intuitive, relationship.

How challenging was this experience for you?

This project was a complete challenge in that I had never had any experience with the stage. The first ideas I had for the project were unnecessarily complex. It was a big learning curve to reduce those ideas to the three spaces of the painting across the two sets. But also to understand what happens with the translucent fabric and what can be done in terms of color with the light. The experience was very instructive for me also on how to continue to paint. Color and ontological space took a new direction and form in my work after this experience.

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