Photo: Jānis Saliņš, F64 Photo Agency

How to tell a story 0

Interview with director Alvis Hermanis

Alvis Hermanis speaks with Una Meistere and Daiga Rudzāte
01/10/2014 

Material produced with the support of ABLV Charitable Foundation

We met Alvis Hermanis between two of his premières. About a month had passed since the première of Giuseppe Verdi's Il travatore (The Troubadour) at the prestigious Salzburg Festival, and less than a month remained before the première of Giacomo Puccini's Tosca – and Hermanis' own début – at the Berlin State Opera on October 3. So it's only natural that our conversation focused on opera and music. This may seem unusual for those who associate Hermanis primarily with drama theatre. But, as Hermanis himself says, the music world is more harmonious and better for one's health.


Il trovatore, 2014. Photo: Salzburger Festspiele / Forster

Your staging of the Il trovatore opera takes place in a museum. Why is that? What did you want to do with the viewer?

The problem is that the operas that were created a hundred or two hundred or more years ago were made for the context of those eras; the music and sounds are fixed to their time, but today's viewer is from the 21st century, from an entirely different context. And the composers' chosen plots and stories, which are from even different times, make it all even more absurd. The same goes for Il trovatore, whose story is from the 16th century, but the music was written in the 19th century. Of course, the music in 16th century Spain, where the plot takes place, was probably completely different than Verdi's times in Italy. So, kitsch and aesthetic contradiction are already programmed into the work, even before the arrival of the director. That's why you need to think of some kind of trick; you need to give the viewer (at least that's how I look at it myself) several points of perspective. At the same time. Regarding the museums...there's also the fact that I'm very interested not only in history but also old paintings. I really like them. If I had to decide where to spend the day, whether at the Tretyakov Gallery or the Beaubourg [Centre Pompidou – here and hereinafter Arterritory explanations], then I would definitely choose the Tretyakov Gallery. What appeared before Cézanne's oranges is more interesting to me than what came after them.

In the case of Il trovatore, the story is all entangled and there are many narrative scenes and arias in which someone is telling about times long ago. And it seemed to me that if I set all of that in a museum, then I would have found my dexterous little trick.

After the show, The New York Times wrote a not very flattering review, saying that you just poured old wine into a new bottle....

I was hoping that this trick would please both avantgardists and lovers of the classics. But in the end it turned out that both of them were kind of... unsatisfied.

You are also the stage designer for this opera.... That's pretty courageous.

I've actually always been a stage designer. From my very first show here, in Riga. There are directors (even very, very good directors) who are not at all interested in the visual side, in the package. And sometimes it happens that a director does not have good taste. And then he fully passes this thing on to someone else, a person called the stage designer, and puts his full trust in that person. [Andris] Freibergs told me that's the way it was with [Adolf] Shapiro. There are lots of examples like that. I, on the other hand, cannot even begin to start thinking about a production (much less begin practising) if I don't have a clear aesthetic, a visual concept. And this clarity can only come into existence in a single person's head. But sometimes (and that's happened to me a lot) I can't manage it all by myself because I simply don't know how to realise my idea. Then, of course, I call in a stage designer.

Now, during this opera period – altogether I guess there have already been six of them – I'm also the stage designer. Except for Tosca, which we are currently rehearsing in Berlin. Actually, in opera it's the stage designers who fulfil the function of the director. If one can say so. I remember that long ago, when I was not yet interested in opera at all, Arnolds Liniņš [director, actor, theatre arts educator, 1930-1998], who played his last two roles with us [New Riga Theatre], said to me: “Well, the director in an opera...he's just the low man on the totem pole. He's only the fifth most important person there. First comes the composer, the conductor, the stars, the stage designer and then the director.” And that's about how it is. The opera has its own specific character. Especially if it's repertoire theatre: the singers constantly change, all sorts of foreign people coming in who spend a couple of hours getting ready with the assistants and then get on stage (as happened in the case of Il trovatore, where [Placido] Domingo was replaced by another singer). Of course, there are times – and I'm having one right now in Berlin with Tosca – when you can work with the opera soloists just as you would with drama theatre actors. But you still have to take into consideration that a year from now there are going to be different singers, and I won't even get to meet them. But the show cannot fall apart. It has to take place no matter what; the story has to happen. And that's what the stage design does; the stage design concept tells the story. Actually, from this viewpoint, contemporary opera production technologies have come extremely close to visual art. At least I think so. And that's why stage design is directing.


