Coming April 18, Luca Francesconi’s opera Quartett
plays in Dortmund for its German premiere. The opera takes inspiration from a play by the same name, by Heiner Müller, loosely based on the 18th-century novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses
by Pierre-Ambroise-François Choderlos de Laclos. Repeat performances through May 17.
Since 2011 Quartett
(commissioned by La Scala and Wiener Festwochen) has been performed more than 60 times, with five different productions to date. An all-new production is slated for Theater Dortmund, directed by Ingo Kerkhof. It stars Allison Cook as the Marquise de Merteuil and Christian Bowers as the Vicomte de Valmont. The orchestra will be conducted by Philipp Armbruster.
In the run-up to this important German premiere, we had a chance to talk with the newly appointed general manager of the Dortmund Opera, Heribert Germeshausen.
You began your tenure as intendant of Oper Dortmund this season. Thus far the repertoire has been largely standard fare – Puccini, Rossini, Bernstein.... Francesconi’s Quartett is a contemporary work. What prompted you to programme it?
In the first half of my first season I’ve been mainly concerned with building confidence. Dortmund is not an easy place for the art form of opera, certainly not for contemporary opera. At the time I took over as intendant, the house seating 1170 had just 86 first-night subscribers. That means that our audience numbers have to be generated mainly through individual ticket sales. For this reason, it was important for me at the beginning to communicate to the public that Oper Dortmund has an extraordinarily fine ensemble that on appropriate occasions will be complemented by outstanding guest singers. With these artists, we are in a position to bring the masterworks of the genre to the stage with stylistically varied but always compelling directorial approaches. Now that we’ve offered evidence of this in five premieres, my team and I have three contemporary operas lined up for the second half of the season. The German premiere of Luca Francesconi’s Quartett will start it off with a bang.
In an interview with 'The Guardian', Francesconi said about his opera: “This piece is violent, it’s sex, it’s blasphemy, it’s the absence of mercy.” Do you agree? What’s your personal take on this opera?
Who would want to contradict the composer here? For me personally, Quartett
is one of the most gripping operas of the 2010s.
Quartett is being staged often internationally – for example at La Scala, in the US and at London’s Royal Opera. Now you’re giving its German premiere. What can we expect from Oper Dortmund’s production of Francesconi’s opera?
One of the fascinating things about Quartett
is the multi-layered nature of source material and work. Basing it on the 1782 epistolary novel Les Liaisons dangereuses
by Pierre-Ambroise-François Choderlos de Laclos (first layer), Heiner Müller writes 'Quartett' (second layer) in 1981, placing it in a new political context (before the French Revolution/after World War III). Luca Francesconi makes an English adaptation of the text (third layer) and sets it to music (fourth layer). Adding to that, on a fifth layer, Ingo Kerkhof conceives a staging that is extremely pure and musical, one which does not obscure the political dimensions but clearly departs from productions dominated by technology such as Alex Ollé’s world premiere.
Ingo Kerkhof has been directing plays and operas for over 20 years. What were your reasons for engaging him to do Quartett?
Kerkhof is one of the most musical directors I know. Collaborating with me in Heidelberg, he sympathetically and movingly staged the second productions of three challenging operas: Wolfgang Rihm’s Dionysos, Georg Friedrich Haas’s Morgen und Abend
and Peter Ruzicka’s Benjamin
. And with great success he has produced works like Sciarrino’s Lohengrin
, at the Berlin Staatsoper, and Berg’s Wozzeck
, at the Cologne Opera. His musically sensitive direction of singers and a feeling for the political context will ensure that he puts his own stamp on Quartett
From 2011/12 to 2017/18 you were opera director at Theater Heidelberg, where contemporary music occupied a similarly significant position in the opera schedule. Why do you consider contemporary music theatre such an important part of the repertoire?
Contemporary music is essential for a vibrant opera house because it’s one its two central pillars – the other being to foster the great traditional repertoire in realizations that accord with contemporary aesthetics – in supporting the genre’s long-term vitality. But a lively opera house depends on a lively audience. And that audience’s enjoyment and broadening also require contemporary music theatre.
What is your vision for a modern-day opera house? How would you describe your overall perspective as a dramaturg, an intendant and an artist in general?
The operatic form is for me the greatest artistic invention of the human intellect and, by virtue of that, is the artwork of our time. Moreover, in our age of media that breed isolation, the theatre is one of the few remaining places where empathetic intelligence is being developed. That’s why I work at an opera house that opens itself widely into the community and absorbs impulses without losing its identity. I have come up with the catch phrase RuhrOper 21 for Dortmund. I’d like to see an opera house whose demographic more closely resembles that of the city as a whole, and which – precisely because of and not despite this – ranks among the most exciting in the country. In order to foster opera attendance beyond the school visits that can tend to be perceived as a duty, I established a new department for outreach projects at the beginning of my tenure as intendant. A special position in that department is occupied by Germany’s first institutionalized citizens’ opera: “We DO Opera!” The Dortmund citizens’ opera enables anyone interested to get up on stage at a music-theatre production whose content and music he/she has helped to develop. In this endeavour, we are very open to musical impulses from outside the classical canon, yet without denying our own heritage. At the same time, we are producing the masterpieces of the genre and commissioning new works. In general, opera is the perfect genre for generations who consume music almost exclusively in connection with colourful moving images – on video or on YouTube. It’s just that not everyone has noticed it yet! I’m stepping up to change that.
Photo: © Thomas Jauk