For more than three centuries, new operas have been born in the heart of Brussels, a tradition we are proud to continue in the 21st century. Because we firmly believe that The Great Repertoire is not a closed book, but a story to which each era can add its own chapter, full of exciting music, relevant themes and innovative writing. Our era too. That is why we will present one or two brand new commissioned works every season until 2025. You can follow the preparations for these unique productions on this blog.
On November 21, La Monnaie is launching a series of conference-debates dedicated to the questions raised by the climate case. The first of these evenings will combine a screening of the documentary Sœurs de Combat – which recently won the Audience Award at the FIFF Film Festival of Namur – with a debate about activism led by RTBF-journalist Gwenaëlle Dekegeleer. What is the place of activism in our society? How effective can it be in the face of climate issues? Does it have the potential to inspire our leaders and lawmakers? The film’s director Henri de Gerlache, climatologist Jean-Pascal van Ypersele, Thérèse Snoy (Grands-Parents pour le Climat) and Adélaïde Charlier, the French-speaking coordinator of the Youth for Climate movement in Belgium, will try to answer all these questions.
Benoît Mernier on how he finished the score
"'Merde !', now that's a word I haven't often had to put to music." Composer Benoît Mernier faced the artistically and emotionally demanding task of finishing the last score of his mentor and friend Philippe Boesmans. He tells you all about it in this article and also during his musical lecture Inside the Music on 1 December.
Howard Moody – The composer’s journal
#3 Receiving the libretto
Historically, trust between a composer and a librettist has not always been a happy tale! The process requires intense communication and understanding of each other’s creative processes. This is one of the reasons why I have often written the libretto myself. However, over the course of writing three pieces together, Anna and I have developed a direct flow of communication and a deep understanding of each other’s style. This means that we can write to each other’s strengths. It also makes it possible to work fast and meet short deadlines for commissions such as Solar.
I always find that I cannot start writing the music until the libretto is complete. This gives me a picture of the whole drama from which to develop musical ideas. But to keep me in the loop throughout the writing process, Anna likes to show me sections of the script as she goes. This means that I can expect an excited phone call from Anna at any point during her process in which she will announce having completed a scene or wanting to tell me her latest idea.
About 10 days into Anna’s writing process for Solar back in April, we met for breakfast and Anna read me scenes 1 and 2. I didn’t want to read the words off a page but preferred to hear Anna read them out loud, knowing that she would have written something with an incredible sense of verbal rhythm, internal rhymes and dramatic force.
I was knocked out by the power with which her work grabbed my attention from the opening. It was like hearing the start of Verdi’s Otello for the first time. Verdi / Boito started with a storm. Anna begins Solar with Daedalus holding his nephew Talus over a cliff, burning with envy. Brilliant. I remember listening to it and immediately saying “don’t change a word”. Our discussions about the piece that followed, propelled both of us onto the next stage of the process and we were buzzing with excitement.
Hearing any lyrics or a libretto spoken is always the test of whether it has real poetic quality or just a prosaic style. Anna has a unique way of writing that allows a director, choreographer and designer plenty of space to tell the story through their nonverbal disciplines. Above all, she trusts the power of music to expand the meaning and intention of her words. The rhythms, sounds and dramatic momentum of her text are so captivating for a singer, who can then use them as the core of their performance. Hearing her read Solar for the first time reassured me that she had found an intensity of style that would make my task of composing the music exciting and challenging.
It was very convenient that Anna was able to take the whole of April off from her job as a lawyer in order to write the script. The deadline for delivery was quick, so it needed the focus of a whole month of really hard work and total immersion. We were trying to ensure that I would be able to go to Brussels at the end of June with musical material for each of the main chorus groups (‘The Sun’ and ‘The Apprentices). I was immediately confident from the first two scenes alone, that I would be able to give the young singers music that would capture their imaginations and inspire their dramatic involvement in the production.
The artisan craft of composition and writing is too easily glamorised - it is actually all about really committed and focussed hard work - so I was so impressed that Anna, true to the language of a lawyer’s responsibility to deliver on time, sent me the whole libretto at 5pm at the end of the last working day of April. This reminded me of Bach having to start his next Cantata on a Monday and deliver it for performance the following Sunday!
When I start writing, I often ask Anna to give me adjectives to describe her intention of feeling in every dramatic moment. I will scribble these down in the margins of my script to refer to as I go. This means that I can be clear about the difference between moments of “desperation” or “mourning”, of “liberation” or “magical transformation”.
