Opera Houses ?—Blow them up !'

Opera Houses ?—Blow them up !'


Pierre Boulez's controversial interview which appeared in the German magazine Der Spiegel' last autumn aroused much discussion in European operatic circles. So much so, that Rolf Liebemiann, the administrator of the Hamburg State Opera, who was at what one might call the receiving end of much of what Boulez said, felt moved to reply : and an interview between Liebermann and Klaus Geitel appeared in the daily newspaper Der Welt'.

Although these two interviews received a fair amount of publicity in Germany (they were reprinted in full in the musical magazine Melos'), in France, and in the U.S.A., where a digest by Harold Schoenberg was published in the 'New York Times', they have so far been ignored in the British press, musical and non-musical. We felt that much of what Boulez said, outrageous though it might seem, deserves wider discussion, especially in this country. As Boulez did not even mention the names of Britten, Tippett, Richard Rodney Bennett and the rest of our operatic composers, and as he has already agreed to conduct `Pelleas et Melisande' at Covent Garden, one of those museum-like institutions he would like to see blown sky-high, we decided to reprint his original interview, as well as Mr Liebermann's reply, in full. We are most grateful to the publishers of Der Spiegel' and 'Der Welt'. both of Hamburg, for granting us permission to publish the translation of both interviews in full. We hope that our readers will be .stimulated into putting some of their own reactions on paper, so that OPERA can act

as a forum for debating this important issue. .D .R.

SPIWEL: M. Boulez, you are the funeral orator of modern opera. Although, in Germany alone, 20 contemporary operas will have their first performance this season, you maintain that there is no such thing as modern opera.

BOULEZ : I do not allow myself to be taken in by the enormous activity of certain opera houses. I still maintain that since Alban Berg's Wozzeck and Lulu . . .

SPIEGEL : ... in other words since 1935 ...

BOULEZ : ... no opera worth mentioning has been composed. And Berg probably knew that he had brought a chapter to its close.

SPIEGEL: But surely, out of the several hundred operas that have been composed since Berg's Lulu, there must be a few worth talking about. The world-wide success of Hans Werner Henze's operas can hardly be the result of pure chance.

BOULEZ : Henze's products are not genuinely modern operas. They always make me think of an oily hairdresser subscribing to an entirely superficial modernism. Der Prinz von Homburg, for example, is an unfortunate dilution of Verdi's Don Carlos—to say nothing of his other operas. Henze is like de Gaulle— whatever rubbish he puts out, he still believes he's the king.

SPIEGEL : If you call Henze derivate, you must surely think more of Gunther Schuller. He is the first opera composer to have fused jazz with I2-note music. in The Visitation, which had its first performance last year and was internationally applauded.

BOULEZ : That must be the 50th time that people have tried to blend jazz with western music. But it doesn't work. There is one kind of music which is written down and which is based on certain rules and particular intellectual configurations, and there is another kind that exists on improvisation. Schuller's opera failed because the jazz forfeited its characteristic of improvisation. Schoenberg was quite right when he said, The middle road is the only one that doesn't lead to Rome'.

sPIEGEL: John Cage, Mauricio Kagel and Gyorgy Ligeti are not of course opera composers, but their works are well known as 'visible music', that is, having theatrical effects, and generally being presented as a kind of happening. [See OPERA, May, p. 424.] Do you see in these composers any jumping-off points for a modern musical theatre?

souLEz: Points certainly, and these works may even be the source of a vision of the new musical theatre. But Kagel and Ligeti, in particular, lack a comprehensive understanding of the theatre. And the musical side is sometimes very thin.

SPIEGEL : But there are sufficient contemporary operas that entirely fulfil their function in the theatre. The Hamburg State Opera, which cultivates the modern musical theatre more than any other stage in the world, manages to produce two entirely new operas every season. And it gets an excellent press for them — and was quite enthusiastically praised for its guest appearance in America last year.

BOULEZ: Not so fast! The Hamburg State Opera's success in America is part of America's weakness. In America — and particularly at the Metropolitan Opera — so-called modern operas are scarcely ever given. And operatic production is practically unknown there. This is why the Hamburg State Opera made an impression. Furthermore, what the Hamburg State Opera offered in America, and what it offers at home, was certainly written in our time, but is in no way modern. Take Boris Blacher's opera that had its first performance in Hamburg, Zwischenfalle bei eine?. Notlandung (Incidents on an Emergency Landing) — is that modern music just because Blacher used electronic methods? It reminds me of the plays at the beginning of the century, when people thought they were being modern because they had a telephone on the stage. This emergencylanding-opera is straightforward incidental music for the cinema. SPIEGEL: Do you think then that the Director of the Hamburg State Opera, Rolf Liebermann, who is himself a well-known composer of operas, has so little taste that he has only selected rubbishy pieces during the eight years of his directorship?

