Impresii dintr-o altă lume
This interview was taken the day after the premiere of Œdipe at Bucharest National Opera.
Argentine director Valentina Carrasco makes her Royal Opera debut in the 2015/16 Season on Œdipe, co-directed with Àlex Ollé and originally produced for La Monnaie, Brussels.
Carrasco was born in Buenos Aires and studied music, dance and literature there. She moved to Paris to work in film and joined La Fura dels Baus in 2000. Her opera work with La Fura dels Baus includes Die Zauberflöte (Teatro Real, Madrid, Paris Opéra), Duke Bluebeard’s Castle/The Diary of One Who Disappeared (Paris, Barcelona, Tokyo, Kobe), Das Rheingold and Die Walküre (Maggio Muiscale, Florence, and Palau de les Arts Reina Sofía, Valencia), Stockhausen’s Michaels Reise um die Erde with Carlos Padrissa (Vienna Festwochen, Festival d’Automne, Paris, Cologne Philharmonie and Venice Biennale) and Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny, also with Padrissa (Teatro Real, Madrid, Bolshoi, Moscow, Athens). She has co-directed with Ollé Le Grand Macabre (English National Opera, Liceu, Barcelona, La Monnaie, Rome Opera, Adelaide Festival); her credits as associate director with Ollé include Francesconi’s Quartett (La Scala, Milan, Holland Festival) and Tristan und Isolde (Opéra de Lyon). Her solo directing credits include Der Ring des Nibelungen (Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires), The Turn of the Screw (Opéra de Lyon), Respighi’s La bella dormente nel bosco (Opéra national du Rhin) and Don Giovanni (Perm). She choreographed Luc van Hove’s La Strada (Opera Vlaanderen).
Carrasco has also worked on various large-scale multi-media shows including Windows of the City for the Shanghai Universal Exposition, and the plays XXX, Metamorphosis and Matria.
(Source: Royal Opera House)
About Opera: So, tell me something about La Fura dels Baus. You are part of it, as far as I know.
Valentina Carrasco: Yes, for already a bit more than 15 years. It started as a very experimental group in the 80s. Actually, in 1979 was the first show and it was the breakthrough in the post-Franco times in Spain, where a lot of new things were happening. In Spain there is a rich tradition of street performance, of traditional feast and everything, so there are a lot of street performances. They mixed this language, the original street performing situation, with a new kind of aesthetics, a new kind of language, coming also from the post-industrial sort of looks, and they came out with this very specific performing way, like going through the audience, with no stage, and from there they grew out to do big outdoor shows, like the Olympic Games opening in 1992, for example. Then they were called to do one first opera in Granada, and then they were invited by Gérard Mortier to the Salzburg Festival. So then they went to different regions, without leaving behind completely the other languages, of course, like street theatre. It is a company that has evolved a lot since the beginning. Now they are a very established company, but before they used to be the outsiders. They have an established name, but they have always been very visual, with strong elements, you know, big scenes, big sets, very visual productions. This is the character of Fura, I would think.
A.O.: Fura dels Baus did the production of Œdipe in La Monnaie?
V.C.: We did it together, with Àlex Ollé, in Brusselles, then we went with it to Buenos Aires. And that’s where they thought to bring that version here, but the sets are very, very big, and it was not possible. So, they asked me if I was available to do a new production here.
A.O.: And the production from La Monnaie will go to the Royal Opera House, in spring.
V.C.: Yes, it’s been the plan for quite a few years.
A.O.: I would like to know how much of the original production of La Monnaie is preserved, as concept, as ideas, in here?
V.C.: No, it’s completely different, this production has nothing to do with that one.
V.C.: No. Maybe there is one thing: the scene with the candles. I wanted to do this scene with candles, but there was this accident (the fire in Colectiv club, n.n.) and then I had to do it with electric candles, which do not work so nicely. And here I wanted to do it with real candles, like in Brussels.
But the concept, all the things behind are completely different. In the other production there was no video, for example.
A.O.: I haven’t seen that production and I don’t know if I will go to London to see it.
V.C. (laughs): It’s not your favourite piece.
A.O.: No, not because of that. I would be curious to see it.
