Encounters

All the same, men and women alike

Interview with Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker — By Wannes Gyselinck

The Opera has invited choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker to stage Mozart's Così fan tutte. Literally: "All women behave the same way." The choreographer returns to the ambiguities of Così, misogynist for some, a forerunner to feminism for others.

Cosi fan tutte is often accused of being a misogynist work. What is your opinion on the question?

Così fan tutte received an unusual welcome. Mozart composed the opera in 1790, a year after the French Revolution and a year before his death. These two shadows hover over the opera. This explains why, musically speaking, this comedy expresses a feeling of loss. We sense a farewell to life and a farewell to an era. The first unanimously acclaimed performances were followed by the sudden death of Joseph II, head of the Holy Roman Empire. He was not only Mozart's patron and protector, but also one of the most illustrious political figures of the Enlightenment. In particular, he had reformed marital law so that women could give their consent before marrying. In other words, they were able, for the first time, to choose their partner. After the French Revolution and the Terror came the bourgeois restoration with its stricter morals, at the expense of women, as always. In this transformed climate, Così fan tutte suddenly seemed too light, too frivolous, too sexually explicit. No doubt, the libretto was also responsible, walking the tightrope as it does between opera buffa and opera seria, between comic and serious.
The opera is not misogynous, quite the contrary. Both interpretations - misogyny and excessive frivolity – reveal, I feel, superficial reading. Above all, superficial listening. Prima the musica, dopo le parole. First the music, then the words. For it is in the music that everything is played out. The music transforms the burlesque banality of this boulevard comedy into a deeply melancholic, almost cosmic-religious contemplation on the relationship between desire and death, and on the complexity of the human soul. Especially the music of the female characters. In reality, the men are portrayed as idiots. They act like machos. Only their wives' faithfulness counts, it is a question of honour vis-à-vis other men. To be cuckolded, betrayed by another man, was the supreme humiliation. 


Could it be said that Mozart was a precocious feminist, in this case?

We are sure that in the last years of his life Mozart was very much influenced by the Enlightenment thinkers. Their ideas, which would eventually trigger the French Revolution, circulated in secret Viennese societies of which Mozart was a member - Freemasons, Rosicrucians and other esoteric clubs. To use the vocabulary of the Freemasons, these places were true workshops where they sought ways to transform the existing order on the basis of Reason. Don Alfonso's experiment should be read as a proposal to fundamentally challenge and reassess the established order between men and women, based on reason. It is a typical Enlightenment project. Mozart adds a critical dimension to this project through music. As Don Alfonso's lesson in moral is expounded, the music takes on no triumphant tones, something unheard-of in an opera finale. It also holds back somewhat in the arias where Mozart gives wings to his characters' thoughts and to the complex hues of their sentimental lives, especially those of the women. The music takes on a depth that suggests the volcanic potential of animal desire and instincts, as well as their vulnerability. The fact that the dramatic and musical summits of the arias are those of the female characters owes nothing to chance. If Mozart suggests anything, it is that the sentimental life of women is more serious and more profound than that of men. Don Alfonso's moral lesson may perhaps shelter you from naivety or even the bruises of love, but Mozart seems to have strong doubts that placing all our trust in reason can make us happy.    


Should we conclude that the music casts a shadow over the moral lesson of the Enlightenment?

Yes, but the libretto is also less naive than one might think. Despina, the slightly older maid, is the female counterpart of Don Alfonso. While the men supposedly go off to war, she obliges the women, afflicted and left at home, to face reality. "Do you really think your fiancées who have gone to war will remain faithful? My young doves, have no illusions. Instead of sitting sobbing, do as I do, go hunting!" She makes a plea for feminine autonomy, for pleasure and a sense of reality. The process they undergo invites them to take a new look at relations between men and women.
For the men too, Ferrando first, make the unsettling observation that they may be in love with two women at the same time and that their courtly and aristocratic notion of love is too simplistic. By trading their traditional uniforms for the exotic clothes of Albanian soldiers, they open a door that allows them to escape protocols. All of a sudden, love becomes a terra incognita, a laboratory where it is possible to carry out experiments without knowing the result in advance, even for the men. Così fan tutte's plot is often compared to a chemical process: four characters are merged and the audience observes the result.
© Anne Van Aerschot

If "Cosi" is an alchemical experiment, what is the gold produced at the end?

