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Basel-born composer Andrea Lorenzo Scartazzini truly loves opera. A range of different art forms come together under the opera umbrella and Scartazzini’s music is admirably suited to the emotionality to be found in the genre. The 45-year-old writes compact and consummately structured pieces of music that, while highly dramatic, constantly offer gentle, psychological stretches as a contrast to the helter-skelter of emotion. Scartazzini’s intricate landscapes of the soul include his second opera, THE SANDMAN, based on a story by E.T.A. Hoffmann and which had its world premiere in 2012 at the Theater Basel. EDWARD II, based on a play by Christopher Marlowe, is his third opera after WUT and THE SANDMAN. The Elizabethan drama recounts the tragedy surrounding King Edward, who, for a number or reasons that included his homosexual love affair, was brought down in a lethal vortex of intrigues emanating from Mortimer, Earl of March, and the Bishop of Coventry. The successful SANDMAN team has been reassembled to produce EDWARD II, a piece commissioned by the Deutsche Oper Berlin. The libretto is the work of dramatist Thomas Jonigk, and Christof Loy, an old master in the finest sense of the word, directs. In Scartazzini’s studio in Basel, with the finished score to hand, we discuss the historical material, the libretto and the composition.
After THE SANDMAN, EDWARD II is the third opera you’ve written and another instance of you taking a work of literature and constructing a kind of nocturne. What is it about Christopher Marlowe’s 1591/92 play, “Edward II”, that grabs you?
Choosing the material was not the result of a rational decision. When Dietmar Schwarz, the Director of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, asked me what subject I could imagine tackling for my next opera, I spontaneously mentioned “Edward II”. Derek Jarman made a fantastic film about the queer king - aesthetic in the extreme, archaic, theatrical. I saw it in the cinema in the early ‘90s, when I was busy with my own coming out, and I never forgot it.
As a composer, do you have to be selecting material that is suitable for musical expression?
Clearly the material has to provide me with a basis for making dramatic, stirring music. Unlike SANDMAN, which is a psychological drama and hence an intimate piece of theatre and which is quite puzzling in a way, with its blend of dream and reality, the thing about EDWARD that attracts me is the bluntness and directness of the story.
Is EDWARD II a kind of horror story?
Oh yes, especially the ending, when Edward is murdered in bestial fashion. In a reference to his sexual orientation he has a red-hot poker rammed through the shell of a cow’s horn and up his rectum. But there’s a surprising twist in the libretto at that point.
In our day and age, when - at least in western Europe - homosexuality is socially accepted or at least tolerated, doesn’t that kind of material seem a little antiquated?
I don’t just want to write an opera about homosexuality. I see the play as being as much about the triangular relationship between Isabella, Edward and Gaveston. All of them are sketched as ambivalent characters. When Edward is cold and hostile towards his wife, Isabella, in the first scene, I sympathise more with her because she’s being marginalised. Even in Marlowe’s day, pre-1600, the real scandal in the eyes of the theatre-going public would have been not the homosexuality but the fact that Gaveston, Edward’s lover, was an arriviste, a man of humble birth. Yes, we should be wondering if a centuries-old story is not perhaps outdated, but in this case we’re dealing with issues that are still relevant today. And we can’t shut our eyes to the fact, either, that Marlowe’s play and its adaptations in recent years have been increasingly present on the stage. And to go back to your original question: when Thomas Jonigk and I began working on EDWARD II, thousands of people were demonstrating in France against the legal recognition of homosexual partnerships. It looks like the subject isn’t that antiquated after all.
But would it be fair to say that the subject of homosexuality is the reason why the work has stuck in your memory?
Since the year dot the vast majority of literature’s stories about relationships have revolved around the classic hetero set-up. Which is why I don’t consider it wrong to broaden the spectrum a little, especially in the area of musical theatre. Apart from Britten’s works, there are few operas that explore alternative ways of loving. And it’s not exactly weird that, as a composer, I should choose material that I can identify with on a personal level. By the way, I also remember a documentary on homosexuality [The Celluloid Closet], that ran in the cinemas and shows that, until recently, gay love was almost always presented as unfulfilled and doomed to failure. Ok, Edward’s love for Gaveston didn’t bring them ultimate happiness, but in the libretto a peaceful setting ends up being superimposed over the archaic plot.