V.C.: It’s very different. We thought of a travel in time situation, a travel in history. The ideas are completely different. We have like the portal of a cathedral, the people are completely immobile in the very beginning, in the first act. They are all made of clay, like statues of clay, and they move and they all look very strange. Then we are going to the thing with Meropa, Œdipe’s pretended mother, and the scene is like a psycho-analysis session, where he is analysed by her, he is telling her his dreams of the oracle…
A.O.: On a couch?
V.C.: Yes, on a couch that is the copy of Freud’s couch, actually. And the crossing of the streets is with cars and with people working like trying to fix the street. And then this idea of the Sphinx that I really like a lot, and in fact I came out with it: this creature is a mythological creature and it’s a woman with the hair and hands of a lion and wings. And I thought: a woman, and wings, why is she not an aviator? And I though of a plane, like a Stuka from the Second World War, because actually the city, Thebe, is under siege, because she is governing it. And there’s a curfew, people cannot go out, the same thing like during the Occupation. So, she could be some sort of Nazi character, an air force, military character. And she comes down with this big Stuka, not a real size one, but one made after a real model, it’s quite an impressive scene. But, of course, we had another budget, it’s a coproduction with Brussels, with a big house. It’s not the same resources as you have here. And then the third act has this idea of a big pest, a big disease, and we have a lot of coffins and militaries to put the dead bodies inside them. It’s very different, it’s completely different.
A.O.: OK. Well, I’ve seen some pictures from Brussels, and I know the famous Stuka plane. But when I saw it… I think there is something very erotic in the music, very sensual.
V.C.: Yes, it’s true, exactly, and that’s why I wanted to do it like that here. Because there is a kind of attraction, Œdipe feels like attracted to her. Actually, she is the first woman he sees after he leaves home, as a young man. And you can imagine she is the first woman with whom he has a real contact. And it has to be a sensual scene, for me at least. And I think this is better shown in this version than in the other one.
A.O.: And it’s an attraction mixed with fear. Like with that insect, where the female eats the partner.
V.C.: Exactly, exactly like this.
A.O.: Well, I can’t imagine the scene with the Stuka… (laughs)
V.C.: No, there is no interaction there, she just stays above. And I think I like it more this way, especially because the music also is very sensual here: “Je t’attendais…”, very, very sensual. And it’s true that in the other version the scene is very impressive when you see it coming, but no, I prefer it this way.
A.O.: And she says: “From all my prays, you will be the most beautiful”.
V.C.: Exactly, so there is an attraction! And that’s why he grabs her and kisses her and she disappears while he is kissing her.
A.O.: What about the last act here? The beach, the people on the beach? What is the meaning of all that? Because from what I understood…
V.C.: Well, that is important, not what I wanted to say, but what comes through…
A.O.: In fact, I have to make a confession: I went to the opera yesterday with my son, who is 19 years old, he is a student in his first year of study, and he is not exactly an opera lover.
V.C.: Well, from the kids of that young age nobody is!
A.O.: But still, he is interested and he often comes with me to opera, he accepts my invitation.
V.C.: Wow, that’s cool, you’re lucky!
A.O.: And yesterday I was a little bit puzzled about the last act and I asked him what he thought about it. And he said: it’s about refugees, it’s very simple. And I said, great, that’s just great, and I started to put together the pieces and realised it’s an allusion to Syrian refugees. But Theseus, with those cameras, misled me into thinking “are they refugees or tourists?” But maybe he’s the press.
