Interview: Kaija Saariaho on ENO's new production of her opera L'Amour de loin

'Music is communication.'

27 June 2009

Kaija Saariaho by Ralph Mecke

Kaija Saariaho is one of the foremost composers working in music today. Originally from Finland but based in Paris for the past twenty-seven years, Saariaho operates in a liminal idiom closely connected to spectral processes she adopted in her time working at IRCAM in the eighties, but also open to more traditionally conceived (but utterly fresh) treatments of colour, texture, and line. Her ravishing music always pivots on a belief in sound as such, in opposition to the abstract conceptions of tone that often characterised the generation immediately preceding her. Works such as Verblendungen (‘84) and Du Cristal (‘89) saw the composer developing a sensuous approach where shifting colours defined form, and electronic and acoustic textures slid in and out of one another in fluid motion.

Over the past ten to fifteen years Saariaho has composed a series of vocal works, including two highly-acclaimed operas (with a third operatic monodrama entitled Emilie for Karita Mattila scheduled to premiere in Lyon in March of next year). A 'musical journey in fifteen stations' on the life of Simone Weil, Le Passion de Simone, premiered in Vienna in 2006. Her first opera, L'Amour de loin, is a deeply expressive fable about the elusiveness of love (and existence). It is based on an early twentieth century biography of the medieval troubadour Jaufré Rudel. It was premiered in a Peter Sellars production at the Salzburg Festival in the year 2000, and since then it has received great acclaim, including a prestigious Grawemeyer Award for the composer. It will finally receive its UK premiere on July 3 courtesy of English National Opera.

The director for this new production (which impressively will be the opera's seventh in only nine years) is Daniele Finzi Pasca, famed for his work with Cirque du Soleil. Pasca has taken a daring approach to enlivening the intimate narrative by adorning the three characters with doubles and triples; dancers and acrobats who shadow the singers as they journey ever onward and inward in the search for their ideal love. Roderick Williams (Jaufré), Joan Rodgers (Clemence) and Faith Sherman (as the Pilgrim who acts as a conduit for Jaufré and Clemence) star, and Edward Gardner will conduct Saariaho's magical music. These factors, in combination with a special offer of £20 tickets for the majority of the house's seats for each of the four nights of the short run, make this event unmissable.

I met the soft-spoken, humble but extremely intelligent Kaija Saariaho at the Coliseum this week to discuss L'Amour de loin, and to ask her about her feelings on this new production. I began by asking her why, like so many other contemporary composers, she initially rejected opera as a viable creative pursuit, only to embrace the genre in mid-career. 'Well little-by-little, I saw many productions which were really interesting. The decisive thing came in 1989 when I saw the Peter Sellars production of Don Giovanni. This showed me that opera could be something relevant, something that was not distant but that could be actually deeply meaningful to contemporary life.' She goes onto to talk about her attitude to the form. 'It is really a case of how you define opera. I see it as a meeting point of various artists. It is a different sort of communication to concert works, and the artists involved have to develop something very different to the relation experienced in the concert hall.'

I ask how this plays out in her own works, and how her experience of opera differs from her other activities. 'As I said opera is very different to orchestral works. It is a meeting point for all the arts, and it speaks to us on a different level. In my own work I wanted stories, stories that would help the opera operate on many levels. An audience at an opera identify themselves differently, and it touches their lives differently.' As it turns out this sense of identification carries over into the composer's experiences in writing each of her operas. 'It is a huge thing for me when I compose an opera. Each character…I become them in a way. I feel really lucky every time I finish one. I feel it is my last one, I felt that even after L’Amour. You really need to identify with the characters, and I feel very attached to them. With L’Amour I thought, soon he'll (Jaufré) die, and I'll have peace! I'm sure Verdi felt differently, perhaps!'

She continues on the theme of coming to opera late, and how her style meshes with the demands of the stage. 'You know I didn't compose opera before, as I felt my music was not appropriate. I thought, this is not opera! My music was never dramatic, but little-by-little I came to the realisation that I could do something interesting. I saw the original production of Messiaen's St. François d’Assise in Paris in 1983, and that made a big impression. It showed me a new way of looking at opera.' I mention the tableaux approach taken by Messiaen, and how this perhaps opened opera up to composers such as herself whose music does not perhaps lend itself to drama as traditionally conceived. 'Well yes, and fortunately I don’t need to think about whether the music is dramatic enough, that's up to the director!'

This brings the discussion onto the precise nature of L'amour de loin. I remark that the work is dominated by a sort of longing, by an existential pall in which the two main characters become ever more isolated, even as Jaufré journeys towards Clemence to play her his music first hand. The internal psychological tension between desire and reality transfixes the characters, as it does the audience. How does the composer see it? She accepts the description I give, but wants to emphasise that 'there is a narrative in my work, it is just married to an internal style of drama. When choosing this story, I really wanted to have lots of space to explore different feelings, both next to, around, and within love, and also about death. Of course a lot of opera is about these things, but I felt there were fresh things I and my collaborator (the librettist) Amin Maalouf could say. I wanted to handle the different colours of the drama carefully, and shade them within the music. My music is all about colour and light.'

Kaija Saariaho by Maarit KytohaarjHow, then, does this translate to the music; how does the music convey the drama? 'There are three main characters, and three musics which are living, co-existing. Technically speaking, certain materials develop, disappear, or become one as the different psychological and spiritual states shift. These movements are mirrored in the material, which combines and shadows as the drama develops. What was most important was to find spaces for the music to work in, and for the different sonorities and themes within the score to breathe and live.' I talk of the heightened sensuousness of the material, of its utterly transfixing quality. 'Yes I hope my music shapes and matches the drama in some way. My music is focused on colour and shape, and on light and shade through timbre and texture, and I have been very happy with how I have managed it in L'amour de loin.'