It's a tricky question. Because the new interactions, the newly-formed couples, are undone at the end. All the actors come out of the experiment in tatters. Nothing has changed in appearance, yet nothing can be as before. At the beginning of the opera, they possess an idealistic and naive idea of love. Love is eternal, unconditional, ultimate. This is unrealistic and even unreal: the men take their wives for goddesses; the women swoon in front of the portraits of their lovers. Actually, they are all in love with an idea. One cannot call it romanticism, for that is yet to come. Let's just say that their ideas about love are conventional. They are part of existing societal structures that serve to contain instincts and passions.
More so in women. The symbolic gold lies, therefore, in the invitation to accept more complex, less naive and more adult ideas about love. In my opinion, this is the true moral lesson: yes, it will hurt, love is indeed complicated, disturbing, uprooting; but nobody can do anything about it. We are very far from the "heroines" of romantic operas who go mad through love, or, deceived or abandoned, take their own lives in a Lucia di Lammermoor-style fit of hysteria. Isn't it in these romantic operas that we find true misogyny?


You mention the presence of extremely melancholic passages in the opera. How would you explain them?

The period during which Mozart wrote the opera can also be seen as a transformation in the alchemical sense. The French Revolution, the transmission of power from the aristocracy to the bourgeoisie, also bids farewell to the established order and heralds a quest for other possible forms. But these elements are not enough to explain the music's melancholy, which often occurs at times when the text is relatively commonplace. Take for example the two couples' moment of separation, in Soave sia il vento, when the men supposedly leave for war.
The music goes much further than the plot itself. Few pieces of music express with such nuance and force the relation between desire and death. Wherever the word "desire" is sung, Mozart places a chord containing an unknown, almost modern dissonance.
Desire is brought into tension from a harmonic point of view. The same thing happens in Le Nozze di Figaro when Barbarina loses her pin in the grass. She sings that she cannot find her pin and fears that the intrigue will be divulged. The statement could hardly be more banal on the surface. But the music is elegiac in beauty. Mozart expresses here a feeling of loss that we can frankly describe as existential. It is tempting to consider this scene in the light of his approaching and far-too premature death. In Mozart, this moment echoes a consciousness of concrete finitude, and also suggests a consciousness integrated into the whole.

How do you manage this tension between the libretto and the music in your staging?

The function of dance is to underline the tension between text and music, and even at times to emphasise it. As in Vortex Temporum, every musician, every singer in this case, is doubled by a dancer. This duplication creates a third visible voice alongside the music and the text. It was above all because of the music that, despite my doubts about opera as a medium, I accepted the Paris Opera's invitation: it is so full of movement, both bodily and emotional. Taking music as a starting point, I hope to attain a higher degree of abstraction, and through it discover the essence of the work. In most productions, the beauty and depth of the music is drowned under draperies, costumes, doors that open and close.
No effort is spared to make the intrigue and psychology clear. It is precisely these aspects that interest me the least. In this respect, Michael Haneke is the exception that confirms the rule. His approach was very realistic, yet his staging was masterful. Others update the situation, like Peter Sellars who transposes the story into a modern American diner and insists on the buffa aspect. My objective is different again: to use dance to disperse the tension between the instincts of life and death. How can we make Mozart's ideas readable or better still tangible, without interpreting them? How can dance elevate the anecdotal dimensions of the plot to a higher, more human, even cosmic level? How can we ensure that we are not talking about men and women but about masculine and feminine energies?   

What attracts you least for the moment in the classic man/woman dance scenario?

I am more interested in recursive phenomena that go beyond this biological polarity. It's not that I deny this polarity, but I seek to translate it into a more abstract form. I find it less and less interesting to embody it in its most primary and instinctive form - man set against woman. Just what interests me about dance is the possibility it offers to materialize the most abstract ideas. This development is also linked to aging: I feel a greater need for formalism in writing, to touch more on the essence of things.


Wannes Gyselinck is senior editor of rekto:verso.

This production of Così fan tutte will be first performed on January 26, 2017 at the Palais Garnier in Paris and will run until February 19, 2017. o

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