Il trovatore, 2014. Photo: Salzburger Festspiele / Forster

You once said that it's very important for you, and you consider it your main challenge, to make visuality and music in opera “go along the same channels”.

Yes, theoretically. Everybody says so, and everybody agrees with it, but it's almost impossible to achieve.

But how close have you come to this goal, say, with Il trovatore?

I think there's actually something violent about the visualisation of music. You might say even something ugly about it, because music affects a person in such an intimate way and, of course, each listener already creates images in his or her head, the images come naturally. If the person goes deep into that tunnel and fully connects with the music, then it's inevitable. And then along comes some director who thrusts himself and his images onto all of the people in the hall. There's really something unnatural about that, something, as I said, violent. But opera viewers have to accept this, because opera is not a concert. It's music theatre. But because of this there's also something kind of elementary and primitive about the opera genre. Compared, for example, with music that is performed and heard in a concert. Daniel Barenboim, the conductor of the Berlin Tosca we were just talking about, invited me to a concert of Brahms' Piano Concertos No. 1 and No. 2. I'm not a big music specialist or connoisseur, but I must admit that that evening (and I wasn't alone in this feeling) there were moments when I was overcome with a feeling of pride for belonging to the human species. Some kind of very fine matter was being moved by the music that evening. We met the next day at the Tosca rehearsal, and the comparison is just.... Opera is more primitive, it has something brutal about it. But that's possibly also a part of opera's beauty. The vulgarity in opera.... I don't know if those are the right words to describe it, but there's something in it that's kind of...animal. The singers are like animals – the way they bend and gesture in order to get the sounds out. Sensuality in opera is very physiological. There's a kind of zoo smell to it.

In drama theatre it's important for you that the viewers have their own space in which to think. But, after all you just said, how is it in opera?

I don't really know. There's some kind of unsolvable contradiction there. I was in Bayreuth for the first time this summer. Of course, there are people in the audience there with a completely religious attitude towards Wagner's music. But at the same time it's clear that they – for the most part – totally do not agree with what they see on the stage. But they come every year anyway. Their whole lives. So, they manage to somehow deal with the situation. If you'd say to them that from now on there are only going to be concerts – the curtain will be shut permanently and they won't have to suffer any more, they won't have to watch the directors' horrors – they would still be unsatisfied.

But you can't escape it (the opera), either. Just like them.

It's very interesting to make operas. But afterwards everybody who isn't too lazy begins kicking you.

They don't kick you around in drama theatre?

Not so bad. Because in opera they all know very well how things should be.

So, from your perspective, it's a kind of masochism?

No, I'd say it's more of a deal. The pay in the operas isn't half bad, either (laughs). But the main thing is that the process opens up everything else. And the reviews are more fierce because a large part of the audience knows the classic operas by heart. With them it's the same as with the teenage boy in Proust's novel who is preparing to go to a classic show where the French prima donna will be performing. He reads and rereads the play all week before the performance. He's literally shaking from anticipation; he's so very interested in hearing what intonation she will use to pronounce the end of that sentence. There's something so sensually sick in all of it – will it be there or not, will that sound be there?

Or, another example. I'll be doing [Bernd Alois] Zimmerman's Die Soldaten at Milan's La Scala this winter, an opera that I once produced in Salzburg for an immense stage. I will have to adapt the show for La Scala's classical stage. Actually, this is a fairly safe case, because Zimmerman has never been played in Italy and therefore they don't have any preconceived notions about it. But when we were selecting singers, the guy at La Scala who's responsible for casting singers told me that he attended performances at La Scala every night for an entire year before beginning his job. He climbed up to the sixth balcony, where the cheapest tickets are. That's where the people who determine the performance's fate sit or stand (there's also standing room up there). Whether a singer will make it or not. Because they uphold the canon, the tradition. Not the parterre or the people in the expensive seats. No. The carriers of the tradition sit up there, in the sixth gallery. They know what the canon ought to be like. And he needed to spend an entire year up there in order to understand those infinitely many nuances. (I'm talking about the bel canto tradition here.) But he couldn't work, he couldn't invite singers or even big stars without having this knowledge. Because he is in some part responsible for whether a singer will make it on the stage or not. And it's happened more than once that even a very famous person experiences total failure. Because straying to the right or left of the canon is forbidden. No one there is interested in some kind of improvements or novelties. If I remember correctly, he said that Renée Fleming performed there 30 years ago and hasn't returned since. Their gold standard is still [Maria] Callas. I only mention that as an example, to understand what the audience is like....