The next time Anna hears her words will be from my attempt to show what I have written by playing it on a piano and singing along. This is light years away from a professional orchestra, large chorus and international soloists performing it on stage, in the same way that reading a libretto is so different from the final musical version. And once the words and music come together and are delivered on paper, we both have to let go of what we have written whilst it gets interpreted and hopefully understood by the production team.
It was a thrilling moment to receive the final script. I read it and re-read it so many times before I felt that I could approach the piece musically. The June workshop was coming up fast and there’s nothing like a deadline to get a composer started. Now I had the complete libretto, I had no excuse!
On purge bébé ! is taking shape! A behind-the-scenes look at the first scenic rehearsals in our Malibran Room. In this scene, Bastien Follavoine (Jean-Sébastien Bou) receives a French army official, Aristide Chouilloux (Denzil Delaere), who can help him bring in a large order for porcelain chamber pots. His wife Julie Follavoine (Jodie Devos), however, has other priorities...
Anna Moody - The Librettist’s Process
The libretto form
What is a libretto? This is the first question I often get asked. My short answer is that it’s the script which is set to music. But if I had more time, there would be a lot more to unpack.
A libretto is such a hybrid literary form, combining drama, poetry and lyric. You could say that it’s like a play written in song lyrics. But two traditional operatic constructs offer more nuance here. Firstly, there is the aria form. This invites the action to stand still for a moment whilst a character gives voice to their emotions. Secondly, there is recitative which is the dialogue between characters. Whereas an aria invites something closer to poetry, recit calls for rhythms that are closer to speech.
Libretti traditionally move between these two forms, balancing the dramatic momentum of character interactions, with moments of stillness that open up heartfelt song by one or several characters. In a piece such as Solar, there is also another type of text required for the dramatic interaction, commentary and intervention of the young choruses.
Crucially, and throughout the whole libretto, less words is more. The music will expand the time it takes to express everything and superfluous words are just restricting and clunky. So, when writing a libretto, I have to have a sharp radar for concision and make sure that every line is extremely distilled and direct.
What I find really curious about the libretto form is that it is so rarely studied or read on its own unless you are the composer or the director. I studied literature as an undergraduate and as a masters student, and in all four years I never encountered a lecture on the libretto. This is because the sheer power of the operatic voice is seen to overwhelm the text. And yes, it is probably rare that you’ve listened to an opera and understood the words.
This idea of language giving way to sound invites dismissive accounts of the libretto as just a passive offering to the composer. In fact, the poet W. H. Auden, who wrote his own libretti as well as essays on the libretto form, went as far as to claim that the words for opera must ‘efface themselves and cease to care what happens to them.’
Having taken on the project of studying the form as well as writing three of my own, I am keen to prove Auden wrong. I was inspired during a conversation with an opera singer whose work I greatly admire. He described a particular moment, whilst singing, of feeling the audience listening to the text rather than just admiring vocal sound and the singer’s virtuosic technique. He acknowledged how an audience is too often distanced by a barrier created by vocal virtuosity which distracts from or overpowers what is being expressed. For him, what overcomes this in performance is when there is enough textual presence and interest. I wondered what ‘textual presence and interest’ actually meant and realised that here lay my challenge.
And so, when writing a libretto, I must create concise and highly rhythmic poetic lyrics that carry their own power and presence. Where the words are dynamic, bold, active, rhythmical and direct, the music can elevate rather than overwhelm them.
This requires a careful process of editing. For example, at the end of scene 2 of Solar, Icarus mourns the death of Talus who his father has murdered. When I read my first draft of the aria, I just knew that it wasn’t strong enough. I had described feelings of grief but I hadn’t been brave enough to directly capture the physical feeling of heartbreak. This meant that although the words were nicely poetic, they would certainly get lost. I immediately deleted them, closed my eyes, and took a moment to let myself really feel it.
The shock stage of grief is like a ripping feeling inside you. It is as though someone is pulling apart your organs. “Tearing” filled my head.
Little else was needed, and I started to write again. In its finished form, Icarus begins his aria with a very simple line: ‘my world splits’. The first verse then closes with that single word on repeat: ‘tearing, tearing, tearing’.
The other day I heard Howard’s music for this section. The harmony exactly captures a tortured, tearing sensation of being ripped apart. And when Icarus’s vocal line soars above it, you can hear that magical meeting of textual voice and musical voice as two powerful forces. It is this meeting that truly elevates the drama and breaks down the barrier between text and listener so that an audience might be drawn into that feeling themselves.
It was impossible for the Cassandra Choir to miss the Climate March today. Along with more than 25000 other participants, our choristers made their voices heard to urge ecological ambition on our national and regional governments ahead of the Sharm-el-Sheikh International Climate Conference (6 to 18 November).