The clash between political affairs and responsibility, which Edward clearly neglects, and the protagonist’s own desire is a classic theme in the history of opera. We find it in the royal dramas of the Baroque period, in bel canto opera, with Giuseppe Verdi and other composers. Was this conflict also important to you when choosing the material?
No. On the contrary, if anything it would be a reason not to choose the material, because I think we’ve moved beyond this clash of urges now and it’s not so relevant for most people. It’s only relevant in the sense that Edward places his love for Gaveston, his personal happiness, above everything else. That shows courage.
So it is the relationships aspect that interests you most?
Yes, but as a composer I must add the caveat that our conversation up till now, which has been more on the level of literary theory, is crucial to understanding the play. But I opt for a particular material primarily because it’s my path to creating music. The Edward story, especially in Thomas Jonigk’s text form, is a mine of material for me: as well as hate speech, nightmares, enigmatic stuff and toying with sexual clichés, it also offers the possibility of love and personal happiness. And for precisely that reason I need the switch from a major choral scene to an intimate constellation made up of two people. Or the switch from intoxicating, sweeping music to introverted moments, and back. That creates contrasts. The same goes for emotionally charged drama interspersed with tomfoolery, something that Jonigk has taken from Elizabethan theatre.
And librettist Jonigk has added an angel to the work …
… the metaphysical angel character as a beautiful transvestite, who appears with increasing frequency as the opera progresses and ends up accompanying Edward as he meets his fate. It wasn’t easy finding a musical expression for the character, who also has something camp about him. I plumped for giving him a slightly eerie, sinister aura.
Apart from the central characters and the broad strokes of the storyline, the libretto has little in common with Marlowe’s original. Jonigk has drastically pared down the play and the number of characters who appear in it. Has he created a literary text that focuses entirely on Edward II and his emotional conflicts?
Alone the length of the opera - roughly 90 minutes - would have justified the paring down, and focusing on the key characters is important. Some of the issues dealt with in Marlowe’s piece are no longer relevant to today’s audiences. Edward’s character and what’s going on inside his head are what we’re interested in. But Jonigk also draws on other historical sources that touch on homosexuality in the Middle Ages. The fruit of this research can be seen, for instance, in a short scene in which two counsellors have a hilarious discussion about whether an official case can be made for prosecuting on the grounds of “sodomy”, as male-to-male love was called at the time. Then there’s the classic Jonigk-ian irony, which I love, like when Mortimer, Edward’s arch enemy and the new strong man at Isabella’s side, comments drily on life with her and her son, the young Edward III: “Uncle, mother and a wily stepson: we make the perfect family.” It’s passages like that that give the story of Edward a modern dimension on top of the historical drama.
In his capacity as the librettist of your THE SANDMAN, Jonigk adapted E.T.A. Hoffmann’s novella for a modern audience. Can the same be said of EDWARD II?
Today, if you want to tell an old story, you have to update it and infuse it with its own, fresh character. We’ve already touched on the focus on the emotional situation and how the characters materialised. At the end of the opera he introduces a second time layer, our present day, interweaving it with the mediaeval storyline. While Edward stares death in the face, the room fills with the murmur and buzz of a crowd of visitors strolling through the historic site centuries later. In Marlowe’s work, the old order is reasserted with Edward’s death and the punishment meted out later to his murderers. With Jonigk things are left open. This motley group of tourists, which includes a modern-day Gaveston and his partner, can be read as representing an open, peaceable society, which is one way of expressing and portraying the right of individual to pursue their own idea of happiness.
The guides are presumably a theatrical distancing device, the way they deliver their stock descriptions of how Edward was languishing in prison in 1327 and was then bestially murdered.
To show Edward being killed in grisly fashion with a red-hot poker onstage would be to risk a degree of unintended humour. Depicting horrific events onstage usually backfires. Jonigk hit upon a much better, much more refined solution. The ending is also good for me, as I’m free to write music reflecting other strands of feeling now that all the emotional turmoil is over.
How much influence do you have over the libretto?