Of course, it's all full of freaks; the opera maniacs are a strange tribe. When they come to a show, they feel like they're members of a jury. And every show has a jury of 2000 judges sitting there, watching. The only difference is that they don't hold up scorecards like the judges in figure skating competitions.

But they do boo.

Well, they often boo even during the performance. And something even before the performance. Our conductor was even booed before the performance. But each person brings both enemies and friends.

How do the judges differ in Eastern Europe, in Western Europe, in America?

If we're talking about opera, America is the most conservative. For example, as my colleagues tell me, the reception at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City is the most conservative. There they also have the misfortune of not having a ministry of culture. The sponsors have essentially become the censors. A few years ago an American lady bequeathed half of her estate to the Metropolitan Opera. But her relatives didn't like the next show, so they wanted to go to court to get the money back. In the end, they weren't successful, but that's really a type of indirect censure.

The term “old-fashioned” turned up in The New York Times' review of Il trovatore. But what in art is old-fashioned?

As I've said before, if someone calls be old-fashioned, I first of all consider that a compliment. But...that's another story. I mentioned some examples of how singers are evaluated and how musicians are evaluated. As I understand it, this can't really be a matter of objectivity. In other words, there are no objective criteria. Because there are nevertheless enough people out there for whom Callas' voice, or, more specifically, some nuance in her voice, is physiologically unpleasant. (I, for one, am one of these people.) And so it becomes a question of taste. But the aesthetics of a production – that's a completely subjective thing. If someone doesn't like my productions, all it means is that we simply have differing tastes.

And still, why do you consider “old-fashioned” to be a compliment?

I said at the very beginning that the sounds we call music did not originate in a vacuum. These sounds are the most direct links to a specific time and place. It's some kind of blood group that unites each generation with the music of its time. For example, The Beatles aren't my music; they're my parents' music. I can enjoy them, I can even worship The Beatles, but we don't share the same blood group. Grunge is apparently the music of my time – Nirvana, etc. I may not like the music, but its sounds belong to my generation, the music belongs to my time. I think it's over-simplifying to not take into account the context of the time when an opera's music was created. I think it's necessary to somehow show it on stage. That's not easy. None of us lived back in those days, and none of us knows what it was really like to live back then. Our notions of history are also adjusted and quite deformed. Operating with historical signs is kind of a shady thing. And yet, I also think it's wrong to ignore the context and the time. But, you see, Western European theatre and opera have been ignoring them for already the past 30 years or so. No one denies that Gerard Mortier (1943-2014) left a completely revolutionary mark on the use of opera theatre to speak about contemporary issues. But I think the side effect is the harm that was done. For 20 or 30 years now everybody has been trying to put opera stories into a modern trash aesthetic.

I guess the real reason for my views is that the concept of art education has been so different in the East and the West. As we know, it was even more different for the visual arts. No one in the Western art schools was interested in craft; the focus was on each artist's expression of his or her own self. On our side of Europe, on the other hand, no one was interested in your private ego. You had to learn craft. And I'm more of a supporter of this school. Because I went through the “old school” education, too. Theatre education at the Conservatory during the Soviet era was unified; your own uniqueness was not stimulated.... You had to learn a trade. And that's lacking in the West. Very simply, they're complete illiterates in art history. I really believe that. Regarding theatre and opera, these people...they're simply not informed about the existence of art history. In any case, they weren't taught about it at school. But the music they perform is from that time. So that's my answer to your question about why I enjoy being old-fashioned.


Drawings for Tosca, made by Kristīne Jurjāne

But, as I understand, you're making Tosca in a comic-strip style.

