Francesconi: Quartett again in the States

Francesconi: Quartett again in the States

After its American debut last year at the Spoleto Festival USA, Luca Francesconi’s Quartett makes its return to the United States. This time on the West Coast and featuring an all-new production, the opera’s fifth. Performances of Quartett are slated for August 11, 16 and 19 at the West Edge Opera Summer Festival in Richmond (San Francisco/Bay Area). It stars Hadleigh Adams as Vicomte de Valmont and Heather Buck as Marquise de Merteuil, and is directed by Elkhanah Pulitzer. Orchestra conducted by John Kennedy. 
We had a chance to ask Pulitzer and Kennedy a few questions about their work on Quartett. Here’s what they had to say.  

Ms. Pulitzer, the production of Quartett in Richmond is the opera’s fifth different one. The world premiere was staged by La Fura dels Baus and various directors have worked on it since then. It’s rare for a contemporary opera to be performed so often. Besides the music, what is it about this opera that makes it so interesting? Could it be the subject matter?   
I think the fact that the piece has been done so often speaks to how resonant and timely it’s subject matter.  We are living through difficult times, witnessing the throws of nations struggling to balance autonomy with the reality of globalization in an interconnected world.  We continue to live with ongoing war and intolerance, brutalities reported on a global stage more rapidly and graphically than ever before in history.  These two characters are in a battle to dominate and control, seeking power and maintaining privilege at any cost.  Ultimately, they are at war with one another and with their true selves.  Their story reflects each of our struggles to live authentically in balance with the world and other people.  Their story is also a metaphor for these greater struggles that exist in humanity between free will and society and what happens when a person exercises their will to destroy others, essentially the seeds of all war.

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Did you see any of the previous productions of Quartett?
Only a few moments of the La Scala and the ROH Fulljames production in Spoleto.  I have deliberately avoided taking in other points of view on the piece to allow my own imagination more room to roam free.

What do you know about the composer, Luca Francesconi? Have you had a chance to speak with him?  
Yes, I have had the opportunity to speak with Luca.  It was a wonderful conversation and such a privilege to speak with him as author/composer of this piece.  It was clarifying and inspiring as well, to see that my ideas compliment his intentions with the piece and to hear his thoughts about the ending, which is presented on paper somewhat enigmatically.  Part of what drew me to this work is that it requires a directorial point of view that is an ‘open system’ in the sense that it allows me to create the rules for the world of the work onstage.  That freedom to conceive of what the rules are, and how the actor singers will engage within that structure, has been a delight to explore in each phase of developing the project.  Luca clearly believes in the power of art to transform us all, as do I.  His choice of how to end this piece, and the selection of this material in the first place, inspires as it allows us all to enter a post-modern world that ultimately mirrors the ongoing predicament of human beings to break out of old, dire cycles, in order to build a new world order.

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What could be more timely and urgent than this question?  Several other questions the work asks include:  How do we govern ourselves?  How do we lead?  How can we live in the world moving from a state of love instead of fear?  Can we break old cycles and birth a new way of being?  If God is dead (for some people) then how do we find a moral compass and pursue just action in the world?  

His work is brave and bold, as was Müller’s before him, and the questions posed continue to be critical to ask ourselves and one another.

Can you give us an idea of what we’ll be seeing in your version of Quartett?
Yes, the design and staging for this production reflects the hybrid nature of the work itself.  The scenic design is part insane asylum, part padded wall, part 18th century dining room, as well as a passarelle that brings the two characters perpetually in a loop back to the same ‘room’ as they cannot escape their ‘island’ or ‘petri dish.’  In addition, there are dressing rooms that are more functional for the two actors to prepare and dress for the next battle/encounter.  There are also showers, perhaps anti-radiation or normal, that they take to cleanse themselves after particularly difficult and disgusting encounters.  The costume design is also hybrid, taking elements from the iconography of fetishistic undergarments, religious iconography, 18th Century dress, and post-modern fashion to create a variety of looks throughout the performance that establish the two actors initially as Merteuil and Valmont but later help celebrate their move into role playing and the ensuing power struggles for dominance within the games they play.  The wall design is part bed and part falling structure and was inspired by the fact that the French Revolution caused the fall of the old government structures and marks a turning point in modern government.  It also speaks to the antics they go through, perpetually playing games to avoid aging and death, which further perpetuate a loop a la Sartre’s Nausea, which they struggle initially to maintain but eventually break free from.  Additionally, there will be projections incorporated into the production that will broadcast on the wall of their ‘ward/dining room.’  Those images will all be photos the acting singers take of themselves or each other throughout the production.  This is because the theme of mirrors and self-reflection run through the piece as key metaphors.  I wanted to bring the phenomenon of selfies and the overwhelming addiction and fascination with phones along with social media posting of selfies to reflect what’s also happening right now as people spend more time curating and documenting their own selves, arguably at the cost of real human interactions.

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Mr. Kennedy, you also conducted the American premiere of Quartett last year at the Spoleto Festival USA. Can you tell us something about the music? What was the audience’s reaction to this opera? 
Luca's music is amazing, with incredible variety and transformation, always serving the libretto – it is truly multi-dimensional both in concept and sound, creating a sonic spatial environment that is both physical as well as psychological. The aspect of having a live orchestra as well as a pre-recorded orchestra reinforces the dramatic subject – there is something metaphorical about the live musicians having to align and modulate their performance to layers from the past. And like the two characters who each have another character (to become a quartet), the orchestra as well has this "other". We received wonderful audience response not only to the rich and enveloping quality of the music, but to the daring dramatic impulse which makes it such a compelling new opera.

What can you tell us about your own personal experience with this opera?
For a conductor, there are layers of preparation beyond the usual operatic experience. You also have to live with the pre-recorded and electronic material, and to adapt to the subtleties in the recorded performance as if it is a meta-instrument; it was essential to me feeling like I could still shape the performance dramatically. I feel when I conduct this opera that I am experiencing both the history and the future of music; there are mutations of music from the past from Monteverdi to post-minimalism, but the multi-dimensional aspect of Luca's vocabulary is visionary and openly suggestive of what music might become.

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The performance slated for Richmond is an all-new production that features a new director and different actors. How does having a new director affect your work as a conductor?  
These characters have the possibility of being interpreted and played in many ways - they are kind of ur-humans who represent all of us. And so how a director approaches them totally influences the singing, in how it is delivered emotionally, and thus how I work with them in the shape and intensity of their text/music communication. It is a special opera to have this kind of possibility, and wide emotional range, for it to be done well in so many different interpretations.

Photos by Cory Weaver