Johan Reuter: „Œdipe” has never been played in New York, or in Scala, so there are still places for this opera to go.

This interview took place the next day after Œdipe‘s premiere at The Royal Opera House of Covent Garden, in which the Danish bass baritone Johan Reuter had a personal triumph, being intensely applauded at the end of the night. Time passed very quickly and after our dialogue, Johan Reuter was to give a new interview, this time for the BBC. There is one detail I would like to mention, as it is not noticeable in the written form of the interview: Reuter’s pitched voice, with an amazing sound. And when he laughs…

OEDIPE by Georges Enesco; Royal Opera House; Covent Garden; London, UK; 20 May 2016; Johan Reuter as Oedipe; Leo Hussain - Conductor; Àlex Ollé - Director; Valentina Carrasco - Associate Director; Alfons Flores - Set designer; Lluc Castells - Costume designer; Peter van Praet - Lighting designer; Photo: © ROH Photographer: CLIVE BARDA
OEDIPE by Georges Enesco; Photo: © ROH Photographer: CLIVE BARDA

Alexandru Pătrașcu: Is it Œdipe a role for a life?

Johan Reuter: You know, in interviews people usually ask what roles I want to do, and I say that I always try not to have a wish list. Because, if I had a wish list and then I don’t get to sing those roles, I would be very disappointed. For example, I never did Wolfram and I never did Onegin, and these are two parts I would have liked to do, but they never came my way. On the other hand, I did Šiškov, from Janáček’s The House of the Dead, and that’s a great role and I loved doing it. It’s the same thing here. I had never heard about this opera before I got the offer, but I really like to work in London, so, when they said “it’s really an important role and we really want you to do it”, I looked at the score and I said “OK, I can do that, it’s a great thing to do.”  So, you see, maybe I didn’t do Wolfram, but I got to do Enescu’s Œdipe and it’s a fantastic work. And it’s great to bring it here! Of course it has been done, and when people say it’s an unknown opera, of course that’s not true, because it was played in Vienna, for example, so many years ago, so it has been done in a big house before. But, of course, it’s the first time here; it’s never been played in New York, or in Scala, so there are still places for this opera to go. And, of course, it’s a very well-known opera among musicologists, even if not done very often. But I think it’s great to do it here. I remember a long time before I was asked to do it I was talking with people here and they asked me: “Do you have any suggestions about any un-discovered XXth century opera?” and I said “I don’t know, let me think about it”, and then I had this opera. It’s a great piece, incredible.

A.P.: How difficult the role is, because first of all, it’s long…

J.R.: Yes, it’s a lot!

A.P.: You have to sing a lot, but also, is it stressful for your lower or upper register? Are there any musical difficulties in this role that you have to confront, to fight with? 

J.R.: There is nothing impossible to learn. Of course, there are modern pieces which are difficult. For example, with Berg, I think I never did a perfect Wozzeck. I’m getting  close, but always, after each performance, I would say “ah, there was a point where I was… where I just didn’t sing the right notes.” (laughs) You can feel that Enescu was also a musician. He’s writing something that actually is doable. It’s challenging, but you never get to a point where you say “ok, he didn’t know what it is to be a musician”. And the score is also famous for the fact that he wrote so many things about how to do it, not also notes, and rhythms, but also what expression he wants, what kind of colour he wants, what does the timbre change mean, all those things. And you feel he was a musician himself and, as a musician, you can collaborate with him. So, there’s nothing impossible to do. And, of course, it is a very long role, but it is not written in a way that tires you insanely. And, since it’s his first opera and he’s really making it a grand opera, he’s not like “ok, let me try to see”, he’s really going for the full in this first and only opera, I am very impressed about the dynamics. I can go down and do some lyrical things, and then there are some huge outbursts, especially for the chorus, but also for the soloists at some points. So, I really think it’s great with the dynamic range in the piece. There are also a lot of low things, in fact you got a big range, that goes from low E to high A, but I like that. (laughs) I like that variation and I like the possibilities for expression it gives. Possibilities for modern expression and possibilities for playing the role. If you sing something that stays in a beautiful line and stays in a certain part of the voice, like, say, Verdi operas, of course you can do some characterisation with that, but it’s easier to do it. Like when I am complaining about something through my teeth. (he imitates Jago) But there are more modern ways of expressing things. And in this part you really just go through everything, from being very lyrical, very relaxed, very happy even, in the end, and up to extreme rage, just after he’s blinded himself.

