A Taste for Opera. Interview with composer Cezary Duchnowski

His opera “Martha’s Garden” premières today at the Wrocław Opera at the festival Musica Electronica Nova and will enter the repertoire on our stage.

Magdalena Talik: Your opera “Martha’s Garden” was written at the request of the Minister of Culture and National Heritage. How did this job start? Did you get any requirements in terms of the composition?

Cezary Duchnowski: No, it’s simply a ministerial programme. In addition to the guidelines, which I imposed upon myself when submitting the application, there were no others.

What were your guidelines?

I wanted to write a piece reinterpreting the opera form in historical perspective. For specific musicians, with a hint of improvisation, which is not important in terms of musical content, but in terms of its reading. As far as the dualistic division of the opera resulting from history is concerned (the narrative layers, the recitatives and arias) there are also moments that are a bit like recitatives and arias, but I see them differently than tradition would make me treat them. Arias were the most important solo voice parts in operas. With me they are just solo parts, but for instruments. In fact, they tell the story in arias and “liberate” the story recorded earlier. I did not want to impose any content on the instrumentalist. They improvise, but what they play is not important because it triggers the expression of those things that are determined by me on the computer.

In the context of “Martha’s Garden” most often two terms are used: chamber opera and multimedia opera. Many theoreticians prophesy the death of opera. How would you define this form?

I’m not a great expert or researcher, but I think that opera is evolving as a genre, in that its means of performance change. At some point in history we had such a problem that, despite technological advancement with major impact on the performance, opera has just “stopped”. For me, today it is a stage form, where in contrast to theatre time is designated by music and by the dramatic character of a situation. If we were to adopt this definition, we gain new opportunities to implement other forms of stage achievements in the field of opera. What is new is what opera has taken over from contemporary theatre without losing its identity. As with all the multimedia solutions I implement in “Martha’s Garden.”

Would you then agree that it is a multimedia opera? You call “Martha’s Garden” a chamber opera in your writings.

It can be defined in two ways. I have described it as a chamber opera in terms of the choice of performance measures, but it is much of a multimedia type. All the media participating in “Martha’s Garden” are synchronized with each other, and are highly interactive. Live music influences electronic music, as live performers precisely affect the audiovisual aspect. When the opera was staged during Warsaw Autumn, yet a third sub-title was invented: an opera performance. I wanted to keep the performativity of the situation, that is when the musicians are exhibited, in a visual sense, on the stage. However, I am not interested in the instrumental theatre convention, where the musicians try to be actors. I want them to carry out their task as musicians. The viewer, however, regards them as people participating in the staging. To me this form is closer to the theatre of Jerzy Grotowski.

Piotr Jasek wrote the libretto. Once again, you are using his text. This is a story of a girl and a boy, and the relationship between them, but it does not seem to have any plot as such.

The story told is more of an excuse for some philosophical considerations. The libretto is about passing away. That’s the main theme. All the threads that run through are just an excuse to discuss that problem. The libretto is constructed with a few stories by Piotr Jasek. I persuaded him into doing it because I wanted to present it that way. On stage a girl falls in love with a guy who secretly steals apples from her garden. That’s the whole complicated theme where she transforms into her own mother and then her grandmother. One person represents these three characters. The same is true in the case of the boy, who becomes his own grandfather. All the stories touch upon the problem of passing away. We most yearn for what we don’t have but when we get it, it stops being tasty. I wanted to create a situation with music when death forms a part of an ongoing cosmic order. Hence the loop motif, the circle.

You wrote that this opera can be played with any instruments.

In terms of scores, they may be any instruments. “Martha’s Garden,” however, was written for specific performers. Even with the first shows I had to rely on artists who know how to work with the computer. At the beginning, the opera was played with six computers; each instrumentalist operated their own. Today we can use new opportunities, new computers, and the situation can be optimized so as to free the artist from the additional electronic equipment. The more so in the case of this production: there will be some new artists of the Wrocław Opera.

Is the opera still a kind of summary or culmination for a phase in the artistic path of a composer?

To me, in a sense it is so, because “Martha’s Garden” closed a period of my work in terms of the language used, the resources developed, the way the narrative was lead, my treatment of musicality as such, an idiom of improvisation. I am an active performer, an improviser.

But the key parts will be performed by your regular collaborators. First of all, your muse, the composer and soprano singer Agata Zubel.

She is my particular muse. At several points I count on her sensitivity and expression. In “Martha’s Garden” there are fragments that can be sung by any female solo artist. However, we managed to invite Agata, of which I am very glad, because I would not like to experiment with that part. The pianist, cellist and drummer from the Wrocław Opera are new. We won’t hear Andrzej Bauer or Jacek Kochan. I always played the piano myself, but I gave my part to the fantastic Justyna Skoczek.

Besides Agata Zubel the audience will see the male actor Eryk Lubos. You often make shared projects but nevertheless it’s probably rare that an actor frequently takes part in the creation of musical works.

He is musically sensitive, but he does not sing. He plays the role of an actor in the show. This field of search is for me. I use the melody of words, not the sonoristic one, but the semantics. The meaning of words also imposes a certain idea and melody. In this regard, I use an actor to create the purely musical parts. Eryk is great in doing that. I use him as a frontman.

Do you sit down at a laptop?

In the original, there was a part for a DJ. Here, I resigned from it in favour of the laptop part for a person who operates a laptop and a microphone operator who records various things to serve as material for improvisation later. I perform in the role of a music manager who combines all the elements together. I would not like to use the term “director” because it is attributed to purely theatrical forms. I know just what I want to see and hear.

And what will we see? I’m thinking about the staging aspect.

The main idea of this opera was interaction. So it was the cooperation of all the electronic media, including the visuals inscribed in the score. Yet the creators are responsible for specific contents. To collaborate on visualization I invited Maciek Walczak from Łódz. I’ve already had an opportunity to work with him. We came up with our vision for the presentation of these projections on a couple of screens that will be standing in front of the performers, behind and between them.

Will it be a different staging than the one at the Warsaw Autumn Festival?

Completely different. There we were locked up in an openwork structure of hanging ropes we could project images on while everyone was visible. In Wrocław, originally the audience were to sit around the performers. However, with the light director we had to adjust it to the classic setting of the Wrocław Opera. Such surroundings do not discourage me. Sometimes they provide an impulse to post-modern type of thinking. I’m sorry just for one thing. Originally, “Martha’s Garden” was to be the first Polish opera in 3D. Unfortunately, we did not have enough resources to make the project happen.

Is “Martha’s Garden” an impulse for further such works or rather a one-time journey into the world of opera? In short, did you want to check it out or have you acquired a taste for opera?

I have certainly acquired a taste for opera and I would love to continue my adventure with contemporary opera. Not necessarily in the same entourage in the sense of the libretto, but a combination of staging with music is very intriguing. Rather that approaching drama, I will approach performances or multimedia.

Interview: Magdalena Talik

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