BOULEZ: I think his taste is his Directorship. He chooses operas he could write himself. He only composes now through other people.

SPIEGEL: And these operas are bad, in your opinion?

BOULEZ: Bad is not the right word. You can't discuss that sort of thing when you want to talk about the development of the modern musical theatre. In my opinion a director has no right to institutionalize and cultivate his own bourgeois average taste. The modern musical theatre that Herr Liebermann thinks he has discovered, he has inflated very nicely. And now, naturally, he doesn't want to let his shares drop. SPIEGEL: You think that his method of handing out as many commissions as possible to young composers doesn't contribute anything to the reformation of the musical theatre either?

BOULEZ: I don't think you can produce a new movement by means of commissions. It would be like saying that all that's needed for a child to be born is a surgeon. However, there is something more important to be done beforehand.

SPIEGEL: M. Boulez, you have now defamed composers, dethroned directors and declared a whole chapter of musical history null and void. In spite of this, you obviously believe it possible to breathe some life back into the genus Opera which, in your opinion, has been dead since Berg. For it is said that Pierre Boulez wants to write a composition for the stage.

BOULEZ: I want to — whether or not I shall is still uncertain.

SPIEGEL: How would your opera differ from, let us say, the works of Henze?

BOULEZ: In the first place, the text must really be conceived directly for the musical theatre. It must not be an adaptation of literary material, as is invariably the case today. Literature set to music is sterile.

SPIEGEL: What kind of text would it have to be that the composer Boulez could set to music? BOULEZ: Not set to music, rather let us say make use of. It would be an

experiment in which text and music would be conceived simultaneously. In other words, I would associate with a writer who feels, with every word he writes, that music belongs to it, indeed that without music the text cannot exist.

SPIEGEL : A rare gift.

BOULEZ : Yes. Brecht had it. Unfortunately he collaborated with such inconsequential musicians.

SPIEGEL : Weill and Dessau ...

BOULEZ : One can only dream of what might have happened in a collaboration between Stravinsky and Brecht in the 1920s. Good God, what that might have resulted in! But as it is, with both Stravinsky — particularly in The Soldier's Tale, for example — and Brecht, the text and the music oppose each other like two alien worlds.

SPIEGEL : If Brecht and Stravinsky had worked together ... Do you think that Brecht's texts would have been different, then?

BOULEZ : Of course ; he would have had less of an eye on folksongs, which is what Weill brought him down to.

sPIEGEL: Do you know a playwright of our time as important as Brecht with whom you could work? BOULEZ : I have exchanged thoughts with Jean Genet. He is one of those extraordinarily gifted writers who would be capable of a synthesis of theatre and music, who depart not only from the aesthetic and dramatic

standpoint, but could fuse modern music and modern theatre together. Up to now we have only spoken about the technical aspects of modern music and the technical aspects of the theatre.

sPiEGEL: Can you give us an example of what interests you in Genet? BOULEZ : In Genet's play The Screens there is a very impressive scene in which the Algerians are abusing the French, but no longer in words. They draw the insults on the walls. At the end of this scene the set is ready. You see, this is a part of the action which at the same time makes use of the technical aspects of the stage. This idea is incredibly impressive. This is why Genet was also interested in the technique of my pieces. He wanted to know how I wrote them and how they are conducted. He spoke of including the conductor's gestures in the piece, to justify the presence of the music. So there would not simply be a conductor conducting from outside the stage. For a modern opera must, I believe, be a structural mixture of technique, aesthetics and theatrical art. sPIEGEL: Do you not think that something like this scene-painting of Genet's on an open stage has something almost accidental about it which can only now and again be artistically feasible?

BouLEz: Of course it is a matter of luck ; but everything that succeeds is. in part at least, a matter of luck. It was for this reason that I said that this is my point of departure, and that was only a comparison. On no account do I wish to repeat in music what Genet once did with painting. You will certainly not see in any piece of musical theatre that I may write an actor coming on the stage and playing an instrument. That would be a silly and ineffective copy.

SPIEGEL : M. Boulez, we would value a more precise definition of your conception of a new musical theatre.

