The deepest thing within us

Interview with Calixto Bieito

By Simon Hatab and Milena Mc Closkey 23 May 2016


The deepest thing within us

A whiff of scandal shrouds director Calixto Bieito. He is readily described as provocative, iconoclast and fond of maintaining a conflictual relationship with his audiences. The man we interviewed is, in fact, extremely gentle: ample reason for dispelling the clichés. Twelve years after his production of Shakespeare’s King Lear, and building on the insight afforded by that experience, he now tackles Reimann’s Lear, considering the work through the prism of fragility and intimacy.

Before tackling Reimann’s Lear, you had already directed the Shakespeare play from which the opera was adapted. Have you drawn on your memories of the play or did you come to this opera as if it were a new work?

Calixto Bieito: I did indeed direct Shakespeare’s King Lear in 2004. When I began looking at Reimann’s Lear, it was obviously an advantage to have already worked on the original drama and to know it well – in so far as it is possible to master such a work at least to have some knowledge of it. What I propose today is nothing like the production I created in 2004. It is different. I am different. In the space of twelve years, I have changed. I am more mature, I’ve seen more things that have marked me. What's more, although the libretto of Lear is adapted from Shakespeare’s play, it is as if it has been ‘filtered’ by a very particular translation: an old German translation dating back to the 18th century, in highly rhetorical language. Finally, the score, composed by Aribert Reimann during the seventies, lends the work its own movement and sets it in resonance with a different era. This music contains all the horror, blindness and brutality of the 20th century. Ultimately, even if the story is similar to the original, the substance of Lear is completely different from that of Shakespeare’s play. One cannot ignore that...

Harry Kupfer claims that to direct Lear, one has to “forget Shakespeare”. Would you go as far as that?

C.B.: I wouldn’t say “forget” but rather keep him at the right distance. Shakespeare can take on a thousand colours: from Reimann’s music to that of Rufus Wainwright (who collaborated with Robert Wilson on a staging of Shakespeare’s sonnets with the Berliner Ensemble). Shakespeare is very accommodating.

Is that what attracts you to the task of adapting the great classics?

C.B.: It’s what attracts me to Shakespeare, not necessarily to all the classics. A play like King Lear, for example, has that force because it comes to us from the depths of humanity. Our scenography brings out that archaism...

Speaking of the scenography: one of the salient concepts is the slow collapse of the scenery…

C.B.: The solid wooden structure becomes soiled, breaks up and burns. It is burnt with petrol. The set collapses like the bodies of the singers. The singing and the music seem to evaporate: the closer the end comes, the more the music seems to disappear and resemble abstract language. Little by little it fades into oblivion.

This scenography gives rise to a very sombre vision…

C.B.: Yes, Lear is a pessimistic work. I don’t perceive much hope in it.

As we followed the gestation of your production, we had the impression that two aspects of the drama inspired you: one essentially political and the other more intimate and familiar. As the work progressed, how did these two poles define themselves? Did one predominate?

C.B.: I always concentrated on the family. The political aspect comes through anyway: it doesn’t need underlining. I don’t consider myself as a politician but as a director. Politics comes of itself because it’s everywhere. Everything is political. On the other hand, one thing I have profound knowledge of is the family: family relationships, old age, illness, the deterioration of the body, death, loss … and also deception, betrayal, violence, aggression, neurosis, repressed sexuality… I know all that and all that is political. From the family unit are generated the universe, politics and the apocalypse…

How did you approach the intrinsic violence of the work?

C.B.: Both Reimann’s opera and Shakespeare’s play are very violent. I aimed to treat this violence with simplicity and to get to its very essence: dry, sober, very austere. Profoundly economical. I tried to equal it. Violence is initially interiorised, and then bursts out from inside, always.   

You often use video footage, raw images that slice into us like a scalpel. What function do you attribute to these images? As a director, do you feel the need to wake up your audiences, to keep them alert?

C.B.: At the moment I’m not thinking much about the audience. I’ll be thinking about them on the first night, ten minutes before the applause. For the moment, I’m trying to understand the work, to understand the music and, above all, I’m trying to navigate through the work with the singers. In this way our fantasies and dreams emerge. Our individual visions of the work converge and create a little cosmos. The video images form the experimental field for these visions.

Do you think video is the medium the most able to express the unconscious?

C.B.: Yes, in any case, I wanted to try. It’s like a poem. Images come together and collide with each other. I sometimes write poetry. I enjoy it.

You have a very raw manner of portraying the human body, with scenes of partial nudity. Are you obsessed by bodies?

C.B.: All my life I’ve nurtured an obsession for bodies. Since childhood, I’ve loved the paintings of Goya and Rubens: Rubens' bodies stripped bare have always impressed me. The skin is a marvellous substance, but also something perishable, that disappears. I’ve seen my fair share of sick and dead bodies, alas. I slept with my father until he died. In the same bed beside him. I’ve seen how the body departs, how the air escapes as it disappears, little by little, through the mouth. Those are images that remain profoundly anchored in me.

The way you focus on the skin and ageing in your production is particularly poignant. Suddenly, the complex tragedy of this mythological king becomes a universal drama of the human condition with which it is impossible not to identify. One thinks of the words of Paul Valéry: “The most profound part of man is his skin.”

C.B.: I feel very close to that idea. The skin is something we all have in common, and which renders the drama of this foreign king universal. Our skin is also something very transparent and fragile. You can know a person thanks to their skin, you can read it like a landscape. Skin with moles is like a starry sky.

How do you get so much physical commitment from your singers?

C.B.: I try to give them very simple physical directions: how to position their bodies, what energy to put into a movement… Because everything is physical, everything is movement. All is fantasy, imagination, but the body… How can I put it? We’ve only got one. It’s what we are.

Everything is physical, all is imagination… That’s quite a paradox. You seem to centre on the tension between the singers’ physical incarnation of their roles and their interior world. Is this the driving force in your work?

C.B.: Exactly. I have nothing more to add. I don’t really know how to explain things. Sometimes I write or take photos. What I do best is to observe people. I watch them: how they move, how they speak… But often these are things that can’t be explained. We don’t have the words. And sometimes words are very misleading, aren’t they?

Interviewed by Simon Hatab and Milena Mc Closkey
Translated from Milena Mc Closkey's French translation of the original Spanish

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