Andrei Șerban: An interview

The first time I talked with Andrei Șerban was in Iași, at the premiere of Les Indes Galantes. I was choked with emotion and I congratulated him on the performance, but I forgot to ask him for an autograph on his book, A Biography. Then, I met him at The Trojan Women, in Iași again, where he had become the doorman of his own performance, and he was guiding the spectators in the backstage of the theatre, calm and smiling, like a host inviting us in his home. In fact, he was inviting us in his life: the theatre in its most pure form, that of Euripides, the antique theatre, the ideal one. Like a madman, I said hello to him again, as if we had known each other for ages, when I saw him at the opening night of La bohème directed by his friend, Nicky Wolcz, in Iași, where I was amazed by what was happening in this theatre, in such a short time. I have thought several times about trying to make an interview with him. I didn’t know what to ask him. What can one ask Andrei Șerban after seeing an opera production directed by him? What can one ask after The Trojan Women? It seemed to me that, whatever I would have said, it would have been silly.

And now here I was, in front of Andrei Șerban, and I felt I was not prepared. I had received the ok for the interview the day before and all the questions on my list seemed ridiculous. I had just left the opera after his Lucia, a performance after which one needs a long walk, in the cold air of the night, in order to get back to his senses and to be able to speak again, full of the tension of the most true story in the world of the most sublimated genre, the belcanto, where even the most harrowing tragedy instantly becomes a caricature if it is not sung by Maria Callas. And Andrei Șerban can replace Maria Callas. In that very place where she put a vocal accent and transformed the sound in acute pain, he puts a gesture that makes your pupils dilate with emotion. In that very place where she sang a phrase that cut your breath, he shows you an image that make you choke with emotion. What can you ask? I had only 10 minutes for this discussion….

I think he had known me by now and he was wondering who was this guy who kept on saying hello to him. In front of me I had a man who did not show his 71 years, he seems a teenager who has grown so tired, that he got 50 years older. And he had a calm look. He was just waiting for me, patiently, to ask him something. It seemed to me he had waited for an eternity until I started to tell him all sorts of things, almost unable to stop.

As I always do, I will transcribe the conversation word by word. Alas, I cannot transcribe the 200 beats/minute pulse of my heart…

Andrei Serban

Despre Opera: The first question is the reference to doctor Charcot. In your book, An Autobiography, you mention him as a reference about the premiere in Paris, in 1995. I read this in a polite key, as a reverence to the French civilisation, the fact that you were about the make a production unusual for that time. The reference to doctor Charcot’s patients – in fact, I think this Charcot story is a little overrated these days in Romania, with his hospital, etc… In my opinion, the place where Charcot is best seen is precisely in Lucia’s character, in her fits of madness, and related to doctor Charcot’s patients. What can you tell me about this doctor Charcot, in relation to Lucia di Lammermoor? Did I get it right?

Andrei Șerban: Yes, the idea came as a reaction to the manner of playing Lucia in opera houses all around the world, because if you say: “Let’s make a traditional Lucia…” What does this mean? It means hiding the fact that it is a very tough story.

Despre Opera: Yes, indeed!

Andrei Șerban: A very painful story, about a girl who loses her mind because of the pressures of the society and of her family. Doctor Charcot, or doctor Freud, or any doctor is today the last source we access when we need to heal. I would like to believe that Lucia is, at the beginning, a girl with a healthy mind, with healthy wishes, with normal hopes, like any other girl who wants to love and to marry the one she loves. And everything that goes against this comes from the sickness of the society we live in. We all live today in a sick society, completely corrupt, completely irrational, and crazy and dangerous. Therefore it is not Lucia’s fault, it’s our fault. Or, we are victims, like her. And this belcanto music, that everyone unjustlyconsiders as sentimental and romantic, is such a cliché.

Despre Opera (louder than the first time): Yes!!

Andrei Șerban: A cliché we have to re-examine today. And we re-examine it from the point of view of our times. And the opera must represent the contemporary man’s life, in which the relation with the tradition, the bridge with the tradition must be continuously examined from our point of view, from now. We must not deny it, but we must re-examine it. And what we are doing in this Lucia is simple – we see a girl who develops psychotic problems. Many people have such problems, hidden or declared, very few persons are today completely sane. We are a collectivity of sick persons and maybe this is why this music represents a photo of our interior, of each of us. Therefore, I did what I did not because I wanted to be original, to be shocking, to create controversies, like in Paris, 20 years ago, when, indeed, there were battles in the opera house between the people who hated the naked truth presented on stage in a very cruel form and the people who thought this was extraordinary. Of course, this is not the case anymore, neither in Paris and for sure not in Romania, and this music, that sounds totally different than the romantic music, gives you the creeps. And at the end you recognise that the madness in the mad scene in inside of us and, while watching it, while listening to it, we can free ourselves from all sorts of anxieties, like Lucia. They say that music heals.

Despre Opera: At a certain moment you said that Lucia is a feminine Woyzeck, and you mentioned the play, Woyzeck. You know there is also an opera, Wozzeck

Andrei Șerban: By Alban Berg.

Despre Opera: Ok, then, when are you going to direct a real Wozzeck? I am asking you as a final appeal…

Andrei Șerban: Wozzeck, Alban Berg’s opea, is an extremely modern piece, especially in Romania, where, I think, it has never been staged, it has an extraordinary force and a very shocking style – I do not know if Romania is ready to receive this. I feel that Lucia in another style than the romantic, belcanto one is already a difficult attempt. The audience in Iași received with great warmth this production, but I am wondering if we are prepared for Alban Berg. His Wozzeck is extremely tough and troubling. I would be delighted if someone invited me to direct Wozzeck, but for the moment…

Despre Opera: Talking about Wozzek, we can mention here the name of a Romanian psychiatrist – Ion Vianu, who has written about the political persecutions in the time of Ceaușescu, about the pressures, the institutionalization of the dissidents in psychiatric hospitals, diagnosed with imaginary diseases, just because they dared vocally express their thoughts against Ceaușescu. After 1990, a commission studied these abuses. Do you know Ion Vianu? I think you know him personally. (Andrei Șerban nods his head that he knows him very well.)
It was proved that many of the persons who were institutionalised just to be isolated from the society were not abnormal, they did not have any psychiatric problem. Some of them were hospitalized for real reasons, but many were perfectly healthy. And then, linking Lucia from Paris and doctor Charcot, who is French and who could, let’s say, attract the French public to a radical production, I was thinking… Ion Vianu and Wozzeck, in a modern production, in Bucharest… And, why not, in a nonconventional space, let’s say Fort 13 Jilava!

Andrei Șerban: You have very vanguardist ideas and I congratulate you for this. It’s true. The problem is where can we find the money? Because this is something that needs a big budget. A production of Wozzeck needs a huge Wagnerian orchestra, a monumentally vast stage, and Jilava doesn’t have it. About the Ministry of Culture… they are completely indifferent to this Lucia, in Iași, nobody came to see it. The politicians totally despise art and I am wondering if this idea, of producing Wozzek at Jilava, will be possible in the XXIst century. Maybe we have to wait for the XXIInd century, but neither of us will be here any longer.
Thank you!

Despre Opera: I thank you, too. It has been a pleasure talking to you.

I looked at the watch. Exactly 10 minutes. Dumbfounded, I forgot, once again, the autograph… I remembered and I run after Andrei Șerban, with the same emotion like the previous times. He smiled again, like amused by my shyness, and he asked for the program of an evening I will never forget. For the blog… I mumbled. And… here it is:


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