Xenakis – the Punk

Talk with Michał Zadara

I didn’t really know Xenakis before, but it turned out that he touches the precise parts of my sensitivity that until recently were satisfied by other music, such as punk and avant-garde. His music comes from the same source as punk music, while being ahead of it, like every avant-garde

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Agata Diduszko-Zyglewska: Why do you work in an opera?

Michał Zadara: Opera is a natural consequence of the work I have done in the theatre until now. What most directors consider a limitation, I see as a relief: the music give the piece structure. Moreover: it imposes a subject. The sound appears, and that sound comes to an end. The temporal elements dictate what goes on on stage. The theatre gives you complete freedom in this department, you can do anything with time – expand it, twist it, while the opera has greater restrictions . I don’t mean to make a mountain out of a molehill though; if you work with a sensitive conductor, you can also expand or twist certain things.

Michał Zadara, photo Współczesny Theatre in Wrocław

The theatre enables the endless analysis of emotional and individual issues involving the characters’ experience. You don’t get to do that in the opera – I don’t practise that in the theatre anyway, therefore I don’t miss that kind of work with actors in the opera. The actors that I’ve worked with in my theatre plays have had the ability to approach the text from a musical perspective. They knew how many verses the phrase consists of, and how many syllables the verse contains. That’s why they derived pleasure from working with musical qualities: louder, quiet, faster, slower.

I’ve always preferred working with verse-written plays, and never understood why plays are written in prose. I mean, people speak rhythmically, verse-like. In the Polish language we pause more or less every eight syllables. We speak with an irregular octosyllabic verse. Musicality was always a natural way to talk about the human being.

You took part in the Opera politica discussion organised by Dwutygodnik [Biweekly]. When one of the participants claimed that the sophisticated musical form of the opera impels its “vagueness”, giving up clear statements, you recalled ancient Greek theatre, where actors sung their verses. Is your involvement in opera a way to disperse its vagueness?

Michał Zadara

Born 19 October 1976 in Warsaw, theatre director, author of independent films and video installations. He studied theatre studies and political science at Swarthmore College, oceanography at Woods Hole, directing in Kraków. He assisted and collaborated with Małgorzata Szczęśniak, Kazimierz Kutz, Jan Peszek and Armina Petrasa. Since 2004 Zadara has directed more than twenty plays and performances at The Wybrzeże Theatre in Gdańsk, Stary National Theatre in Kraków, Współczesny Theatre in Wrocław, the National Theatre in Warsaw, Współczesny Theatre in Szczecin, the Maxim Gorki Theatre in Berlin, the HaBima National Theatre in Tel Aviv, and a staging of Iannis Xenakis's opera Oresteia at the National Opera in Warsaw. He was nominated for the Polityka’s Passport prize in 2006 and 2007, and was awarded this prize – the Polish equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize - in 2007. His 2007 production of Witold Gombrowicz's Operetta was presented at the 2009 Philadelphia Live Arts Festival.

Opera likes to be vague: it’s supposed to be pretty, bewitch the audience and absorb people into the music. Just like classical theatre, it has to affect you, show the inevitable defeat of passions, and at the same time leave a bit of hope for the future. Such plays are rewarded by Theatre Magazine [a conservative Polish monthly magazine on contemporary theatre – ed.]. That’s what the opera world demands. Directors  who introduce elements of modernity, suffer the fury of critics, who claim the audience is being forced to see the “director’s cut” instead of being the opportunity to see the “original”. As if such a thing as the original piece even existed! The myth of the “real performance” hasn’t been questioned in the opera as much as it has in the theatre. In the latter one would have to be a real dyed-in-the-wool follower of imprudence to demand that Shakespeare be staged “according to the author’s concept”. The critics easily accept a thoughtless staging as long as the voice is pleasing.

Do you have your own concept of the piece’s message?

I have a concept of the expressiveness of the performance. The signals are clear, evident, and sharply defined. Yet conclusions and morals are generated in the head of the spectator. I find that essential. I don’t want the audience to feel that I have my own thesis, my wisdom. I’d rather create confusing situations that stimulate the spectator’s own thought process. The signals that reach them ought to be as contradictory as possible and be cast in the sharpest relief.

What does it mean exactly that as an artist you leave out the issue of the message?

Oresteia is a story about a world ruled according to the right of blood and revenge, where the gods descend and introduce justice, which is a huge step up. I believe justice is way better then the right of blood. It’s a massive progress of humanity, and not as obvious as it seems. When people demandthe death penalty for pedophiles”, it seems like the concept of justice is mistaken with revenge. Justice is something else: the evil is eliminated from the world, possibly locked up, and the best option is to fix it; but you don’t respond to evil with evil. Western civilisation is build on that grand idea. I feel like a lot of people haven’t learned that lesson yet. That is what Oresteia is about.

But Oresteia also contains a contradictory message about the corruption of law. The Furies that haunt Orestes over the murder of his mother disappear when Athena arranges good positions in the city, and Orestes’ crimes are never settled. That is another way one can interpret the story.

That is precisely the ambiguity that I’m referring to when we talk about the message. You don’t really know what the meaning of it all is, but all the subjects are presented in the clearest possible way. Who are the Furies? Who is Orestes? What is this situation? It’s very clear in my staging. Orastes is a liberal activist in the Polish communist party, in the 50s, who later on gains political power, just like Stanisław Gomułka. He’s nagged by the working masses demanding that he fulfill the promises he made. Athena is Edward Gierek who brings peace, bribing Furies (the female workers on strike) with flats in apartment buildings and fails to punish the criminals of Stalin’s totalitarian era.

