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


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’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

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

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