Few professions give the practitioner as much creative freedom as that enjoyed by the composer. I don’t have a client telling me up front or after the fact what I should be doing or should change or shouldn’t have done in the first place. And in the same way that a composer is trusted, I trust the librettist. You could say we’re a team, two people providing autonomous input to achieve a common goal. Jonigk’s words stand up as a work in their own right, and in time he becomes a kind of interlocutor whom I engage with. I want to rub up against his work and be inspired by it. The libretto allows me to find my own musical form, one which chimes with the text in one moment and moves in another direction the next. Obviously we stake out the territory before we start, but we don’t run through the work scene by scene until the libretto’s finished. It’s then that I can suggest alterations, but they have to do with small details based on musical decisions I’ve come to. The libretto originally began with a storm, but that’s been done before by Giuseppe Verdi, in his OTELLO, and I can’t compete with that. So I needed another motif and ended up creating a backdrop of uncanny noises and a variety of percussion sounds, with everything growing and intensifying until you’d think the walls were about to collapse around us.
With your music, do you uncover layers of character in your protagonists that are inaccessible from a reading of the mere text? Do you transpose into sound what the characters are not expressing in word?
Naturally the music should express internal processes that can’t be rendered in word. But I’m not just giving the protagonists personality when I compose; with my music I’m also creating an ambience within which they act and react. For instance, there’s a point where I have three trumpets accompanying Isabella as she sings of her sorrow at her disillusionment in love. Much later in the opera, when Isabella has wrested power back again with Mortimer, I use this passage again. The music tells us that Isabella’s emotional state is as sorrowful as it was before. Nothing has changed.
Interview: Christian Fluri. // Christian Fluri, born 1950, resides in Basel. From 1989 to 2015 he was Culture editor-in-chief at bzBasel/bzBasellandschaftliche Zeitung with a focus on music, opera, fine arts and cultural politics. He was publisher of “Herbert Wernicke - Director, Costumer, Set Designer” Schwabe Verlag Basel, 2011. Since 2016 he has been a freelance writer.
“Edward II” is generally known as a story with a pronounced sexual - indeed, homosexual - subtext. Is it the same with your version?
Christof Loy: It can’t be denied that the hero’s homosexuality is a major feature of Christopher Marlowe’s tragedy, which was one of the source texts for the libretto. It’s central to the hero’s basic conflict, which consists in the fact that, at the time of his reign, homosexuality was considered a deadly sin and was condemned by the Church and yet Edward was quite open about it. He had a lover and, after the death of the lover, a number of favourites. As such, he laid himself open to attack from his political foes. In a general sense you could say it’s an opera about an outsider.
And with it a world premiere which actually does tell a story?!
Loy: Exactly so. It’s a narrative opera with a dramatic conflict that culminates in a catastrophe. Edward’s wife Isabella, who feels neglected by her husband, makes common cause with his enemies. She attempts to have him declared mentally ill and even ends up plotting with his murderers. The story really does have everything.
Thomas Søndergård © Agentur
Christof Loy © Monika Rittershaus
It sounds pretty old-fashioned for a contemporary opera!
Loy: I admit that, for me, theatre always has to explore psychology. I can do it any other way.
In “Edward II” there’s only one major female role. So is it actually an opera about men, like “Parcifal”, “Billy Budd” or “From the House of the Dead”?
Thomas Søndergård: To my ears it doesn’t sound like an opera about men. What I’m hearing is more like a mass of short, jostling intervals and “narrow” chords, which is a perfect way of conveying the cramped and restrictive nature of society at the time. It’s the first time I’ve seen a composer doing something like that. On the audio track you can also hear choral and orchestral pieces and a number of synthesizer sounds.
Loy: If I’m honest, I wouldn’t want to stage a purely male opera like “Billy Budd”. I’d miss the female voice. But alongside Edward’s story there’s a parallel story being told about Isabella’s emancipation. It’s a great role with its own in-built conflict and positively Shakespearean in scale and stature. It forms part of a larger social panorama, in which the ruler becomes a dictator. His inferiority complex spirals into delusions of grandeur.
Søndergård: The eponymous hero is sung by Michael Nagy in a baritone. By the way, this would be a good time for people to disabuse themselves of the notion that tenors tend towards the hysterical and baritones are more sensitive. We’re dealing here with general human relationships. In the same way, Verdi’s “Rigoletto” is totally not a story about a hunchbacked court jester but rather a father-daughter drama. The question we are addressing here is: what is a ‘love affair’ actually?
Do we get a feel of the Elizabethan Age from Thomas Jonigk’s libretto?
