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Interview | "An opera after Bosch and guilt"

Manuela Paraíso | Jornal de Letras, 12.10.16

With his previous chamber opera, The House Taken Over, being performed last week in New York, his last one, BOSCH BEACH, opened in September in Bruges, is now in Frankfurt and will come to Lisbon on October 20. At 39 years he is the one of the most prominent Portuguese composers, with growing international reputation. We've talked to him about his music, and particularly about this new work.(...)

 

What was the initial concept for the creation of this opera?

The question of guilt, inspired by Bosch´s 'Seven Deadly Sins'. (...) To transpose this idea onto the show interested me as a starting point - but, as in any piece I compose, it must transcend it,  it should translate my artistic and personal concerns, which are nevertheless fed by this initial idea; this is a piece inspired by the underlying ethical issues present in the painting, particularly at that time, where representations such as this were allegories, codes of conduct. I'm more interested in this abstract take. (...)

 

Is the setting inspired by Lampedusa?

When we started to dwell on this creation, someone came up with a photo of Lampedusa. I usually think it´s risky to circumscribe a show to a topical issue, because it tends to be examined in the light of that issue. This is such an important subject, that we tend to analyze the show mostly from an ethical perspective, as a mirror of our own relationship with that subject - that is one of the intentions, but  it should also serve to make us think about wider problems. It is an allegory. The subject might be that one particularly, but it might also be the other thousand points of confluence of horror we see today. What interested me most - and therein lies a disagreement between me and the librettist regarding the setting and plot - is that we have on one hand these voracious swimmers and onthe other a setting of horror and suffering around them. The risk of a scenario such as this is that the audience can easily identify those swimmers as monsters.

 

And this would be restrictive on a dramaturgical level?

Yes, the whole thing would be put to rest, and that´s not as interesting as if we try to look more carefully into these people, look for what kind of empathy we can create with them. Because if we consider them straight away as monsters, then it becomes simple. None of us, public, creators, considers himself as a monster, because we are capable of empathy, and we´re appalled by human suffering. The more we relate to those characters, the more we realize that they are able to feel someone else´s pain at the same time they carry out those unbelievable actions.

If any of us, while drinking a cocktail, would see a refugee cast asore, we would immediately feel guity and offer assistance. But to what extent, unconsciously, are we responsible? The truth is that we are both guilty and innocent. And for me this ambiguity is far more interesting, because it forces us to think about these issues and our conduct. In your program notes, you mention you´ve established two musical layers to distinguish the lightness of the characters from the horror of their environment. How is this ambiguous side musically dealt with?

It's hard to explain. The point is that, in the libretto, I was faced not with a narrative but with a situation, and then a series of episodes, in some of which there are moments of awareness, only to be quickly swallowed up by more alienation. In this sense,  what I wanted to do in formal terms (because it would be counterproductive to establish a continuous narrative flow in an episodic situation) was to amplify this formal idea of episodes, almost as a number opera, and stress this inorganic structure of narrative development. Some of the episodes have an atonement element - mostly associated to the contratenor, who acts as a mirror of the ambiguous way we deal with these situations.(...)

 

In your previous opera, based on a short story by Cortázar, space was closed; I this one, there is a a beach, but it is also claustrophobic. In both pieces, you could have focused more on the social and political element of the subjects, but instead you´ve chosen to focus on the characters - and in Bosch Beach, in the creation of empathy.

That´s is an interesting observation. I´ve just saw again The House Taken Over, which is being performed in New York in a new production. Yes, despite the political resonances this issue might have, what we ultimately have to face are our intimate choices, which is my preferred territory. I am interested in the intimate, personal choices, whether in a context of family intimacy as in The House Taken Over, or the intimate moral sense in our choices of how to relate to each other, and to the other who´s different from us. These make for the core from which we build political and social behaviours - and we know the dangers we are presently facing. Ultimately, what interests me the most are the personal decisions, individual responsibility and inner guilt. In that sense, there is indeed a connection, a common thread between the two operas, despite their differences in content, approach and character.(...)