BouLEz: If I had written the piece then I could tell you more exactly about it. But you can't make a revolution according to a pre-digested pattern. Revolution — and this applies not only in the field of music — needs only a well-thought-out conception. Its practice then throws up continual amendments. And this practice can only be described in hindsight. So I can talk to you about my framework, as I have done. SPIEGEL : You said that you could not yet imagine individual scenes ; but surely you can say something about the things you would demand from your theme.

Bota.Ez: If I collaborate with a writer, the entire conception must also be a piece of literature and not a picturesque incidental — like a treatise on social problems. People think they are making modern theatre when they're talking about Vietnam for instance. That's really not enough. SPIEGEL : You want a timeless theme?

BotmEz: No, not necessarily. Genet has written about temporal themes ; think of The Blacks or The Screens. But in these pieces the problems of our time were transcended. For example in The Screens you could substitute Cubans for Algerians without changing anything fundamental at all. I am not very keen on polemics which are tied up only with immediate politics. Such aims are short-sighted.

SPIEGEL : You want a theme that is abstracted from immediate problems — as in Genet's plays? BOULEZ : Yes, but I do nbt think that one can take a play of Genet and

'set it to music'. In that case it would have to be totally changed, but that would be an adaptation. I find this solution superfluous.

SPIEGEL: How then would the music of a Boulez opera sound? Would it be essentially different from your instrumental music?

BOULEZ: No, not at all. I think the difference between stage music and pure concert music has disappeared, in any case.

SPIEGEL: Does the fact that, in your opinion, there is no such thing as modern opera result primarily from the absence of a congenial collaboration between librettist and composer? Is there anything else that represents an obstacle to contemporary opera?

BOULEZ: Yes. Opera producers, for one thing. the majority of whom are still hobbling along far behind the times. SPIEGEL: Gunther Rennert, your late friend Wieland Wagner, Franco

Zeffirelli ?

BOULEZ: Wieland Wagner was the only opera producer that I have known who has stimulated me into collaboration.

SPIEGEL: Can you imagine collaborating with the Italian Zeffirelli? BOULEZ: Zeffirelli is the Henze among producers. One must of course concede that, with opera as it is at present, it is out of the question that anybody could accomplish anything adventurous in production. I have the impression that even a bourgeois producer is too adventurous for opera administrators.

SPIEGEL: Will you also produce your own opera?

BOULEZ: No, it is not my profession.

SPIEGEL: Is there a producer with intentions similar to yours and Genet's with whom you could therefore collaborate, should the occasion arise? BOULEZ: I can imagine two people: Peter Brook or Ingmar Bergman. They are real producers. I shall in any case approach a producer who is not burdened with the operatic tradition.

SPIEGEL: M. Boulez, do you think you would be able to realize your modern musical theatre in our highly conventional opera houses? BOULEZ: Quite certainly not. That brings us to another reason why there is no modern opera today. The new German opera houses certainly look very modern — from outside ; inside they have remained extremely oldfashioned. Only with the greatest difficulty can one present modern operas in a theatre in which, predominantly, repertory pieces are played. It is really unthinkable. The most expensive solution would be to blow the opera houses up. But don't you think that would also be the most elegant? SPIEGEL: But, since no administrator is going to follow your suggestion ... BOULEZ: Then one can play the usual repertory in the existing opera houses, Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, up to about Berg. For new operas, experimental stages absolutely need to be incorporated. This apparently senseless demand has already been widely realized in other branches of the theatre.

SPIEGEL: This would also diminish the financial risk which every opera administrator has to run when he puts on a contemporary opera. BOULEZ: Yes, the burden of having to present a 'successful' opera in every case — one which attracts the public — would happily be removed.

And on a small stage of that kind one could risk all kinds of things, whilst the big opera houses continue to exist as museums.

SPIEGEL : You appear to find yourself quite at home in the museum, for example when you conducted Parsifal at the Bayreuth Festival.

souLEz: Parsif al was an exception. The conditions under which one can work at Bayreuth are unusual. Bayreuth has nothing to do with the normal business of opera. Apart from this, Wieland Wagner was a friend I admired. These two reasons were what decided me to conduct Parsif al in Bayreuth.

sPiEGEL: What interests you apart from Parsif al?

