Louis Andriessen’s new stagework, exploring the arcane knowledge of a 17th century polymath, is unveiled in Los Angeles in May and Amsterdam in June.
When did you first discover the last ‘Renaissance man’ Athanasius Kircher?
A very long time ago, because my father had an original Dutch edition of Kircher’s book on China with wonderful illustrations – in amazing condition considering it was from 1667. I loved this book and made sure when my father died it travelled with me to Amsterdam. My father was particularly fascinated that this German scholar was both a Jesuit and a scientist – a good enough contradiction to stimulate my own interest.
What triggered the idea that Kircher’s world could be the centre of a musical work?
The more I learnt about him the more questions came up. He was a pioneering microbiologist and a respected authority on Egyptian hieroglyphs for two hundred years until the French research in the 19th century, yet some of his scholarly techniques were highly suspect – his descriptions of China were second-hand based on Jesuit business travellers and he encouraged his illustrators to use their imagination to create fantastic imagery. My real trigger came with Joscelyn Godwin’s book Athanasius Kircher’s Theatre of the World. When I contacted the author he turned out to be a composer as well as an expert on ancient music and the occult, and he encouraged me to write the Kircher stagework.
How did you work with Helmut Krausser on the development of the libretto?
I greatly admired Helmut Krausser’s book Melodien, a novel about 15th century composers, myth and magic, and when we first met in Berlin it was clear he had a profound engagement with music and the skills necessary to assemble a libretto. Beyond information on Kircher and his world, I supplied Helmut with a few clear images, such as that of a little boy knocking on the doors of the Vatican saying "I want to know everything". We came to a deal that Helmut would create the libretto independently and that I should cut his supplied text down to a length that could be set to music.
Why is it you’ve always favoured an assembly of tableaux rather than a straight narrative?
This goes back to my work composing for the theatre in the 1970s. I was interested in writers like Beckett and we staged many plays by Brecht so I learnt a lot about poly-interpretability – that is drama left open for the audience without the imposition of a simple narrative arc. Straight story-telling is the domain of the film-maker who only wants to be rich and famous – it has nothing to do with art. Alienation, which breaks simple identification with character, seems essential for the 21st century and I’m keen to take this approach into the opera house.
Why did you decide on a multilingual text?
This may seem an odd approach for audiences in the UK, America or even Germany where dubbed translations are common, but the Dutch are used to a polyglot world. I love moving away from surface engagement to a drama where the sound of language becomes more important – a certain phrase in a particular tongue can have a distinct flavour which throws up a whole series of allusions – I’ve used it to add to the nightmarish atmosphere of the work.
How do you view the relationship between the elderly Kircher and the boy?
The boy starts as representing the quest for knowledge that drove Kircher throughout his life, but increasingly takes on a diabolic purpose. He claims there is a contract on Kircher’s soul and we find ourselves travelling into Faustian territory. I realised the boy was too major a role to be sung by a kid with a small fragile voice, so we’re using a soprano which throws up many interesting gender issues. It offers possibilities to explore deeper aspects of the personality as was the case when I understood that Dante could be played by a female singer in La Commedia.
How did you first ‘hear’ music to set against the drama?
Certain characters or scenes suggested a particular type of music, for instance the aggression of the witches, the sinister humour of the hangman, or the journeys along the River Lethe to Egypt, the Tower of Babel and China. As a complete contrast we have the music for Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, the Mexican nun, poetess and savante who provided a profound, mystical solace to Kircher. Her song cuts across the drama, as if his gazing at her portrait in his room in Rome opened a window to New Spain. As in recent works like Anaïs Nin, the music in Theatre of the World is more closely related to the text and the local dramatic situation, unlike earlier works like De Staat or De Tijd where the text was fitted onto a pre-determined musical scheme.
Does your musical style reference history or is it modern in sensibility?
There are some specific historical references, such as needing to create a fixed moment in time when Kircher plays an organ in the Vatican, but my music generally travels freely through history suggesting allusions to drive the drama. It is rather like pulling books or scores off my shelf at home when I think of possible connections. Many references are ironic and serve a particular point, but generally the overall sweep of the music – like the film being created by the Quay Brothers – is intended to provide a jostling, surreal, Bosch-like world summed up in the work’s description as "a Grotesque".
Interviewed by David Allenby
Theatre of the World (2015)
Libretto by Helmut Krausser
Directed by Pierre Audi
Film by the Quay Brothers
6/8 May 2016
Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles
Los Angeles Philharmonic/Reinbert de Leeuw
11/13/14/16/17/19 June 2016
Theater Carré, Amsterdam
Dutch National Opera/Reinbert de Leeuw
> Further information on Work: Theatre of the World
Photo: Dutch National Opera
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