So the ambiguity is also present at this level: is Gierek good or bad? Did he introduce prosperity, or did he just charm us Poles with wealth? Our rendition does not provide an answer to that question.

That’s quite a radical way to translate myth into historical fact.

Yes. We’re in the realm of complete unambiguity, but my judgment is rather ambiguous. You can’t tell whether I’m a communist or an anticommunist. Am I stating that the communists were good or bad? I don’t define myself. They have committed some serious crimes in Poland, and then during the Gierek generation, they tried to cover it up. This story created the image of contemporary Poland. The apartment-buildings, Gierek’s expressway from Warsaw to Katowice, modernisation. The slogans of the Civic Platform. My parents’ generation, which grew up in the Gierek era, now votes for the party that proclaims the same programme. Go figure.

It’s not a story with a moral, but a Genealogy in the Nietzschean sense. I attempt to show where certain political powers in Poland are coming from. These powers have their history, they didn’t suddenly emerge from the shadows. That’s why whenever Oresteia is mentioned I tend to speak about the origins of modern Poles.

Xenakis is a fusion of classical music, ancient tragedy, and theatre, and he additionally employs such elements as orthodox melodies. How does such eclecticism works out in practice?

Xenakis combines contradictions, and reaches great depths thanks to the broad spectrum of every musical level. You go from the quiet to the loud or nearly simultaneously it’s both quiet and loud, or the loud arises from the simple fact that a lot of musicians play in a very subtle way, but it accumulates. Simple tools such as a struck piece of metal make sounds alongside the complicated chords played by the orchestra. Original Greek sounds meet very simple modern music, almost computer music, so to speak.

I didn’t really know Xenakis before, but it turned out that he touches the precise parts of my sensitivity that until recently were satisfied by other music, such as punk and avant-garde. His music comes from the same source as punk music, while being ahead of it, like every avant-garde.

Opera is accused of lifelessness and dependency, even parasitism on theatre and music. Do you agree with that?

Every kind of art is dead. You can say the same about all of classical music nowadays, old motifs are repeated, there’s no evolution. Theatre is a one big rotting inertia stinking of animal corpse. Same thing with the cinema, everything in it is stolen from cinema’s own history and video-art. It’s been a long time since there were any new ideas in dance. All of conceptual dance just proves that dance as such is long gone. Painting is dead. Sculpture died a long time ago. Popular culture is recycling high art’s old ideas, look at serialism for that matter. As strange as it may sound, this is how it is, and this accusation is leveled against all kinds of arts. And all of them are as vivid as never before. Opera is no exception here.

Accusing art of lifelessness is pointless, since art is always dead. Art is very closely connected to death. The desire to communicate with the dead creates art. So saying that some domain of art is dead is a tautology, for we always revive art, we put life in it.

Another complaint against the opera is its anachronism, which results inter alia from its fear of breaking conventions.

The conventionality does not come as a consequence of the lack of will, but from the complexity of the elements that need to work together in the case of this genre. The more technical the elements and organisation, the more convention there is. The libretto has already been written, so the text cannot be changed. The composer has already created the music, so you can’t change that. The stage design was ordered half a year before the staging, so even if one comes up with a brilliant, original idea at the very last minute, we can’t do anything about it, because everything has already been ordered. So fighting convention is not a battle against people, but management, and because of that it’s the small productions that offer the most interesting results. It’s easier to discover something there.

What is your opera like? Is it a shocking break with convention?

No, my Oresteia is very loyal to its composer, so it’s very noisy, full of shouting, discords, and a lot of silence. Xenakis is a punk amongst composers and, once we detach from the orchestra instrumentarium, his music becomes Zornesque or similar to what the post-punk intellectuals have been doing. Such creative music is always alike, it’s about the strongest impact possible. It is a very short piece actually, so the whole play needs to be contained in just a few images. One of the parts is just ten minutes long, it’s terrifying. In the theatre that much time would barely be enough to switch the lights on and let the actors on stage.

Besides it’s a very strange situation. We’re telling a Polish story, in Polish decoration, with Polish subtitles and in Polish reality, only the performers sing in ancient Greek. It amazes me, and makes me feel elated. Why don’t they sing in Polish, if there’s so much “Polishness” in it? It’s a paradox both for the audience, and for me.

Do you think that the opera form lets you say something more then if you’d staged Oresteia in a theatre?

Tragedy is one of the most serious and strange phenomena of our culture, and even today nobody has a clue what it really is. Nevertheless, it makes me really happy that we stage so many of them in Poland. The ancient tragedy has somehow become ours. You can see that in Krzysztof Warlikowski’s (A)pollonia, Jan Klata’s Oresteia, Maja Kleczewska’s Fedra [Phaedra] – it’s been tamed. We’re in a privileged position amongst European theatres, because, apart from the Germans, we do not associate ancient tragedy with buskins and bed sheets anymore, unless we’re one of those thoughtless followers, whom I mentioned in the beginning.

I think this show is special, because you can carefully listen to the story written in Greek, in its original language. We listen to a text that is two and a half thousand years old. Moreover we have a chance to experience what that audience experienced, in a way that we have strong rhythmical music referring to events that we feel and understand. For the ancient people it was the Trojan War, a foundation upon which their identity was built; for us it’s communism and the World War II. In that sense we are very close to those ancient Greeks. Nearly at the source. I have a bit more will to live when I stand on the Acropolis thinking “I’m standing in the theatre where Oresteia was staged.” Two and half thousand years ago, people sang the same words. Thanks to that experience I know who I am, and what “Europe” means. And Europe is about justice, not revenge. And forgetting is another thing. We forgot about everything.

translated by Agnieszka Słodownik