V.C.: He’s a press guy. But the thing is that when I started to work on this, my first input was not the Syrian refugees. When they called me to do this, I had to work very fast because I only had two months and a half. And at that moment, the question of the refugees had only started to be spoken about. But in Spain, as I live in Spain for 15 years, we have this earlier issue with people who come in boats from Morocco. And they come to Valencia, Sevilla, Tarifa, and they come almost dead, most of them, and it’s been happening for years. I also have friends working on ships and they see them. They use a certain type of boat, called “pateras”, and of course most of them don’t know how to swim, so, if there is any problem, they die, it’s really terrible. And I have a friend working for the Red Cross, and they often find these people on the shore and try to put them alive again, the situation is terrible. So, my first thought was these people, and my inspiration came from asking myself: “Where is this guy, where is Œdipe?”. He’s been cast away from his land because he’s a horror, he’s a monster, without him wanting, he has however become a monster. You know that in the Greek times, the worst thing they could do was the exile. That’s why they don’t kill him and they send him to exile, because this was the worst thing that could happen to you. And suddenly, he arrives to this place where he is accepted. And there are these very tolerant people, as the chorus singing there is called “the old Athenian men”, which is supposed to be the wise men, together with Theseus. And I thought: these guys have a certain wisdom, why do they have it? Because they’ve lived through a lot. The people who cross the sea at the border of Morocco come from Sub-saharan Africa, they come from Mauritania, Mali, and they have a terrible journey, and some of them die before getting to the shore, then some of them die while crossing, and still they keep on and on that path they learn about what’s important in life. And these guys have learned. For me, these people are very wise, because life has taught them so much. And this is when I thought that the Athenian wise people must be this kind of people, who have been through a lot of things, and also people who are hoping for a better life. And also because they are outcasts, they have no place in their country, they have been treated like slaves, or for political reasons they have been kicked out, just like Œdipe. So they have a lot in common, and that’s why they accept him: “you are one of us, you are welcome to join our journey”. These people tend to be much more generous than we are, because they have suffered a lot and they share whatever they have. And I thought this acceptance could only have been with people like that in our days. In a way, we are rejecting them and they are accepting us. So, it was not so much the image of the Syrians, but for me it was more the image of the sea and the image of these people, but in fact of any people that has to leave its country.
A.O.: Of course, including Syrians.
V.C.: And actually, it all came together, the inspiration, the idea, everything. I had seen a photo, from the World Press Awards 2013, the photo that won the first prize, a very beautiful photo: at night, on a shore, with the moon, and some men standing with some mobile phones, like this, in fact you just see a light but if you read the explanation you understand it’s the light from the mobile phones. And it’s beautiful!!! And you read the explanation and you see that these are people who fled their countries and got to the shore and try to get network to tell their families they are alive. And I thought this could mean “this is hope, we made it, we are there, we arrived to the sea”. Most of them have never seen the sea, as they come from inner countries, and that’s why they die during the trip, because they don’t know how to swim, they’ve never been at the sea. And that was such a good message, “there is hope, we are communicating again”. And the picture is so beautiful, so I actually made a little quotation in the piece, with the night scene, and the mobile phones, and the ships coming to take them away. And I thought of it as a metaphor, they are taking the boat, as Œdipe also takes a boat, as the final trip, that takes him to death. But, in fact, who knows where we are going, it’s another trip. And I thought they were in the same boat actually, these guys and Œdipe, and that was for me the whole meaning of it.
A.O.: Yes, that makes sense a lot.
V.C.: And also, this beach, when I started to use this element, the sand, that covers more and more, it’s like Œdipe, who has a terrible life and a good ending. He becomes wise, and he becomes accepted, and he becomes at peace with himself. And I thought the sand had this quality: when you are at the beach, it is beautiful and amazing, like in the fourth act, but if you have sand out of place, it’s really annoying. If we had sand on this table now, or if you have sand in your bed, or sand in your glass, then sand would be a very annoying element, something which is really not good, it’s disturbing. So, this is why I thought in the first parts there will be sand, but in the wrong places, in very bad positions, but in the end, the sand, like Œdipe, finds its own meaning again, its own positive meaning. And this is why we also have the sea…
A.O.: The sand in the first act is like a bad omen.
A.O.: Something like that “something terrible is going to happen”. And then, in the second act, with the dune, it’s like the sand is eating the city.
V.C.: Exactly, it’s like with the dunes that move and invade and kill the cities, and people have to leave their houses, it’s terrible. Yes, I wanted to create that image. And then, at the end, when you go to the shore, the sand is beautiful, the kids play with it, and that’s the point: you can find in this destiny a good reason, and that’s where it is.
A.O.: Do you know the theatre and also the opera director Andrei Serban?
