Perspectives: Putting It Together

Classic Arts Features   Perspectives: Putting It Together
Composer Osvaldo Golijov talks to incoming Juilliard dean Ara Guzelimian (Carnegie Hall's current artistic advisor) about opera as ritual, a Figaro for the 21st century, and the meaning of composition.

With his wildly acclaimed 2000 choral-orchestral work La Pasi‹n Seg‹n San Marcos, Osvaldo Golijov went from promising young composer to next great hope of the classical music world. His opera Ainadamar further secured his reputation for dreamlike genre-jumping music that draws on a vast range of cultural traditions, including klezmer, tango, opera, and chamber music. With a commission from the Metropolitan Opera, the 45-year-old Argentinean composer now turns to another major milestone: his first large-scale opera. Though he won't get into the specifics of this new operatic work (slated for the 2010 _11 season), his aim, he says, is to enlighten.

Ara Guzelimian: Osvaldo, we've talked about the music in your house as you were growing up and how it shaped you — Piazzolla, Bach and Mozart, klezmer. But I have no idea about your early experience of opera. Was opera part of the soundscape?

Osvaldo Golijov: Yes and no. Much less than all that other music. But there was a beautiful opera theater in La Plata, where I grew up, called the Teatro Argentino. Really small but gorgeous. I remember seeing things like The Magic Flute — all kinds of beautiful productions. But then, before the dictatorship, the opera house burned down under suspicious circumstances. That was the end of my late-childhood, early-teenage opera.

It's strange, but the thing I feel has really permeated my sense of musical theater is the synagogue, not opera. If you stay at the synagogue for a whole day — for Yom Kippur, for example — there's a whole drama going on. The sense of ritual that belongs to so much of opera, I think I got from the synagogue.

AG: It's not so far removed from the origins of Greek tragedy. Religious ritual evolving into theater isn't so far-fetched.

OG: That's true. I envy that incredible thing that the Greeks had that Nietzsche speaks about so beautifully in The Birth of Tragedy — the whole Dionysiac spirit. There was this great picture in The New York Times of the neon signs on 42nd Street, when they broadcast Madama Butterfly from the Met. And there were interviews with passersby. And one lady said, "I was in tears!" It's not the same catharsis that Aristotle and Nietzsche speak about, but now, with all this new technology — and this new spirit at the Met — there's this possibility of going back to the earliest Dionysiac rituals. We can achieve them in a very multitudinarian contemporary setting.

AG: I grew up in the Armenian Orthodox Church, which has in common with the Jewish synagogue the centrality of music and ritual. I agree with you about the theatrical power of religious ritual.

OG: Once you are in a synagogue, time is like musical time, which can go backwards, upwards, downwards, forwards, it can be frozen. Time as a horizontal, forward-going experience ceases to exist. We manipulate time in music in ways that only ritualistic experiences can reproduce.

When you are Christian and you are at Christmas dinner, you don't relate to what happened the day before or to what will happen the day after but to the series of Christmas dinners that you have experienced throughout your life. It's the same when you enter a synagogue.

What is interesting regarding the synagogue, which is unlike temples of other religions, is the sense of anarchy and chaos. In the synagogues of Jerusalem, chaos and anarchy are prevalent — there is a multiplicity of communications with God, simultaneously. You have one person shouting, another meditating, another mumbling, another in bliss — all at the same time!

AG: You just described an operatic ensemble!

OG: Yes! That's how I feel.

AG: Time in opera is a very fluid notion. Sometimes there's a narrative thread, sometimes the narrative thread jumps back and forth in time. At times, your opera Ainadamar is in no specific time — it steps out of time. Is that something opera allows?

OG: I think the whole reason opera is so powerful and fascinating is because, by being completely non-realistic in the sense of surface reality and in its manipulation of time, opera is actually the most like life. You and I are talking now, and maybe there is one millisecond of silence, and you can go deep somewhere else and then come back. It's not just, Here are Ara and Osvaldo in this conversation. In the opera house, 3,000 people share in this possibility that time ceases — it can be reorganized. And I think that's why all these directors of film are fascinated by opera.

AG: I'm glad you mentioned film. You're working on a score for Francis Ford Coppola, and you made a very beautiful one for Sally Potter's The Man Who Cried. What is cinematic about opera and what is operatic about film?

OG: I think what is operatic about film is an unforgettable close-up, seeing an outsized face in a particular expression. I think that's the equivalent of a great aria. Isn't that operatic, if, at a particular moment in a film, you have a close-up that really puts you out of context? That's what happens in a great aria. It's a revelation. The power of revelation is what film and opera share.

AG: Is there something cinematic about the sweep and the scale of opera that takes it beyond other forms of musical expression?

OG: It depends on the opera. One thing that to me is really fascinating is the idea of both film and opera as summits of civilization, because of the semi-impossibility of conveying any kind of message with so many disparate forces in conflict. I mean, you go to a big opera house and you have all these people with so many different agendas putting something together. There's this potential for huge failure, but also this exhilarating possibility that we can convey these collective dreams to the listeners.

AG: Both are these huge collective efforts of disparate elements and yet both are intensely personal. It's a paradox.

OG: Yes. There are hundreds of people working on little things and big things. I remember a few weeks after September 11, 2001, I went to the Met and saw Idomeneo, this incredible music in this incredible opera of clemency. And I was struck that, Okay, here we are after this tremendous event, and there are people singing, and there are carpenters who put in the set. And we can still make believe.

I don't know if you remember around that time, there was this horrible controversy generated by Karlheinz Stockhausen, when he said that the terrorists actually mounted the greatest opera of all time, because they rehearsed and it ended in death. It always disturbed me, what he said. But our friend Peter Sellars once said, "You know what's the beauty of opera? It's that at the end the dead rise and take a bow." And that is why Stockhausen is wrong. An operatic gesture is not the one that destroys the most; it's the one that allows for learning.

AG: You're in the very early stages of developing an opera for the Met. What are your thoughts at this point, knowing that they may change as the work develops?

OG: I would love if we can find a story that has the fun, the speed, the pace of Le nozze di Figaro. A story that hopefully will occur, not necessarily in the third world, but in a reality that is shared by many people around the globe today. There is a whole culture that transcends national boundaries. Most importantly, an opera, like Figaro, that despite being funny and fast, is deeply tender and human and whose end would be one of reconciliation and enlightenment. And I think that's something we don't have so much these days. Opera is something that can be tender, funny, and profoundly human, and from which we can learn in the end.

AG: One more question. You have often made use of sound sources combined with live performance. How are sound collage and studio art a part of your musical palette?

OG: It's simply one more tool. Composition is putting things together. That's the meaning of composing. You can use whatever has symbolic power, as long as you transform it and recharge the symbolic meaning of that element, be it a radio broadcast, bullets, sounds of water, horse hooves, whatever.

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