Gerard Mortier (1943-2014)

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Enfoque: In less-real focus

I attended the pre-premiere event host by the music dramaturg, Jan Vandenhouwe, with the four creative artists of Brokeback Mountain. Other than a dozen of younger people, the audience was made up mostly of white Spanish women above 40 years-old (though the men were the ones who spoke during the Q&A). The usual questions on inspirations, techniques and other aspects of the creative process were fielded. From their respective perspectives coming from the United States of America and the European Union, the following points are what I have found to be most significant.

Proulx wants her story to reveal another side of the human-animal, which is also interested in different kinds of sex. She states that the homosexual character can also be homophobic himself. This interpretation ties in with how Wuorinen has perceived the story to bear an internal problem, very much like a traditional operatic tragedy [he was thinking of Don Giovanni, Othello, Moses und Aron, Wozzeck and The Rake’s Progress]. However, Wuorinen was quick to disclaim that, except for certain expressive moments, his opera does not contain what is conventionally known as arias.

For the musical director, Titus Engel, Wuorinen’s music does not belong to the countryside as has often been typecast in filmic soundtracks. Instead, the frequent changes in musical affects readily represent the harsh weather and windiness of the mountainous landscape. No wonder Proulx and Wuorinen felt that the opera reflects danger in its texts and the contexts (with Proulx thinking that the work has ‘claws’). Engel thinks that the opera resonates with the contemporary socio-political problems occurring not only in Wyoming, but also in Russia, Africa and other parts of the world.

Last but not least, the stage director, Ivo van Hove, believes that Brokeback Mountain is a universal story of love, desire and ‘sexual hunger’. He was worried that putting cowboys on stage could be cliché and kitsch, as is the case with breeches role in traditional theatre. However, the creative collaboration with the actors during the rehearsals showed the characters to be multi-layered. Similarly, his scenography divides the two musical acts into three settings – the mountains, the domestic homes and hotel rooms, and a black space after the death of Jack – the last of which representing the bare poverty of the Twist family home as well as the ‘less-real poetics’ of love unrequitable.

The tragicomedy of four fathers

There are four fathers in this opera: Jack, Ennis, Jack’s father and Lureen’s father. Jack has a boy called Bobby, and Ennis has two girls called Alma Junior and Francine. Ennis carries her baby daughter and sings to her while she is asleep. He tells Jack that he ‘loves them to pieces’. However, he was readily willing to give up custody of the children after the divorce. The next time he sees the children was at the thanksgiving dinner, but he showed up late and became violent in front of the kids. On the other hand, Jack’s relationship with his son is more subtle. Jack is more willing to give up his wife and son to be with Ennis on the ranch, or to seek sexual relief in Mexico.

Both the fathers of Jack and Lureen have been portrayed as disabled or sickly, resulting in comedic effects for both the text and the music. Jack’s father walks with two walking sticks and sings in a jeering, dismissive tone, even once mimicking Jack’s high tenor tessitura with a nasal voice. He acts as the master of the family, interrupting the dialogue between his wife and Ennis both physically and musically. His musical style is as grumpy as Peter’s grandfather in Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. Finally, Lureen’s father is almost chauvinist and overly protective of his daughter. He coughs from smoking too much and sings in a hoarse voice. (The casting of the same performer for Aguirre and Lureen’s father might lead some audiences to think Jack has married Aguirre’s daughter.)

Two women in Feminist history

The opera set between the 1960s and 1980s during the women’s liberation movement has substantially represented women’s feelings and worth. Even the stage director told the press that ‘the women are much more explored’ in his rendition of the story than the film version. Alma and Lureen are the spouses of the two protagonists. Alma is portrayed as having an ‘American dream’ wanting to get out of the ranch and ranchwork, while Lureen has already completed her college education and does the finances at the family’s automobile shop. We know, from a young age, Alma is defiant against her mother’s wishes to work within the ranch, where she complains that only the boys get the inheritance.

She also fends for herself when Ennis refuses to take on a uniformed job by deciding on a divorce from Ennis. With her two daughters, she moves to live with a more reliable guy, Bill Jones the grocer. From this switch, we can sense her capitalist leanings to be an urban-bourgeois as opposed to being contented as a rural-proletarian. She continues to play her role as a wife and mother doing the housechores, but also works part-time at the shop. When she discovers the extra-marital homosexual affair of her husband, she does not wallow in self-pity, but rolls up her sleeves to investigate. The coloratura music for Alma is agile and feisty.