V.C.: Yes, of course! I’ve never seen anything live done by him, but I asked for a copy of his Œdipe, because they told me it is so good, and I want to see it. I heard from people here, in the house, that’s amazing. I really want to see that. And I actually bought a book with photos from his work, very good, very interesting, but there are no photos from Œdipe.
A.O.: Yes, I know the book, and unfortunately there are no pictures from this production.
V.C.: This is why I asked for a copy of the video of the production.
A.O.: And do they have it?
V.C.: They will look for it. Usually you have a fixed camera video, they do it for every performance.
A.O.: That production was very contested at its time.
V.C.: Yes, because it was very modern, very contemporary.
A.O.: And the last scene also had this theme of refugees, as Andrei Serban was also a guy who went in exile because of the communism.
V.C.: Yes, I know!
A.O.: And there were representations of the Statue of Liberty, but also some Brancusi statues, that are preserved here, in Romania.
V.C.: Oh, really?
A.O.: Yes, there is Poarta Sărutului, the Gate of the Kiss, in the town of Târgu-Jiu, where Brancusi made a memorial for the Romanians who fought in the First World War. He did several pieces: the Column of the Infinite, this Gate of the Kiss, and the Table of Silence, in fact two hemispheres surrounded by chairs.
V.C.: And where is that?
A.O.: In Târgu-Jiu, 200 kilometres from here. And I think these statues were his memories, his Romania, his country taken with him, in his soul, and the Statue of Liberty was his escape, in a way, the same concept as the beach.
V.C.: Yes, like America, like the liberation.
A.O.: Well, the production was contested at that time. Me, myself, I was totally against it, but I was very young, I didn’t like it. But I realised that, whenever I heard this name, Œdipe, and anything related to this opera, I hadn’t forgotten anything from that production. It was stuck into my head.
V.C.: Yes, it just stayed with you.
A.O.: Yes, for twenty years.
V.C.: Wow, that is something.
A.O.: And during this time I realised that, in fact, I liked it very much. That it was a very, very good production and that I was too dumb to understand it at that time.
V.C.: Yes, you know, sometimes things take time to be understood. It happens with books with read, with films you see, with a lot of things. They just have to grow in you and then they have a different impact.
A.O.: And I think this is something that happens often with opera direction, with modern, contemporary opera direction. People used to the tradition ask “but where is the costume, where is the wig?” But if you get over this handicap, of not seeing the imagery that you are expecting, if you are trying to understand what is going on on that stage, even if you hate it, at some moment you start asking yourself “why did I hate that? what was it that I didn’t like?”. And you realise you have no reason to hate that production and in fact it’s a very good one. It’s not the case with this Œdipe, because I think I have the open mind to accept any modernism. Of course, I don’t like any modernism, but this is very, very good staff, I wanted to tell you from the very beginning.
V.C.: And the entire team worked very, very well, the stage designer, the costume designer, everyone did a very, very good job. We had to run against time because it was really tight, but in the end it all came together very well. And we are all really happy with it.
A.O.: Another thing, Theseus, with his cameras, who is he?
V.C.: Well, for me it was a problem: who was Theseus in this context? If these guys are refugees coming to Spain or whatever, then who is he? Because he is supposed to be their king, or someone who is a bit in a different place from them. But also, because I took this scene from the photo press, I thought of him as a witness of all of that. Because he is the only one who is near Œdipe when he says “you will go with me for my last steps and you are going to witness my death”, so he is the only real witness of Œdipe’s death. Yes, he’s a witness like a press photographer, he’s there to see things, that’s his function, to see and to make people remember those things.
A.O.: Yes, because the press, although it’s not helping people directly, by giving them money, or shelter…
V.C.: But the press does help, because it tells us what happens. I also inspired myself a lot from the figure of Sebastião Salgado, the Brasilian photographer who lived in Paris all his life, and who, not long ago, went back to Brasil. And he was one of the first guys to do testimonials about refugees, in the 60s or 70s, he was the first to take pictures of the hunger in Ethiopia, of the refugees of Congo, he went to all these places and in fact he created this type of photograph. And it was because of him that the world knew a lot of things they hadn’t known before. And I thought of him, of this guy. There is a very good documentary about him, done by Wim Wenders, called The Salt of the Earth, you must see it, because his life was extraordinary. At a certain point he was so disgusted he just thought of giving up photography, because he was devastated, he was literally crying on the floor after having seen piles of bodies of dead children in Congo, killed by the Tutsi or the Hutu. But we only know those things thanks to people like him. And, somehow, he saved all these people. Because all the NGOs and UN agencies started to send food to Ethiopia, for instance, because of him. And I think that’s a way to save people.