Librettist and director Richard Brunel pays tribute to Philippe Boesmans and recalls their first meeting, which inspired On purge bébé.
My dear, my very dear Philippe,
I first got to know you when I was in the audience at a performance of your Julie in 2005 in Aix-en-Provence. And already, then, I was greatly moved by your refined writing, your sense of drama and vocality and your high standards for the sung text. And without yet knowing you personally, I admired the marvellous artist that you were. And then in 2017 I was extraordinarily lucky to meet you, again in Aix-en-Provence, for the production of Pinocchio. Your spontaneous kindness and frank and cordial simplicity left a lasting impression on me.
I thank coincidence – you called it coincidence – for our chance meeting in a street near the Grand Theatre de Provence. And there, in that street you led me on a daring and almost impossible lyrical adventure: to stage a Feydeau play at the Opera. It had never been done before. And precisely because it was impossible, you wanted to do it. And you did. On purge bébé… Each time you took mischievous delight in pronouncing the title. On purge bébé. Your eyes would sparkle with cheekiness at the idea of a constipated child on the stage of the Opera. And the thought of a seller of chamber pots as the anti-hero of an opera had you in raptures.
Not long after, I came to see you in Brussels and we started to work together. I will never forget your wonderful sense of humour, your sensitivity, your keen eye and your joy at work, your risquée observations and elegant attention. What a pleasure and honour it is to have shared all these moments with you. Your weekly telephone calls to work on this Bébé or sometimes just to talk about the opera we would achieve after this one will be sorely missed. I am going to miss your jokes and your laughter.
We laughed together, laughed a lot – everything was an excuse to laugh. To laugh uproariously and live joyfully. And your final opera, will that also be for laughter? Writing that word – 'final' – leaves me hopelessly engulfed in deep emotion. Your absence doesn’t make me laugh, so, my dear friend, I’ll keep your laughter in my ears and it will guide me when I stage your On purge bébé. And the whole team and I will do it in your memory, and perform your opera with a mischievous joy, laughing while we work as much as we can.
Philippe, thank you so much for being you.
Cast drop Fanny och Alexander
In the category ‘everything you’ve always wanted to know about opera’: how to find the perfect singers for each role? General and Artistic Director Peter de Caluwe reveals how the casting of Fanny och Alexander came about.
The casting stage of Fanny och Alexander – the opera – is now behind us. As befits a work by the greatest Swedish film director ever, the first thing I did was seek the advice of the Scandinavian world of singers. This led me to Anne Sofie von Otter, herself a Swede and familiar with the work of Ingmar Bergman. She seemed the perfect fit for the role of the central character: the spirited grandmother, Helena Ekdahl, who keeps her family together. This fascinating ‘mère de famille’ has a lover: the Jewish Isak. So I asked Anne Sofie who she saw as her favourite opera partner… She didn’t need to think about it for long before naming Thomas Hampson. When we were able to tie them both down for a video call and I saw for myself the chemistry between them, I had a eureka moment. The role of Isak seemed to me much too episodic and small for a celebrated artist like Hampson. So I suggested to the artistic team that the two singers be considered for the lead roles of the bishop and his sadistic housekeeper Justine. They both leapt at the idea and the matter was decided.
This did mean that we had to look for a new granny! Our Director of Artistic Planning and Production, Bettina Giese, suggested Doris Soffel. I needed little persuasion, and the video meeting with Doris, the composer and the librettist confirmed that this was the right choice. Doris is married to a Swedish diplomat, speaks fluent Swedish and knows Bergman’s films well. In our discussion, it was suggested that we might approach a Swedish variety singer cum actor for the episodic role of her lover. The choice fell on Loa Falkman and he, too, readily agreed. For the other major roles, I took the lead from the artistic entourage of composer Mikael Karlsson and librettist Royce Vavrek who had worked with American singers before. Consideration was given to two names for whom I had long been searching for a project: tenor Peter Tantsits and mezzosoprano Sasha Cooke. They will perform the roles of Oscar and Emilie, Fanny and Alexander’s parents.
Now we just have to find the rest of the family and of course cast the children - the titular roles. I am confident that we will be able to find a solution for them in our children’s chorus, but it is a little too early as yet. December 2024 is still some way off. One person we have already brought on board is conductor Ariane Matiakh. A work with forceful women led by a female conductor. It just gets better and better!
It's a wrap for the first rehearsal of our Cassandra Choir! United by their shared passion for singing and the desire to raise public awareness of the environmental cause, a hundred amateur choristers practised together for the first time in our rehearsal rooms. For if Cassandra in the myth and Sandra in the opera are struggling to be heard, the Cassandra Choir will resound in all its strength, starting during the March for the Climate on October 23.