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Yvonne or the music of non-response

An interview with Philippe Boesmans

Yvonne or the music of non-response

“Why should only beauty attract me, why not a horror?” So asks the prince in Philippe Boesmans' opera Yvonne princesse de Bourgogne. Apathetic, all but mute, and ugly as sin, Yvonne, the wholly abnormal princess has just upended the perfect equilibrium and genteel guise of the court of King Ignace. Based on the play by Witold Gombrowicz, Yvonne, princesse de Bourgogne, the Belgian composer’s opera is returning to the Palais Garnier where it was first performed in 2009 in a Luc Bondy production which is just as scathing as it was back then.  

Yvonne, princesse de Bourgogne was first performed at the Palais Garnier in 2009. How did the opera come into being?

One day, when I was with Luc Bondy at the Aix Festival, Bernard Foccroule suggested we did an opera based on the Witold Gombrowicz play Yvonne, Princess of Burgundy. Like me, Luc, with whom I had collaborated with on a regular basis, was a big fan of Gombrowicz. We had read all his works, except for, in my case, Yvonne, a work from the playwright’s youth. Soon after that suggestion, I got a call from Gerard Mortier who in turn asked me if we had any desire to do “Yvonne” … The idea for the project had already grown legs (laughs)!

After you read it, what aspects of the play appealed to you and seemed compelling enough to be adapted into an opera?

Gombrowicz was not interested in opera but he liked operetta. With “Yvonne”, I thought it would be marvellous to bring to an opera stage the situation where a man asks himself: why don’t I take an ugly woman for a wife? Yvonne is so ugly that everyone is horrified. She causes consternation and disarray. All the characters are affected by her deformity. They cringe in fear at her ugliness which, among other things, is presented as something obscene. Trouble is a theme that Gombrowicz was particularly fond of and one we find in the works he wrote after the play.

By writing an opera in which the title role is not sung, you have basically shattered all the conventions of the genre. From a musical standpoint, how do you bring Yvonne to life among the voices of the other performers?

It’s amusing that the work’s title assumes the name of a character whose role is neither a soprano nor a starring mezzo. Yvonne had to remain a silent role, that was fundamental. She only says two or three words throughout the entire opera. They often ask her questions which remain unanswered. When she doesn’t respond, I get the orchestra to play Yvonne’s music, it’s the “music of non-response”. 

Philippe Boesmans
Philippe Boesmans © Bernard Coutant

When the opera first premiered, you said that the work was like sung theatre and that you had never been so close to the text. How does “Yvonne” differ from your previous works?

“Yvonne” is written in French, unlike my other works which are primarily written in German. When composing an opera, I need to offer audiences works that are similar to a stage play. All the text should be easy to understand. As such, my writing needs to help make the text more accessible. Of course, this requires that the singers are proficient enough speakers of the language. When performing French opera, we often think of voice, and vocal technique. Whereas here, it is the French translation which takes precedence. In opera, the emotions and feelings can be over-developed to excess. That’s not case with “Yvonne”. Things are revealed quickly. It goes straight to the point. There are practically no arias, except for the one for the queen when she reads her dreadful poems. Their mediocrity gave me the material to compose an aria which resembles a parody of Gounod. It’s highly amusing to see a caricature of opera performed on the stage of the Palais Garnier!

I also tried to exaggerate things. In theater, bad actors always overdo things. It is the case with singing which forces exaggeration. Gombrowicz didn’t like theater, except Shakespeare, and didn’t want us to play “Yvonne”. The only time Gombrowicz ever saw his play on stage was when it was performed by an amateur theatre company whilst he was living in the south of France. He liked the fact that it was played by non-professionals. It gave him the impression that his work reflected a less intellectual style than the one his other writings had commonly been categorised in. I also tried to exaggerate certain things. In the theatre, bad actors always exaggerate things. Here, it is the singing which is exaggerated.  

Could you talk a little about Luc Bondy’s work on the libretto?

Plays are always too long. If this one had been adapted word for word into an opera, we would have ended up with four hours of music. The key is to take the essence of the narrative. Generally, you keep around a third of it. That was true of Julie, Conte d’hiver, which was also created with Luc, and, of course, “Yvonne”. We edited it down while still respecting the four-act structure.  

Did Luc Bondy’s writing and your compositional style influence each other?

We progressed as we went, from the beginning of the play to the end, by interacting with each other every week over a two-year period. I always stayed in contact with Luc when I composed. We exchanged a great deal, but ultimately, I decided. the composer is, I think, the primary dramaturge. He decides how things should be said, be it through the music or the word. Luc wrote me four or five pages and I used that to start composing. Then I would call him on the phone to see if we could reformulate something or change a word in order to make the song clearer. I was completely focused on that notion of clarity, it seemed essential to me that the text be comprehensible. So, we worked together to ensure the effectiveness of the score and an optimal level of comprehension.

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