A.O.: Exactly, and there is also a line in the libretto, saying: “You are raising your hand to my crown, but you don’t see the hand that I’m giving to you.”
V.C.: Yes, he says “I am already helping you”.
A.O.: This is a metaphor for the press help.
V.C.: “You think I am not doing anything, but I am.” And they are in a difficult position, because photographers have what to eat, they are taken care of, they receive money, so they will not die of hunger, like these other guys. But they will take the pictures, so that these guys can be helped.
A.O.: Also, there is a scene, in the first act, after Œdipe is born, there are people coming and paying their respects. They are dressed and acting something like that it makes you think of Russia, of Boris Godunov.
V.C.: Yes, it’s the crowning of a prince, and we tried to work it in order to have a continuity. It goes through like this because of the looks of the costumes, this is why you have this feeling. We have these men like shepherds, the women with the wool, we added a little traditional flavour to it, because there is a lot of traditional music in it, a lot of traditional motives. Just a little bit of a folklore touch, because it is nice, it goes with the music. It’s simple people, giving what they have to this child, who is their new king. It came out a little bit like that.
A.O.: How was the work with Damiani?
V.C.: Oh, he is amazing! He’s very good, a very intelligent guy. I would rather work with him, I would like him to do the production next year. Well, we already have the cast for Covent Garden, and I am sure the other guy is very good, but I would love him to do the production. Damiani is so smart, it’s strange when you tell someone something on a rehearsal, and he keeps it and on every rehearsal he would do it. And that’s very strange also because he’s singing a very difficult role. And, at a certain point, singers who sing this difficult role give up. They say: yes, I can hear you, but I cannot do it, because here I am singing this line, and it’s complicated, and after this I have to sing all these other things and I need to be a little bit more calm. But Davide would not spare himself. And, in fact, some singers would not spare themselves and then, when they have to do the performance, they are so tired that they cannot do it. He’s not like that. He’s also very smart and very subtle, and a very good colleague. We had a great time, really. I would really like to work with him again. He’s really the best Œdipe I worked with so far.
A.O.: I also saw him in the old production, a couple of weeks ago, in the Festival, and I thought he was amazing. But he changed a little bit from that performance to this one. He is more masculine here, a little bit, in the way of singing. But he is impressive, really. What we used to have here, maybe you know, there’s a legend about David Ohanesian, the baritone who did the first Œdipe in Romania and who sang it for many, many years, in fact this was the role of his life. He had a stentorian voice, very, very dark, and dramatic, from the very beginning. Even when he was young and going to Theba, the voice was dark and you already had the tragedy.
V.C.: Yes, that’s the problem, with Œdipe you must have an evolution. And with Davide, because of the previous production, I don’t know how it was, but I had to make things very clear, because he had to be a little insecure at the beginning. Also at the crossing of the roads, it’s a nostalgic moment, so he doesn’t have to be strong, he has to be weak, full of doubts. Then, in the third act, he’s this big king who’s trying to find out the truth, it’s different. He has to find his colours. And in the fourth act he has to be a weaker man, and his looks must show that, too. He must look like a weaker man before becoming stronger again. But you have to have all these colours, because the character is different, it covers all the life of a person, so you have to see this evolution.
A.O.: So, from weak, strong, stronger, and wiser.
V.C.: Exactly, which is different from strong.
A.O.: I don’t want to sound it like a tricky question, but in Romania the musicians are more accustomed to Enescu’s music, especially with Œdipe here, in this opera house. Which comes with pros and cons, I think. This is a good thing, but definitely it has some shortcomings, because their ears are also used to some traditional rendering of Œdipe, as they have done it for many years, so they might oppose the conductor, or the concept, or many other things. How was this experience, working with the Romanian musicians and talking to them about Œdipe? Do they accept your vision?
