Parlando: The COC Blog


Interview with Kaija Saariaho, Part Two

Our director of marketing, Jeremy Elbourne, sat down with Kaija Saariaho to ask about the origins and musical language of Love from Afar, running at the COC this month. Here is the transcript part two of their interview (part one is here):

JE: You mentioned that we don't know if the Pilgrim is male or female. When you say that, do you mean it’s something you intentionally put in there? You’ve obviously written it for a mezzo-soprano, so it’s a female singing the role…It’s kind of ambiguous as to the actual sex of the character, however. Was that intentional?

KS: Yes, I did… In fact, in the first production, it was a woman dressed in men’s clothes when the character was with Jaufré, and it was a man dressed in women’s clothes when the character was with Clémence. Because the Pilgrim is between the two, I wanted to choose a voice in between the baritone and soprano voices, and she is lower with Jaufré, and high with Clémence. Yes, I liked that ambiguity. I think it could even be two different roles, or characters.

JE: Can you talk a little bit about how you saw the role of the chorus?

KS: The chorus in fact replaces two persons. I had imagined in the beginning a Mozart-model, that there would be another couple, maybe; a man with Jaufré, and a woman with Clémence. Then at some point I realized that I don’t have music for these characters. That I’m really only interested in the three main characters. We asked—me and Peter Sellars, who was very interested in the creation of the opera—if Amin Maalouf could imagine only three persons. He had already started sketching material for five persons and I said, “Well couldn’t you then use this material for the chorus?” which he then did. So the male choir became like companions of Jaufré and the Tripolitans became this group of women for Clémence. So I think they have two roles. They really have this concrete role sometimes, but most of the time they are part of the orchestration and in a way the bridge between the vocal writing and the orchestration. In some productions they have been very present on the stage, and been really Jaufré’s friends. In many different productions, they are off-stage as well.

JE: I was kind of struck by looking at the DVD of the original Peter Sellars production, and the COC's production, that there seems to be a uniformity in terms of the actual colour palette that’s used. Especially in relation to Clémence—it’s very bright oranges, yellows, reds. I was just wondering if there was a connection for you between the musical colours you created for the characters and actual physical colours? Did you have a sense of colour palette in your mind when you were composing this?

KS: Yeah, I did. And in fact I don’t remember how much we discussed this with Peter Sellars—maybe not so much in the end—but in fact the colours he used in his production are very much the colours I imagined for the characters. I had many pairs of contrasts when I was creating the form of the piece. I was thinking about Jaufré in his castle with the cold, stone, with the blue of the sea, with the fresh green in his region. And then for Clémence, I was thinking about the warm sun, the sand, the exotic flowers, the spices, warm colours of orange and red.

JE: In your career, you’ve always combined acoustic and electronic music and there was a certain amount of that in this opera too. Could you maybe speak a little bit to what you’re trying to accomplish with that?

KS: In this opera, I’m using electronics in such a way that they are extensions of the orchestration. And the way I’m doing it, I have chosen certain concrete sound material which I am filtering through filters tuned to the same harmony that the orchestra is playing so that it’s supposed to really blend to the orchestration, and it does. Some of the sounds I chose for Jaufré’s material is for example the sea-sound, wind. Ordinarily kind of natural noises, like white noise coming from nature. For Clémence, I had birds, whispering, a woman’s voice whispering some of the texts in Occidental language (which as the language of Jaufré), some of his forms.

JE: As a living composer, having seen eight or nine different productions of this work, what is your feeling about the concept of "composer's intent?" How much possession does a composer have over a work, and can you let go of the work? Do you ever feel that a production is going against your intent?

KS: When we made this production of L’amour de loin, it was my first experience of writing an opera and then going through the whole process—it becoming really a stage work and being performed. So I felt that this is now my opera. And then this first production was re-staged again in Paris, Theatre de Chaclay, and then when the second production was finished I travelled next to Bern where at the same time they were preparing a completely new production of L’amour de loin. The dates were such that I went directly to the premiere of this second production and I had no idea what it was! I was completely shocked. Because it was my first experience, I just couldn’t understand it, how everything could be so different. It was a good production, but I had a feeling that every second was all wrong. Then I had to go on-stage afterwards and the director was there, and very anxious to know my feelings. I couldn’t say anything, I just said I needed to digest this. I think he was very disappointed. But it just took time for me to understand that I wrote the music for an opera and then after there can be different ways of seeing it and presenting it. In fact, that’s something which is very rich.