BOULEZ : Very little ; a few other Wagner operas, Mozart, Mussorgsky and Debussy. That's all. If anybody asked me to conduct Verdi's La Forza del Destino, I'd much rather go for a walk.

sPIEGEL: That kind of opera is 'an attractive lie', as Busoni once said? souLEz: Not even attractive. If you have ever seen Rigoletto, then you will know yourself what is wrong with it — particularly in a so-called realistic production by Zeffirelli. Idiotic! A theatre or film audience would laugh itself to death over that kind of performance. The opera audience is something else entirely. What I mean is, you can compare opera to a musty old wardrobe. But, thank God, there is only one left, and that is Vienna, where the opera house is still the centre of existence — a relic, a well-cared-for museum.

SPIEGEL : And in Paris, the capital of your own country? BOULEZ : In the provincial town of Paris the museum is very badly looked

after. The Paris Opera is full of dust and crap, to put it plainly. The tourists still go there because you 'have to have seen' the Paris Opera. It's on the itinerary, just like the Folies-Bergere or the Invalides, where Napoleon's tomb is.

SPIEGEL : These are obviously not the people you would like for an audience?

BOULEZ : No, these operatic tourists make me vomit. If I write a work for the stage I certainly won't write it for star-fanciers ; I shall be thinking of a public which has an extensive knowledge of the theatre.

SPIEGEL : Can one split the public so easily into groups?

souLEz: Yes, perfectly well. At the moment I see three strata in our society. The first likes to think itself cultured and goes to the museum — and to the music-museum. When they have got bored in the museum they want to buy themselves a bit of adventure and so they go to the Liebermanns. Bourgeois society needs its court jesters.

sPiEGEL: And the second stratum?

soviEz: This one lives in the present. It listens to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and heaven knows what else. A Beatles record is certainly cleverer than a Henze opera, and shorter as well. But the third stratum is the one you can bet on. It is fairly independent of bourgeois society and above all of the taste of bourgeois society.

SPIEGEL : How do you explain that, in the non-bourgeois society of the Communist bloc, Henze's operas, for example, are as popular as in our bourgeois opera houses?

BOULEZ : The eastern countries are also bourgeois. Do you really believe there are still any Communist countries left?

SPIEGEL : Cuba ...

BouLEz: Perhaps. I do not know the country, of course, but I do believe that if one wishes to try out some forms of the exchange between audience and artist, it is easier there. There is more unspoilt enthusiasm there — which is important. There are certainly no blase people there who go to the opera because one must go to the opera, because that is what society likes to see, because it is a cultural duty. There is also perhaps more inspiration, more naivety, more latent originality ; but it is also possible that I would be very disappointed if I went there.

SPIEGEL : You expect nothing in this connection from the Soviet Union? BOULEZ : No. There they prefer entirely bourgeois operas like Eugene One gin and The Queen of Spades. Now, there would be something for the Chinese Red Guards to deal with — they could let off steam to their heart's content!

SPIEGEL : Then you are certainly also of the opinion that our own operatic set-up would be an ideal field of activity for the Red Guards?

BOULEZ : Yes. We should import a whole lot of Red Guards! Don't forget that the French Revolution destroyed a great deal as well, and that was very healthy. If your blood-pressure is too high there is only one thing to do — get rid of the blood.

SPIEGEL : In other words, in order to be able to create a new musical theatre you have to change society?

BOULEZ : I cannot change society because I ...

sPIEGEL: `... am not a revolutionary?'

BOULEZ : Not a political revolutionary, anyway. I haven't got the technique for it. So I turn to the enlightened people, people who are interested in plays by Genet, Pinter and Beckett. But opera, with its traditional audience, has felt nothing of the changes time has wrought. It lives in the ghetto. Opera can be compared to a church in which, at best, 18th century cantatas are sung. I have no fond desire to liberate people who would rather suffocate in the ghetto —I've got nothing against that kind of suicide.


LIEBERMANN : 'Vive Boulez libre!' — to use a variation on his President's remark about Free Quebec. Both remarks come to pretty well the same thing, however — a certain individual and erroneous assessment of the facts. In Boulez's case it is largely monomaniac in nature, for it is impossible not to read between the lines the idea that: 'My unwritten opera is the best'. An unintentionally comic remark!

WELT: But Boulez is not the only composer, after all. To whom should you have turned — according to Boulez's theory — when handing out commissions to composers? LIEBERMANN : You must ask Boulez about that. He is sadly unforthcoming on that point. He does not say: 'The Hamburg State Opera overlooked this or that piece, or omitted to put it on out of malice'. He

simply says, in so many words, that everything that was put on was chosen to reflect the miserable average taste of the petit-bourgeois.