V.C.: I haven’t been in contact with the orchestra so much, but with the chorus and the ensemble singers here. They just needed to be explained what I needed and I think they just got it from the very beginning. I think they understood it and it really got into them. Nobody came to tell me “this is like this”, and so on. Of course, I’m also very respectful with the music and they see that, too. They were immediately willing to do what I asked. It was funny you mentioned that because yesterday night, after the performance, a member of the orchestra, came to tell me “you know, I don’t think your vision of Œdipe is right”, and he started talking about Œdipe being a kind of Jesus Christ, a kind of man who becomes a god. “So, I think you should rethink the opera again”. And I said, “well, it’s a little too late, the premiere is already done”. But it was funny, because the first thing he said was “you know, I’ve been in the orchestra for 46 years and I’ve done all the productions of Œdipe and I have to tell you you are wrong.” He was a trombonist or something like that. And he was really exhorting me to change it now, after the premiere, this was the funny thing about it. And I know that with Leo Hussain, who is a very good conductor, who did it in Brussels and will do it next year, in London, there were some problems. Because the orchestra was really telling him how to do it. And he has done this opera twice already, it’s not like he never did it, and he has a very good understanding of this opera. And a very good approach. And they really were against him and made his life very, very difficult. But I think this is the case particularly with the orchestra here, it was not the case with the chorus, or the soloists, they were all very, very flexible. The chorus was very, very cooperative.
A.O.: Did you receive any feedback from their side during the rehearsals that made you change a little bit, here or there?
V.C.: No, more questions. People would ask me questions. And those questions make you think about things you didn’t think about. And that’s important. There were not opinions, like “I think this is not good”, no, there were questions, like “why are we doing it like this?”, “is it not better if we do it this way?”. And I was like “now, that you say it, I start to think about it”. I had a lot of questions, and this is very good, because it shows a lot of interest. It’s not like they just want to do their job, come here, go there, and basta, no. They want to do their job properly. And that’s very nice.
A.O.: And you will be with the production in Covent Garden, too?
V.C.: Yes, I co-directed it, with another director, Àlex Ollé. It’s the same one as in Brussels. It’s gonna be strange for me to go back to the other version, because it’s completely different. (laughs) But thanks God it’s completely different, because it’s not a mix-up.
A.O.: But you have the chance to make little changes to improve the old production.
V.C.: Yes, I think so. Now, that I’ve done this version, which I think it’s more dynamic, I think I will make some changes in London. Of course, the concept stays the same, and the basics stay the same, but with the acting and with certain things, yes, I will make some changes. Because I see the piece from a different angle now. It’s very nice.
A.O.: Because this is an opera that is quite static. There was one production here, in Bucharest, directed by Nicolas Joel, a couple of years ago, as an oratorio, very static. And it worked up to a certain point. I think it is difficult to bring dynamics in this opera, which has very powerful significations, it’s an ancient myth, which is always very, very strong. I thought this as a problem in all previous productions that they cannot establish a clear action, a dynamic of the action throughout the whole opera. Because it has static scenes, then action…
V.C.: Yes, it’s difficult, it’s the structure of the piece that is difficult, so you need to find your way.
A.O.: For example, the first act is very static, but then comes the scene with the Sphinx, which is action, and with Laios’ death and so on. But the last part is very contemplative, the pace of the action is slower, and slower and slower.
V.C.: Yes, and you must deal with it, you must find resources to make it alive. It’s the difficulty of the piece, I think, its structure. Because the music is very good, but the structure is difficult for the stage, yes. The use of media helps a lot to find an extra layer, an extra meaning, a different dynamic.
A.O.: Well, that’s pretty all. If you want to add anything about your future projects…
V.C.: Thank you very much, very interesting talk, really, I liked it a lot. Yes, we have a lot of projects, in Rome, in Covent Garden also. Things are coming up and it’s been a great experience to work here, completely different, but with a lot of soul from the people, and it’s been very nice. I gave a lot of energy but I took back a lot more, I think.