The opera has some obvious forebears, with its tale of a tragic love that ends in death and in an emotional scene for the female protagonist, a tale that is vivified by magical, aquatic sonorities that evoke the yearning emotional states of the characters. Tristan, of course, comes most readily to mind. I ask her about the influences that lie behind this work, and specifically whether Tristan und Isolde was on her mind during the composition. 'Not at all actually. I mean of course I love Tristan, and a comparison is great to receive, but once I sit down to compose it is only my music in my head, nothing else. In the preparations of course I had other things in mind. I thought about Don Giovanni, Pelléas and Mélisande, Wozzek was very important actually, and I thought about Káta Kabanová. But in the end through all of the hard work it is just me.'

What about contemporary opera, do any more recent works or composers inspire her? 'Well there was Wozzek, as I have said, but of course that's not contemporary. I love Ligeti, but his opera was not an influence at all.' I bring up the fact that a lot of recent works seem to share an important quality with L'amour of having a loose, somewhat exploratory attitude to narrative and character, even if some of the subjects remain the same. I mention Liza Lim's wonderful experimental piece The Navigator (which also looks at desire, love, and eroticism in a fresh and unique way), and also Brian Ferneyhough's Shadowtime. 'Yes these are important works. But each composer must do what is right for them, what works, and I work at my own methods, which have been productive so far thankfully.'

I am keen to get the composer's reaction to Daniele Finzi Pasca's remarkable cross media approach to her opera. 'I only this morning saw the rehearsal, but I thought it looked really promising. I think it truly could be quite extraordinary. I felt a remarkable sense of colour and light as I watched, and I feel like it will reveal itself more as things go on. All productions bring something new to my score, which I find wonderful.' I ask about her feelings about what directors can and should bring to operatic works, and how she feels in experiencing their very different approaches. 'Initially at the second production of L'Amour de loin in 2002 I thought “it's all wrong, oh no.” But it's another vision that directly reflects the aesthetics of those involved. It is a prolongation of my music.'

Unlike the situation of repertory pieces, I say, she as the composer is in a unique position of being able to collaborate directly with directors and performers. How far would she feel comfortable letting a director go? 'Well even in this production, its translation into English, I just could not even have imagined in the past allowing this. But I have become convinced, and am happy now. I feel like these things are up to those involved, and I can then judge it after.' But the music must remain inviolable, I ask? 'Yes, yes, of course!' She mentions at this point that she had just that day been watching the musicians hard at work at the score, and she is keen to compliment their efforts. 'It is so rare to come to the first orchestra rehearsal and to have it so complete. I only had one comment, something like “on page 29, a little less strings.” This is extremely rare, and very encouraging for the performances.' She readily agrees with the compliments I pay Edward Gardner, ENO's gifted and extremely hard-working Music Director.

As the discussion draws to a close, I ask the composer about what she hopes to achieve with her music. Is it important to her to reach people, to connect with an audience, or is the work itself enough? 'It is very important that it communicates with other human beings. Music is communication. That is what it is. I can't change my musical language for this, you see, so it might connect with more people, and of course maybe there is music out there that can't reach people for whatever reason. Maybe some people are happy with this. But I hope of course to reach people, and to move them. This has always been important to me above all else.'

I mention ENO's £20 ticket offer through which they hope to attract an audience, particularly a young audience, that might not usually go to the opera. 'Yes this is a very good thing. You know opera is something different. I know lots of musicians who reject it for years, and then suddenly something changes, something happens, and they awaken to what they have been missing.' I mention that it has the advantage over concert music in that there is a ready made narrative, and plenty of external factors such as set, costume, drama and so on that provide an automatic way in for the non-specialist. But of course many people, classical musicians amongst them, can't get by the clichés everyone has in their head about opera, and its apparent irrelevance to their contemporary lives. 'Yes this is very true, and sad also. I think people would enjoy it if they realised it was not simply one thing, but many things. Opera is something different, maybe something they've not heard or known before.'

ENO's new Press Officer Rebecca Driver, who is also present, mentions the company's assiduous efforts to break down barriers for opera by putting on the work of living composers, by coming up with special offer schemes such as the one in place for L'Amour, and also by collaborating with other companies to put on groundbreaking new shows such as their recent After Dido. She talks of ENO's mission to reach out to young people, particularly, and to try and show them what they are missing. This prompts Saariaho to tell an endearing story that links in with some of the issues we had been discussing. 'When my daughter was, well she's 14 now so she would have been five, she came to see us rehearsing the first production of L'Amour. The next day she went to school and decided to put on her own version of the opera with her friends, her own L'Amour!' So she liked the music and the spectacle? 'Well I think of course the size of the thing must have been impressive as she was so young, but also I think Peter Sellars was so lively and enthusiastic, so it was clearly attractive and fun for kids. There are so many things in opera for people, not just young people, to be moved by.' So this is L'Amour's eighth production then? 'Yes, yes it is!'

By Stephen Graham

L’Amour de loin opens at the Coliseum on July 4, and runs for three more performances on July 7, 9, and 11. Visit www.eno.org for more details.

Harmonia Mundi release a new studio recording of the opera on July 27 starring Daniel Belcher and Ekaterina Lekhina, with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin conducted by Kent Nagano providing accompaniment.

Photos by Ralph Mecke and Marit Kytohaarj

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