WELT: How do you go about giving commissions? LI EBERMANN : Quite spontaneously. I give commissions to composers all over the world whose works I know and whose talent I believe in. These composers have already written either operas, or at least concert pieces in which one notices a dramatic disposition. I can be convinced of a composer's dramatic talent in works of the most widely differing styles. The criterion is not style, but simply talent. It is not an administrator's business to allow only his personal taste to decide. Otherwise the theatre would soon become very boring, not to say horribly monotonous. And so

Boulez's Beckmesser-like judgements are doubly wrong.

WELT: But Boulez is saying precisely that the works your theatre puts on are a reflection of your own taste. You deny this. What would the programme look like then if it went solely according to your taste?

LIEBERMANN : I don't know. I think that Liebermann's taste can only be demonstrated if he wrote himself. ...

WELT: But this much you have in common with Boulez, that as a composer you have also been silent for many years.

LIEBERMANN : Yes. And this may even have a common cause—certain psychological inhibitions about composing. Boulez, too — a musician of genius (which I never was and never will be) -seems at the moment to find himself in a cul-de-sac, and so is of necessity turning to conducting. There is nothing strange about this. Whenever a musician has run into artistic difficulties he has always gone into administration, becoming a professor, or a manager.— or a conductor. There's nothing new in that. Only with Boulez, these difficulties seem to be particularly deepseated. For the oeuvre that he has produced since Le Marteau sans Maitre is so small that it bears no real relationship to his reputation as a composer. For this reason I don't think that he will write, in the foreseeable future, that opera which alone could deliver the Hamburg State Opera from the reputation of being a paradise for musical reactionaries. But, joking apart, when reading the judgements of Boulez we find ourselves permanently in the realms of unreality. The danger of these judgements (and this is the only reason for going into them) lies, however, in the fact that they suit the book of the anti-modernists. For even though the works we play are not regarded by Boulez as being modern,

audiences find them violently modern -and especially Boulez's favourite audience, that of Bayreuth. The Red Guards so obligingly encouraged by Boulez to set fire to opera houses would undoubtedly make Bayreuth, Boulez's favourite work-place, their very first objective.

WELT: On the basis of the Hamburg programme, composers who want to write an opera must sometimes make the first approach to you first. Have the composers that Boulez dreams of ever done so?

LIEBERMANN: No, unfortunately not. But then I cannot hand out commissions for a fictional theatre of Boulezian design and certainly not according to the fictional criteria laid down by Boulez with his unwritten opera.

WELT: Traditionally-built opera houses have managed to accommodate, let us say, 'ordinarily' modern productions quite well— from Schoenberg's Moses und Aron to Bernd-Alois Zimmermann's Die Soldaten, to mention only two particularly difficult pieces to produce. Is there anything more that could be done within the framework?

LIEBERMANN: Anything can be done, on the sole condition that one accepts the conventional stage, audience-seating and orchestra pit. Beyond that pretty well any wish can be fulfilled: electronic installations are available, stereophonic loudspeaker systems, stage mechanisms. The artform of opera has never had a bigger armoury at its disposal than it has today— and you certainly won't make it any bigger by burning it down. As for the experimental stages that Boulez talks about — who would not like them, as an addition? Yet this desire appears impossible to fulfil in the present financial situation. But we can't on this account simply fold our arms and say: 'All right, we can't do any more, we'll just go on playing Parsifal and wait until some Maecenas comes along to build us a new house.'

WELT: So you play Parsifal as well?

LIEBERMANN: Of course — but not just that. It forms quite a legitimate part of our programme. In contrast to the experimental stage, the conventional houses do in fact have this further task — that of being a museum. This task is not one that can be fulfilled with the building of the new houses that are dreamed about. And even if such houses become reality, there is still no guarantee that Peter Brook and Ingmar Bergman would produce in them. This brings us to a further chapter of the Boulezian fiction. Brook and Bergman are really outstanding producers, but the operas they have produced correspond in number to about the volume of Boulez's oeuvre. Bergman has produced no opera before or since The Rake's Progress, and Brook's case is not much different. Boulez's remarks are based on the fiction that there exists a different kind of opera house from that which actually does exist ; that Boulez and Genet have written the opera that Boulez talks so much about ; and that this opera has laid down the criteria for opera in the 20th century — had it not, on account of the administrators' lack of taste, the conservativism of the public, and the obsolete architecture of the opera houses, been condemned not to be written.

A rat's tail of falsehoods! — which must be chopped off. and the opera written. The Hamburg State Opera would be proud to be able to present the first opera of Pierre Boulez.