On the other hand, Lureen is more career-oriented and dependent. She sings in the lower mezzo-soprano voice range and is still reliant on her daddy even after his passing. She engages in a discussion with her daddy over her choice of husband as well as conjures her daddy’s apparition in a dream. She feels neglected by Jack’s lukewarm demeanour, but is not aware of her husband’s extra-marital affairs. She seems to be at a loss after the murder of her husband and does not even visit her in-laws up in Wyoming. In contrast to Alma’s resilience, Lureen is very much a supporting role subservient to the three men. One could even hear her resignation in the phone conversation with Ennis at the end of the opera.

An American or European sound?

I finally get to hear the voices combined with the orchestra and the full Brokeback sound-world has been revealed to some of us. This is of course the creation of the composer Charles Wuorinen. A little background: Wuorinen lives in New York City and was trained under Babbitt, whose music sounds Schoenbergian and Boulezian. You can find out more about Wuorinen’s musical style on the internet, but I am more interested to situate the operatic and orchestral sound as stemming from an American or European tradition. Someone said he heard some Porgy and Bess in the opera, but I think an obvious place to start would be the sound-world of Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron.

With the increased use of sprechgesang and percussion instruments, the music sounds pointillist and tense. There are few sounds of luscious string tuttis or majestic brass chorales, which are characteristic of the British and German styles; there are few melodies on solo woodwind or neoclassical sequences that reminds us of French or Italian music. What I heard was an industrial sound-world of the urban cityscape. I could discern the klangfarbenmelodie and the fin-de-siècle filmic sound-effects within the opera score. The music is mostly syllabic and rhythmic, though not pulsating in the style of Stravinsky.

Within the voice parts, there are also a few solos, duets and trios, though not anything elongated. There is definitely less of the Wagnerian romanticism or Verdian bel canto. A tradition closer to Brokeback’s could be the Italian verismo that is associated with the social realism of everyday life. Lots of dialogues intersperse the music and these are often sung as if spoken, with rare appearances of ‘motif’ here and there. The ensemble writing seems to pit the voices against the orchestral accompaniment whereas, when the instruments are heard by themselves, they often serve as narratological devices facilitating the scene changes. In conclusion, what we have is a very United States urban-city sound supporting the socio-political
(Democrat) agenda of contemporary American opera.

Language and Time

I have been sitting in rehearsals for almost 10 days now. One other thing that had a strong effect on me and my mental capacity is the multi-lingual environment within which the opera world circulates. Here at Teatro Real, the production team speaks Spanish (though the repetiteurs are Italian and British), the creative team speaks Flemish, and the opera singers coming mostly from North America speak English. The conductors – Swiss and Basque – and a few others speak in German. So occasionally information gets understood and not understood with these different languages switching from one to another.

Unlike other art form, opera and its making stem from a multi-lingual tradition. Take Mozart for example who spoke an Austrian-German dialect, but wrote operas with Italian libretti. Likewise with his compatriot Christoph Gluck, who wrote operas with French libretti. These days, we have European and Asian composers writing operas in English. Needless to say, operatic singers from all over the world are singing in German, French, Italian and English. However, what goes on backstage is the legibility and ability of multi-lingual communication for the most polyglot of operatic participants, creative or otherwise. With the little investments each country is putting in to nurture creative talents, the production of operas these days are returning to multi-national format of the travelling troupe, similar to the earlier colonial voyages of the English operettas or Malay bangsawans.

With the additional translation of ideas into languages, time becomes a major factor in opera production. For example, the press conference with Sellars and Viola was almost two hours long, due to the translation from English to Castellano. A few people at the rehearsals also told me that things were running rather too slowly for them. As I have mentioned in an earlier post, many people seemed to be waiting for their turn. On the other hand, the music can also have its own time durations, as does its aural consumption. As an analogy of perspective, a Harry Potter film can appear quite short, while a Samuel Beckett play can seem rather long. I supposed the working practices, creative and linguistic abilities of the different teams mentioned above are critical in the general time management. In short, the polyglot triumphs.