Then later, now, yes I have seen many different productions of L’amour de loin and my other opera Adriana Mater and I start to live with that. Of course there are some I like a lot, and then there are others that I don’t quite understand. But now I accept it completely. I think that’s how it is with operas. Of course, with a contemporary opera I think and I hope that directors will keep in their mind that there isn’t a tradition for this opera, like with Don Giovanni—if you’re an opera lover, you go to see “What are they doing with Don Giovanni”—but when you see L’amour de loin, they go to see this opera. And so, I hope that the directors will not go to the second degree and make it really a new interpretation of my work. It seems to me that sometimes they have to do this, because the first production of Peter Sellars is very strong, and people sometimes feel that they don’t want to be influenced by that, and that they need to do something very different.


JE: Have you learned anything about the piece from other people’s interpretation of it?

KS: I think I’ve learned a lot about the piece and I think it’s wonderful to see how differently one can look at this opera and these characters, how differently they can be interpreted. And yet they are always the same persons. The music always comes through beautifully. I think that’s really fantastic.

JE: Could you talk about the relationship you have with the different conductors that have gone through the piece? I imagine sometimes you speak to them, sometimes you don’t. How does that relationship work?

KS: L’amour de loin has been conducted by many different conductors now, of course because even the same production will be conducted several times by different people. I feel that always that the first performance is the most demanding, and even if the music doesn’t change, somehow the fact of a first-time performance is always very tough. And then when the music starts living, I feel that it becomes easier for the people to do it afterwards. Not even that they would really listen to the recordings that exist already, but somehow you know, there are some details that we need to correct, and then the music becomes much more easily performable. The longer the piece has been living its life, the less intervention I make with the conductors. But I have not yet heard bad performances of L’amour de loin, so I have had a lot of luck that it has been performed by wonderful people!

JE: When I first became familiar with this piece, what it reminded me of the most from the story and contemporary perspective, is almost a very modern internet based relationship. It’s 10 years old now in terms of when you began composing, was that sense of contemporary communication—ironically, how its music easier to communicate with someone at a larger distance without actually being there—was that kind of very contemporary situation at the back of your mind at all when you were writing this piece?

KS: I didn’t think internet-love really when I wrote this piece because I think the question is very, very general. Even if you fall in love with somebody who is in front of you, it’s very often you fall in love the image of that person, or you fall in love with things that you want to see in that person and not really as the person is. And so I think that was in my mind. But there has been, by the way, one of the productions has been this kind of internet-love based, and I have taken this as an example of today when sometimes people have told me, “What does a troubadour’s story have to do with us today? Isn’t it a historical story, and there is no connection with today.” Then I have said, Well, I think it happens today more than ever, because of these  kinds of communication.

JE: Final question, hopefully not difficult. Do you have a favourite opera, or operas?

KS: I have many favourite operas. I can make a little list: I love Tristan und Isolde, of course; I love Pelléas and Mélisande. I love Don Giovanni and The Magic Flute. I like Jenufa very much. And The House of the Dead. Those are the ones that come to mind first.

JE: When you started composing opera, was it an art form that you were very familiar with at the time, or has it ever evolved?

KS: I did give an interview, in 1986 I think, where I said that I will never write an opera. And this has really haunted me, and many people have asked the question. I think it’s a question of definitions. When I said I would never write an opera, I was thinking about an art form that is very expensive, singers expose their highs notes and get big salaries, and I was thinking of something very old-fashioned and something which has nothing to do with theatre. And this idea of defining opera changed little by little. But really the point which marked me was in 1989. I saw in Paris my first Peter Sellars production, his Don Giovanni, and it was so contemporary, and it was so frank and so touching that I realized that opera could be something very different. Starting from that point I really started to follow much in detail, and that was easy. That time in Paris, there were fantastic productions we could see. It was true that I could not see a lot of in Finland when I was still living there. So I started to really know then, and really learn then actively about opera and its possibilities, towards the end of the eighties.

Top photo: (left to right) Erin Wall as Clémence, acrobat Evelyne Allard, Krisztina Szabó as the Pilgrim and acrobat Annie-Kim Déry.

Second photo: Erin Wall as Clémence.

Third photo: Krisztina Szabó as the Pilgrim (downstage left), Erin Wall as Clémence and Russell Braun as Jaufré (both centre stage).

Bottom photo: (left to right) Acrobat Mariève Hémond and Erin Wall as Clémence.

All photos © Michael Cooper 2012

Posted by Cecily Carver / in 2011/2012 / comments (0) / permalink

Sara Fulgoni in the COC production of Bluebeard's Castle. Photo: Michael Cooper © 2001



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