A.P.: You know that Enescu, when he was close to finishing the composition and he was trying to make the arrangements with Opéra de Paris, for the premiere, he approached Fiodor Chaliapin to play the title role, but this one declined, saying he was too old for that. But the fact that he thought of him for the role…

J.R.: In fact, I heard just a couple of Enescu’s songs, at the evening organised by the Romanian Cultural Institute here, in London, where I heard a Romanian soprano singing some songs. But in fact Enescu didn’t write a lot of vocal music. He doesn’t seem to use the upper range of the voices a lot. When we have something high lying, it’s just in bursts, you know (he sings very high notes suddenly), and then finish, it’s nothing continuous, you just have to stay up there. And that shows that he is close to the words, he wants to express the words, he writes very close to how you would say the things. And when the music takes over, when the emotion takes over, when the voice takes over from the words, so to speak, Enescu very rarely gets into a really high range in any of the voices in the opera, so that’s a little bit not usual, but personal I would say. And I’m sure that he wants the text to be audible, he looks at the storytelling.  And the pure music is in the orchestra, it’s in the pit.

A.P.: And also I am thinking that Chaliapin was famous at that time for the way he was doing Boris Godunov. And in fact Boris Godunov became famous because of Chaliapin. So, there is this journey of the character through an opera…

J.R.: Yes, that’s right!

A.P.: We have the same journey in Boris Godunov, on a smaller scale, but on a large political scale. And what I like in this production, of La Fura dels Baus, is that this journey of the character is from childhood, young, with his complexes, with the torments produced by the fate he had heard from Apollo, and then to being a hero, and becoming a king… Also, an authoritarian king in a way, but not necessarily a dictator, a tyrant.

J.R.: Yes, you are correct. He’s not  a tyrant.

A.P.: And then wisdom. This is at the end. But also this staging is effectively enlarging the scale of this journey through time. The first act is in Ancient Greece costumes, and then it goes into more contemporary setting, with that plane, which is a relic from the World War II, and then the appearance of Créon, in his uniform. You can very easily see him as the master of a coup d’Etat at some point. And then the utopia, the possible utopia of the XXth century, with Thésée in white and his people in there. The journey of the character in Enescu’s music is even larger in this production. Now, I’ve read an interview you gave a couple of days ago to a blog, where you were saying that, in a way, Œdipe reminds you of Simon Boccanegra. 

J.R.: Yes, there is a bit of that. Also when you see him in different stages in his life, you see him as a young man, then there is a jump in time. It is a little bit of the same journey, to show that thing. And I think it is also typical, I can imagine, as far as I know Chaliapin was around 60 at the premiere of Œdipe, so I think it would have been difficult for him to do act II, where he is supposed to be eighteen or twenty. And I also feel that this is the most difficult part for me to do. But, on the other hand, having a really young singer would probably be a bit of a challenge to get through the evening and to be able to pace that. So, I try to do this. I also think in this production there is no such big emphasis on that Freudian thing. Of course, he’s on that couch, and Mérope is somehow presented as his psychoanalyst, but I think there is an interesting thing in that. It’s also in a journey, because, as you said, this production stretches the time even through the history of mankind, of Western civilisation, but there is a journey in all that. And I think it ’s interesting what you said, that he’s a ruler, he’s a king, a tough guy, he’s violent, he’a aggressive. And the reason why he’s torn apart, that he will kill his father and marry his mother, is within him, it’s part of who he is. And he meets this, he leaves his home, which is quite a strong thing to do! Which is the right thing to do, but it is also difficult. And he fights with it, but, in the end, he says “No, I will fight my fate”. That’s a grand gesture. And also when he meets these three men, he gets a little drunk, he gets mean, and he kills them out of rage. And then somebody sees him and says “If you can conquer this monster, you will become king and you will get the queen”. And he goes: “Oh, yeah, that’s me, I’ll do that!” And when he confronts Tirésias in act III, he’s not being a nice guy. And he’s also himself. So what has been foretold about him is also his character. Oedipus is a man. When you talk about Oedipus complex, what Freud wrote about, it’s about boys. There is a part of them which is like this, there is a kind of aggressivity in them. Aggressivity against the father, to take his place in society, and his roles, to rule the world you live in. And there is a kind of sexual aggressivity, simply put towards the mother, but in fact towards all women, in order to conquer the world. And it’s interesting, because all this is part of who he is. He can try to fight his destiny, but it’s not only about the things he had been foretold about, it’s in him, he has to do it. And in the end, when he says “I conquered destiny”, well, he didn’t.

