Interview with Stefano Nardelli (EN)
In the years following the Second World War, opera fell on hard times. Many composers theorized the death of opera and opera iconoclasm developed to such an extent that opera was spoken of as a “dead” genre. However, a number of composers continued to believe in it and in the power of music theatre, thus keeping the flame of opera alive. These included the Germans Hans Werner Henze and Wolfgang Rihm, the Italians Salvatore Sciarrino and Giorgio Battistelli and the British Thomas Adès, whose works are now performed today as contemporary classics and often belong to the repertoires of big opera houses.
In a cultural environment that once again favored opera, Lucia Ronchetti became a very active and creative composer, focusing in particular on the human voice, an important part of her native country’s heritage. European with Italian roots, she works today for major opera houses and festivals across Europe. In this interview, she takes us through the secrets of contemporary music, illustrating the creative process behind the composition of an opera.
Especially after the Second World War, opera stopped being as popular a genre as it was in the 19th century and the first few decades of the 20th century. Do you think that the gap between traditional and contemporary opera is closing?
Indeed, the gap is closing gradually, as stage directors and performers are basing their repertoires on a selection of both traditional and contemporary operas (at least, the most significant ones). The contemporary take on opera consists not only in composing new operas, but also in proposing new interpretations of less recent ones. For instance, the new production of Rappresentazione di anima e corpo (Representation of Soul and Body) by the baroque composer Emilio de’ Cavalieri at the Staatsoper in Berlin, conducted by René Jacobs and directed by Achim Freyer, or the recent reconstruction of Einstein on the beach by the American composer Philip Glass and the stage artist Bob Wilson at the Teatro Valli in Reggio Emilia, are paradigmatic examples of how the complexity of using opera as a medium for communication needs time and reinterpretation to be fully understood by contemporary audiences.
What can be done to enhance people’s knowledge of and interest in contemporary music? Is simplifying the language of music, as in the case of pop music, the only solution?
Contemporary music does not necessarily need a vast audience. Besides, simplifying the language of music is not necessarily going to attract and please more spectators. A production is normally successful and appeals to a wider audience when creativity and funds are unlimited, or when it achieves the status of an exemplary work of art, or when the performers have been sufficiently prepared to ensure a real interpretation and not just a simple reading from the script.
How would you convince a fan of traditional opera to try out a contemporary music production?
Opera does not consist of stories, but experiences. I would encourage your “traditional opera fan” to listen to and watch “new” productions of classic operas: for instance, Die Walküre (The Valkyrie) directed by Achim Freyer in Mannheim, Wozzeck directed by Andreas Kriegenburg in Munich or Die Soldaten (The Soldiers) by Bernd Alois Zimmermann and directed by Alvis Hermanis at the Salzburg Festival.
I believe that “contemporaneity” is an open concept, that there is no link with when an opera was composed and that a contemporary audience may be keen and open to a challenge. However, audiences should also be treated to extraordinary productions that are perfect in every way; they should be “ecstatic” and not plagued by diseases such as routine and bureaucracy.
Let’s talk about your experience as a composer. How do you normally start a new composition?
The compositions in my latest catalogue are classified into operas, choral operas, “action concert pieces” and “drammaturgia”. To me, every project is unique, with a different origin and a different realisation. I believe that one should not speak of inspiration, but rather of a reference to the past, be it recent or historical. Composers do not invent out of nothing. There is always a set of references, a “choir of experiences” that form part of our culture and education. A new piece is conceived in reaction to all this.
It is often said that writing is a daily exercise. Is this also true of composing?
Yes, I think that both writing and composing music can only be a daily exercise, and should be as relentless as possible. Any breaks in the continuity are always forced pauses that then necessitate a catch-up period before you get back into the flow.
I think that a composer needs to be disciplined and focused. Composers long for an equilibrium between research and achievement, rewarding their writing, even before their works are performed.