I think comic strips have something very similar to the opera genre. I think the exultation and primitiveness in comic strips is also characteristic of opera. Puccini very precisely indicated the specific site in Rome of each scene in Tosca: the Sant'Andrea church, Palazzo Farnese (Scarpia is killed in what is now the French ambassador's office), Castel Sant'Angelo. That's why there are special Tosca tours of Rome, just like there are tours of Dan Brown's Rome. These places are easy to show in a film or on YouTube; there are television versions of Tosca that are set in these particular places. But it's impossible to show them on stage. So we decided to use drawings to make the tour. And Kristīne Jurjāne has been making these drawings with her own two hands for the past two years. This is the perfect example of a situation in which I'm not able to manage being the stage designer all by myself; I need another person.

In a sense, Il trovatore has been created with the same principles in mind as for a comic strip. The first idea, which could not be realised, was based on altar paintings, which, as we know, were one of the first types of comic strip. And the Il trovatore story takes place in 16th-century Aragon – a time when Aragon altar painting began to flourish. My first idea was to tell the whole story through that aspect. Because how can you tell a centuries-old story in such a way that you're able to, if not actually step into a time machine, at least imagine what that time and place might have been like. Paintings are almost the only testimonies left from that time. Without painting, there is nothing. Well, no...there are also literary descriptions.

When Arterritory asked Salzburg-based gallery owner Thaddaeus Ropac what has changed on the art scene in the past 30 years, since he entered it, he answered that art has climbed down from its ivory tower and has become a genuine part of people's lives. But there's also the opposite opinion, that art should remain an elite phenomenon. What do you think?

I was just reading Rīgas laiks magazine on the airplane yesterday, and it had an interview with Fran Lebowitz. I completely agree with her. The fact that we force people into museums.... Everyone worships Gerard Mortier because he pulled people into the theatres who had never been interested in opera before. He simplified everything, he democratised it. Very many opera and theatre directors (it's more visible in opera because there's the contrast with the music) banalise the theatre language down to the level of expression in television. They try to feed any opera story – whether it's Mozart, Verdi or Wagner – to the viewers through the pop-culture language. Of course, that helps to bring in more viewers, but it's also a complete crime against the musical spirit. But nothing can be done about it. It's increasingly difficult to explain to European tax payers why they should support art and culture. It's becoming very difficult nowadays.

In Old Europe, too?

Yes, definitely. There's been a big change. It happened about eight years ago, at least that's when I felt that a change had taken place. There was a strike by cultural figures, cultural workers, artists – a freelancers' strike. But almost everybody there is a freelancer, so practically everybody was on strike. The Avignon and Aix-en-Provence festivals were cancelled, no filming took place; in short, nothing happened. I was in Avignon at the time and witnessed all of it. They were so surprised that the people didn't support them! The times had changed. They thought it was still 1968, that students and the people and everybody was united with the intellectuals and artists. But it turned out that the situation was completely different. And that was a real shock to them. Artists, who in their inertia still believed they were leftists, found out that everything had turned upside down. The people are our enemies. By “our” I mean art and culture. The people have football, Eurovision and everything else. The only hope for professional art are the well-educated, wealthy audiences, in other words, a very small percentage of people who will continue to lobby in some way that tax payers must pay for culture. But you shouldn't ask such questions of the tax payers themselves. We already saw what happened in the case of the library. Thank God no one asked the people for their opinion.

But, seeing as the handful of wealthy and educated people interested in culture is so small, then the hole we're in is so much the deeper....

That's a problem. That's why the museum concept is what it is – at least democratise itself in some way. But I think it's only a question of time. Eventually it'll all become like it is in America, like at the Metropolitan. There's nothing to be done. Paris, where all of the dreamers went, wine and smoky rooms, the bohemian art scene.... And in New York City it all happened even faster. The art market made it so that 15 years ago the only people who could afford to work with art were either the children of very rich parents or...


Il trovatore, 2014. Photo: Salzburger Festspiele / Forster

The relationship between art and money has dictated everything in the past few decades.

It's probably most pronounced in the visual arts. I lived in New York City for two years in the early 1990s. Even then painters had become more like promoters; they spent half of their time not painting but writing letters. For New York artists back then, Mark Kostabi was the example of how an artist can make a career and a name for himself and sell himself. He was like the Madonna or Phil Collins of art. Nowadays, it's possible no one remembers him any more. In that sense, opera or theatre is in an absolutely privileged situation. They might be the last bastions. At least in Europe.

