Parlando: The COC Blog

2/15/2012

Interview with Kaija Saariaho, Part One

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 of part one of their interview (check back tomorrow for part two):

Kaija Saariaho: I was preparing this opera for many years and it was a very gradual process. I spent a couple of years looking for a story and only when I had found the story did I begin actively thinking about the opera. I was then constantly composing other music during this time, and then little by little I had a more clear idea about what kind of opera I would like to write. From these first ideas until the actual moment when the musical score was finished, I worked for eight years. So it was a very a long process, but of course I wasn’t only working on this opera, I was writing other music, but it was in the back of my mind and I advanced quite slowly in fact in trying to understand what kind of opera I really wanted to write. But I’m not able to explain it the same way.

Jeremy Elbourne: What was your interest in Jaufré Rudel, and what made you think he would be a good subject for an opera?

KS: I found a little in a book by a French poet, Jacques Roubet, who is also a medievalist. I found a story which was like the official biography of Jaufré Rudel. In medieval times, one constructed these biographies which were more or less imaginary in fact, after the death of the troubadours and singers. It was only a couple of lines and I liked it a lot because it was readable like a fairy-tale, but in these couple of lines were things that interested me very much. There was the contrast of two cultures; there was his distant love; the whole problem—how can you fall in love with somebody you don’t know? In fact you fall in love with the image that you create in your mind. There was the fact of him travelling over from one culture to another; the encounter of the two lovers and his death. And I was also really interested in how the other lover reacts to the death—how we all react to death.

So I was also interested in the fact that Jaufré is dying when he arrives to Tripoli—how Clémence the lover will then react to his death. Because I’m interested in the human reaction when we lose someone we love. So there were all these elements in this simple story that I felt that we could develop and then add things to—develop musically. I wanted to have something quite simple so there was a lot of space for music. Of course I was then interested in Jaufré's real personality and I learned to know his music and so on. But it is really the story which is the starting point of the opera.

JE: Was it his actual music that influenced your compositional style, though?

KS: I did see one manuscript of one of his most famous songs. I was not really able to read it...it’s written in different notation. But I did copy it for myself. I did not try to read and listen really to his music before I had written the opera—I actually did afterwards.

JE: What did the librettist bring to this piece? He comes from Lebanon, so was there a lot of his personal experience that came into this?

KS: In this project, I think most aspects of the libretto came from myself, because I had been thinking about it for a long time before I began collaborating with the librettist Amin Maalouf. But of course it helped that he knew the historical period already—he had written about it before—and he had written about the Western pilgrimages, pilgrims going over and so on. And I’m sure he did add some colours and understanding of the smells and spices that are in Tripoli and which I think can be found now in the music.

JE: You’re Finnish. This piece was commissioned for the Austrian Salzburg Festival, I think you were living in Paris at the time, and of course it’s set in France and Tripoli. Was there a reason to write in French?

KS: Well I’ve lived in France for nearly 30 years now. So that’s the language which I hear all the time around me and the culture I’m familiar with. Also because of the story, it was kind of self-evident that I would write it in French. If I had been composing this opera in Finland, living in Finland, maybe I would have asked the question “Which language should I write this in?” But in this case, and especially collaborating with Amin who lives in Paris also—French is the language he’s constantly writing—so it was again self-evident that it would be in French.

JE: How would you describe the musical language of this piece? I’m interested in how you approached the music and what your intent was in creating that language.

KS: Before starting this composition, I spent a lot of time preparing and thinking and of course reading many scores. I felt that often in contemporary opera the problem is that the musical language is too uniform. That it somehow creates a kind of grey quality which goes against the dramatic events. I felt that it’s really important in this music that I open the boundaries of my own musical language. There are elements in the conversational work which I would not use in my concert music, for instance. Every personality has its own music—the music of Jaufré Rudel, there were things like parallel fifths, or the fifth interval is very present…this has to do of course with medieval Western music. And the music of Clémence, which is closest to my own musical language, for instance in my orchestration I’m using a lot of parallel orchestration, octaves, things like this, which remind us a bit of Oriental music. So you are right, I wanted to create the contrasts in many levels and because this opera is very much about different feelings, different thoughts, different atmospheres, I wanted to have it sound quite contrasting.

JE: Could you maybe speak a little bit to each of the characters, and what you were trying to do both musically and dramatically with them? They all go on kind of physical and different types of journeys—what each of those journeys are for those characters? Is there any one of them that you personally associate with?

KS: Well, Jaufré Rudel is an artist. He is a creator, but also a prince. So he has lived a vain life, maybe like some successful movie stars today. He’s had a certain success. And he comes to a point in his life where he needs to have something more spiritual; he realizes that his life has been very superficial. And maybe that’s the moment when he hears about this countess, this lady who is so beautiful and so pure—who then becomes really the perfect object of his love. The question is of course, What does he really know about her? It’s also because of the timing of his life that he needs to find something else and he needs to find a purpose, something more profound. And all this gives him the occasion to fall in love with Clémence, to leave his earlier life. The idea of going to see the real Clémence seems therefore like a very good idea! But during the actual journey he realizes the craziness—he doesn’t know anything about this lady and he left all his earlier life because of her. I think that because he gets so scared of what he will encounter that he becomes ill, and finally really dies.

Then there is Clémence, who was born in France and brought then to Tripoli. She finds that it’s not her country and cannot even really remember how France was…but she has this nostalgia for this country. When she hears that there is somebody thinking of her, singing of her, it’s exactly what she needs to dream about life as she would like it to be. Therefore she also falls in love with the idea, but she falls in love with the music—since, what does she know about the man! Nothing at all.



Then there is the pilgrim, who is like Destiny. Destiny who is sewing these two lives together. Is she a real person? I’m not sure. Peter Sellars, who made the first staging, he was convinced that the pilgrim fell in love with Clémence. He thought that the songs she or he sang (because we don’t really know the gender of the Pilgrim) to Clémence were not Jaufré's songs, but her own. She’s kind of a mysterious personality.

What is my relation to these three persons? For a long time, I didn’t know what my relation was. I was somehow quite embarrassed when people asked why I chose this story of a French troubadour. I said “I don’t know! It just somehow appears to me, the subject matter and everything is told in a way that seems so proper to me." And then at some point, when I was quite advanced in composing the score, suddenly I realized that I am Jaufré, I am Clémence, and I am the Destiny who tries to bring these three together, or these two lovers together. I am the woman, and I am the composer, and I am trying to live the life of the two.

Top photo: (left to right) acrobat Antoine Marc, Russell Braun as Jaufré, acrobat Ted Sikström and acrobat Annie-Kim Déry (in the air) in a scene from the Canadian Opera Company production of Love from Afar, 2012.

Second photo: (left to right) Krisztina Szabó as the Pilgrim, acrobat Sandrine Mérette, clowns/puppeteers Mark Andrada and Marla Brennan, Russell Braun as Jaufré (on swing) and acrobat Evelyne Allard.

Bottom photo: (left to right) Krisztina Szabó as the Pilgrim 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