“Prima la musica e poi le parole” (first the music then the words) is an age-old debate. What is your view on that?
Along with Cicognini, Metastasio, Da Ponte and Hofmanstahl, to mention only a few, I would say that, if the text is strong, enlightened and intended for the music theatre, it comes first and prepares the ground for the music; it includes it.
However, if the libretto has no value or is a poor collage ex post of great texts that were not intended to be put to music, then there is little hope that the words can be set to music and that the combination of music and words will have any musical value.
How do you interact with your librettists? How important is it to work together with them?
It is crucial. Many of our creative dialogues, dreams, impossible trials, discussions, threats can be detected in the final score. The dialogue with the librettists is like “pulvis stellaris” (stardust) being sprinkled on the work; it makes it more “dirty”, but gives it life.
A striking element of your music theatre is very often the subject. How do you choose them?
The ideas for many of my music theatre projects were linked to a place, the “logo deputato”, where they were to be performed. Choral works, such as Narrenschiffe (The Ships of Fools) at the Munich Opera Festival in 2010, Prosopopeia at the Heinrich Schütz Music Festival in Kassel in 2010 and Gera in 2012, and 3e32 Naufragio di terra (3:32 a.m. Earth Wreckage) for the Stagione Barattelli in L’Aquila in 2011, were conceived as music theatre pieces for non-professional choirs (ensembles) and performed in evocative places such as a church, a factory or a square. Narrenschiffe took place in the streets of Munich, Prosopopeia in the church that held the funeral for which Heinrich Schütz composed his Musikalische Exequien, and 3e32 Naufragio di terra in the Basilica of Collemaggio in L’Aquila, which was heavily damaged by the terrible earthquake in 2009. In this type of music theatre, I try either to remove the barrier between the performers and the audience or to make it almost imperceptible.
Do the people commissioning your works have any say or are you completely free?
I have always been lucky enough to have clever people commissioning my compositions. They have always given me the opportunity to create my own projects, which would not have come into being without a fruitful dialogue with them.
How important is it in the creative process to think about the final recipients of your work? Sometimes contemporary music instead seems to be an individual exercise in creativity for the composer.
Composing is, by nature, a slow, complex and lonely exercise. It is therefore only natural that one sometimes departs from what the audience wants or expects. However, this does not mean that listeners are not relevant for a composer. Obviously, any composition is intended to be performed and to captivate and delight the audience. At least, that is always my dream, although it rarely happens!
Over the last ten years, you have received commissions in particular from German theatres or music institutions and recently from the Festival d’Automne in Paris. Can we speak of a European music culture?
In Europe, several institutions work with composers from different countries, cultures and educational backgrounds. These institutions create and regenerate continuously, and speak of a European culture. I actually think there is a European music culture, in the sense that it is perceived by the same “virtual audience” in many diverse and unique ways.
Unfortunately, there are also institutions in Europe that do not or cannot have an open attitude towards other European theaters. I would just say that to not be open to culture or music and to only act according to a “routine” is simply damaging, especially for music culture.
Which projects are you currently working on?
For the the Nationaltheater in Mannheim, I am currently working on a new project based on a libretto by Ermanno Cavazzoni, an Italian poet and writer, who was also the author of the book that inspired Federico Fellini’s last film, La voce della luna (The Voice of the Moon). For the Semperoper in Dresden, I will compose two intermezzi in commemoration of Metastasio, the celebrated poet and playwright who settled in Vienna in the 18th century. The two intermezzi, Contrascena (2012) and Sub-Plot (2013), will form part of a chamber opera about Metastasio, Mise en Abyme, which is scheduled for the season 2014/15.
Is opera still necessary?
Indeed, opera is necessary. When all elements involved in an opera strike a “magic chord”, when the creative team is able to put together a unique ensemble and when production goes beyond trivial solutions and the burden of the organisational process, opera becomes an innovative means of communication. Otherwise, opera is unnecessary and doomed to oblivion.