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Interview | "An opera for Gulbenkian Orchestra to play with stones"

Isabel Salema | Publico, 20.09.16

When Vasco Mendonça was invited by the Foundation Bosch 500 to compose the music for this chamber opera (...), the librettist had already been already chosen.

We are in an oasis, Club Med-type, where two men and a woman spend their holidays on a beach surrounded by horror (...). "It is a series of episodes, typifications of things that can happen during a decadent holiday, based on drink dancing, and doing as much sex as possible." Bosch in the XXI century: a paradise, a beach in the Mediterranean, which after all is hell, Lampedusa.

Already in his third chamber opera, VM acknowledges he likes to work with the voice and with theater. "Opera has the advantage of joining these two elements".(...)

Unlike The House Taken Over, his second chamber opera (...), here there isn´t an increasingly tense musical narrative. " Given the nature of the libretto, it was counterproductive to try and create a narrative musical drama, a story through music." The composer took the episodic nature of the piece and established an opposition between what is happening at the resort, between that which is sung, histrionic, euphoric, and that which is associated with horror, more ritualized, almost sacred. For the resort episodes, he uses historical archetypes, such as the trio, the lament or  the aria, while instrumental, voiceless moments are given to horror, a kind of trance induction.

"The libretto presented me with three monsters: people who sing, dance and copulate while others die next to them. And what happens is that we immediately distance ourselves from them. That to me was relatively problematic in the libretto, because from the moment that there is a judgment and a condemnation, we can go all home quietly, thinking we are not like that.  And I am always a bit afraid to adress topical issues in my work." The challenge was to look at these monsters, and find out how similar they are to us. And this challenge", explains Vasco Mendonça, "was left out to music."

"Music is a powerful language. As Samuel Beckett said, music always wins. I can take any word, for example an obscenity, and easily change it into a lyrical moment." This was ultimately his dramaturgical counterpart to the libretto. "Creating a sort of snake that sometimes redeems the characters. But does not attempt to exonerate them."

Each composer, says VM, has its own way of putting a text to music. "When we compose an opera there are always changes that have to do with prosody, number of syllables, stress, the very nature of consonants. I tried to adjust a few things in the text to  fit the type of vocal writing I was interested in doing: privileging simple grammatical constructions and short words. " The economy, he adds, is for me the most important feature of a libretto, because "music, adding an abstract dimension, easily compromises the understanding of the text."

The unusual instruments are back: the didgeridoo and the melodica, for one. But this time even stranger objects - stones and papers. None of them are particularly associated with an environment. "The use of these instruments isn´t dramatic, but has to do mainly with timbral research. If we start from the traditional forces and add unusual elements, this enriches the timbral vocabulary." (...)