A.P.: No, he didn’t!

J.R.: He did the things that were foretold. But I think that in fact he says “I conquered destiny BECAUSE I did it. I conquered destiny because in the end I DID it.” He embraced what was in him, he embraced what was going to happen to him. And he accepts it, even if he doesn’t like it. In the end he says “OK, I did it, but I DID it. It was my life. And I fought it, and that’s a very interesting thing.” And he says that “I conquered destiny.” No, you didn’t. “I fought it, but in the end I had to accept it and to accept who I am, also the fact that I did these bad things.”

OEDIPE by Georges Enesco; Royal Opera House; Covent Garden; London, UK; 20 May 2016; Johan Reuter as Oedipe; Alan Oke as Shepherd; Leo Hussain - Conductor; Àlex Ollé - Director; Valentina Carrasco - Associate Director; Alfons Flores - Set designer; Lluc Castells - Costume designer; Peter van Praet - Lighting designer; Photo: © ROH Photographer: CLIVE BARDA
OEDIPE by Georges Enesco; Photo: © ROH Photographer: CLIVE BARDA

A.P.: And also, there is a lot of denial in his actions before that. I mean he’s bitter and somehow refuses to leave Thebes. 

J.R.: Yes, which is also very strange. Why does he do that? Why is he angry with them, with the Thebans? Why doesn’t he want to leave? If I were him, I would say “I’d better find another place! This was horrible and I want to move on.” He even knows that somewhere in the future there is this place, where he can die peacefully and where everything will end well. And before he says “Why do you throw me out?”, he says “OK, I have to leave”, he simply says that. “I’m alone, what should I do? I have to leave this place.” He knows that. And still he’s angry with them.

A.P.: Therefore his remark, which is very much embraced in Romania as being the key to the whole significance of the opera, “I conquered the gods, I conquered the destiny”, means “At least I fought, at least I tried to do that”.

J.R.: “I did my best”.

A.P.: This staging here, in the Royal Opera House, of course, it’s modern, and the score is a little bit abridged: there is a scene…

J.R.: Yes, the ballet scene! But that’s the only thing, right?

A.P.: Yes, as far as I know, it’s the only scene that was cut. But the staging is like an action movie. At the end I was like “Why was it that short? I would have liked it to be longer”.

J.R.: Yes, for me it was the same, very intense, as I don’t have a break at all, because in the times I am off stage I am changing, you know… I’m getting older, or I’m getting more dirty, etc, there’s something happening all the time. Even in the big break I have no break at all, because I am getting ready for act III, I’m getting twenty years older. And there’s lot of stuff to do: fight scenes, and mud, and blood and talking, and rolling around on floor…

OEDIPE by Georges Enesco; Royal Opera House; Covent Garden; London, UK; 20 May 2016; Johan Reuter as Oedipe; Leo Hussain - Conductor; Àlex Ollé - Director; Valentina Carrasco - Associate Director; Alfons Flores - Set designer; Lluc Castells - Costume designer; Peter van Praet - Lighting designer; Photo: © ROH Photographer: CLIVE BARDA
OEDIPE by Georges Enesco; Photo: © ROH Photographer: CLIVE BARDA

A.P.: How did you feel the reaction of the public?

J.R.:  First of all, very focused audience. You can feel that, because there are these very, very silent moments, and I could really feel that people were very focused and very serious about the whole piece. So, that’s nice!

A.P.: Because, being a modern opera, it cannot be liked by everybody.

J.R.: No, of course not.

A.P.: There is an opera audience which is very conservative. They come here waiting for something like Donizetti and then they are disappointed.

J.R.: Yes, but most of them know what they are going to hear… And there is a good audience for things like that. I remember I did a world premiere for a British opera some years ago, by Sir Harrison Birtwistle, also here (The Minotaur, 2007-2008 and 2012-2013, n.n.), and it was very popular, and it sold so well, they had it for two seasons, so I am sure there is an audience for this, and I’m also sure that these performances are quite well sold, so people are eager to hear and see these things, even if it’s not the kind of society opera. I’m sure there will be a good audience for this.

A.P.: Thank you very much!

J.R.: I thank YOU!