You went to New York City as an actor.

Formally. I planned to stay there forever.

But you returned, and soon afterwards you staged your first exhibition.

Almost immediately.

What happened in New York City back then?

I went there because I had told myself that New York City was the centre of the world and that it was important to live there. But once there, I saw quite quickly that the theatre world had begun to be completely commercialised. 95% of the actors in New York acted for one reason only – to be noticed by television agents and to be cast in sitcoms. Their attitude towards the acting profession was not as towards an art, but as a.... In other words, you can work in an office, you can work in a bank, or you can be an actor in a TV series. Ten years in one role. Here actors complain and say, “Well...acting in a TV series, that's not stylish.” But in America it's the other way around – that's exactly what's in style! And that's also where the best money can be made. Not in Hollywood, but on TV. And theatre is only a stepping stone to achieving this goal. They're only interested in the first two evenings, when TV agents come to the theatre. So, the theatre is only a place to show yourself.

But I returned for a different reason. I'm just not one of those people who are capable of emigrating. Completely emigrating, that is.

Last year you produced Tautas ienaidnieks (An Enemy of the People) at the New Riga Theatre. Afterwards, you said it had shamefully failed because there was no discussion. There will be elections again in Latvia this autumn. What do you think – does art have the power to change anything, or is that just a myth that keeps being maintained and cultivated?

Those same critics who come to the theatre every night are proof that art does not make someone a better person. If we assumed that art makes people better, you'd think that all theatre critics – who have seen about ten thousand shows each – were extremely wise supermen. But, of course, they're not. So, this assumption is incorrect. Sometimes it's exactly the opposite. If you spend all your time in that theatre “soup”, something irreversibly bad happens.

Do you feel it yourself, too?

One of the reasons I've stepped back from drama theatre is because the music world is more harmonious. It's better for your health. Drama theatre is a kind of sado-maso. It's destructive. There's something self-destructive about art, at least drama theatre and I think some other genres as well. There's a reason people think art comes from Satan. It's partly true, isn't it?

Music may be the only – nearly the last – genre of art in which it's completely impossible to avoid and escape the concept of beauty. Of course, beauty is a matter of taste. The Mozart concept of beauty is very different from the Stockhausen concept of beauty, although Stockhausen is maybe too radical an example. As we know, because neither one of them is writing music any more. But I'm now trying to return to sounds that create some kind of harmony, sounds that are physiologically pleasant to a person. Because a person – kind of like an animal – wants these touches to be sensually pleasant. Other branches of art haven't been paying attention to this for already at least a hundred years. In those, communication and perception don't take place through the same channels.

I think that, for example, the beauty of Egon Schiele's paintings is equal to the beauty of Botticelli's art. I understand that they are equal, but at the same time it's clear that one of them is a painful kind of beauty, a beauty that is physiologically unpleasant. Even though that's not really the right word. But the word “beauty” has already become taboo in many of the arts.

But isn't it being legalised now?

It depends on where. In Latvian there's the word smukums [pretty].

But there's a difference between “pretty” and “beautiful”.

Yes, a huge difference. But the problem, I think, is that people – and, what's worse, many people in the art world – have cast aside the concept of beauty altogether. They don't even have an organ any more that perceives beauty; they're not capable of scanning it.

But maybe that's the state of affairs right now, a fear of being old-fashioned?

In large part, the reason is that during the past 50 years the majority of artists in all genres, except music – in theatre and, especially, in visual art – have been using art as an instrument to solve socio-political problems. But...that's strange, odd, of course. To feel beauty – can that be taught? It probably can....

Yes, by seeing and observing very, very much.

Well, yes. Anybody can see that a sunrise is beautiful. So, it's also possible to cultivate oneself to the point where you start seeing Egon Schiele's beauty. I forced myself to do that, too. When I was still in school I was terribly maddened by the fact that I didn't understand it. And that mostly applied to visual art and music. That other people understood it and were able to value it, but I wasn't. I had quite the inferiority complex because of this inability of mine to not understand that beauty. But yes, I had a professional need. And I tortured myself in so many ways for so long....