Loy: I think we do. It’s still very Shakespearean in tone. There’s also the contrast between the tragic and the comic, similar to what we find in “Hamlet” with the roles of the gravediggers written for two comedians. There are parts for jokers and jesters, which was typical of the theatre of the time.
So why didn’t they just set Christopher Marlowe’s tragedy “Edward II” to music?
Loy: I have the feeling that Andrea Lorenzo Scartazzini sets great store on being able to liaise with a living writer. Besides Marlowe’s drama - which incidentally was made into a film with Tilda Swinton as Isabella - Thomas Jonigk has adapted other period works including “Vita Edwardi Secundi” from the 14th century and contemporary chronicles from England, Ireland and Scotland. This isn’t an extract that’s been lifted wholesale and neither is it just a rehashing of historical accounts. Information has been added and a number of scenes are positively surreal in character.
How would you describe the musical style of composer Andrea Lorenzo Scartazzini?
Søndergård: As juicy and altogether very free. And very organic. It would be hard to pin a stylistic label on it. As soon as I saw the score I was struck by how specific the music is with its tonal lines, its clarity and its richness. Another thing about it that appeals to me and fascinates me actually is the way he conveys the anger and pride that features in a lot of the scenes. It’s unique in modern music.
Loy: I’d also say that anger is a key theme for Scartazzini. And it encompasses the subtle, round-about way of attacking someone, which is expressed in quiet, creeping unrest. Not that that is very different to Mozart: much of what goes on on the surface of the music is alluded to in the minor voices, on the fringes of the score, as is were.
Søndergård: What really appeals to me is the fact that the music is so sympathetic towards the singer, that it has been composed with the voices in mind. Some stretches feel tonal even though they are all but devoid of tonality.
How modern or experimental is Scartazzini?
Søndergård: I’d say we don’t know yet.
Loy: He’s certainly more psychological than, say, Helmut Lachenmann. In my mind “Edward II” is a grand opéra for the 21st century - albeit much shorter in duration. In the end the great opera runs just 90 minutes.
Mr Loy, you’re one of the most successful directors of opera in Europe today. What criteria do you use to measure success?
Loy: Whether I’m reaching the audience and whether the people who come to a performance leave the opera house with a different perspective. I want to change lives. And I sometimes even think I can see if I’ve succeeded, when I’m sitting in the audience at the premiere.
Do your productions go down the same with the audience, regardless of venue??
Loy: No, I don’t think so. One of my favourite regions to work in is Scandinavia because I believe people there are very open to my way of telling a story. They’re well prepared, as it were, thanks to Ingmar Bergman films. I like working in Germany, too, because there’s not an exaggerated insistence on storytelling, unlike in America. In America they’re not familiar with the Brecht backstory. I want to find a language to suit each particular audience. And since audiences vary from location to location, I’m sceptical about coproductions. There are even places where I couldn’t really imagine myself working. The Metropolitan Opera, for instance.
Mr Søndergård, you’re from Denmark, like Michael Schønwandt and Thomas Dausgaard. Do you think your country of origin is audible in the way you work?
Søndergård: No, definitely not. And the times are past and gone when symphonies by Carl Nielsen or Jean Sibelius were performed much better in Scandinavian countries. That’s one of the positive aspects of globalisation.
Mr Loy, this is yet another instance of you staging a production involving a libretto by your partner, Thomas Jonigk. Does that take the pressure off or add to the pressure??
Loy: Neither nor. It doesn’t increase the pressure or reduce it. As it is, I only ever get to see the libretto after the composer has given his input. And only when questions are raised involving singers. In this case I’ve been more in touch with the composer than with the librettist, whom I’m married to.
And what’s that like?
Loy: There’s a clear division of labour and that’s exactly how it should be. We don’t take work home. That’s important. No one need worry that we might present some united front simply because we’re a couple in our private lives. I’m already looking forward to the next time we have this odd state of affairs where we’re involved with each other on a professional level. But there are no plans as yet.
The English king Edward II was one of the most colourful figures of the Middle Ages. His biography is now being staged in operatic form at the Deutsche Oper Berlin. Swiss composer Andrea Scartazzini and librettist Thomas Jonigk have penned a brand-new piece of musical theatre exploring the relationship between Edward II and Piers de Gaveston. The childhood friend of a homosexual king becomes his lover and eventually the second most powerful man in the land. The king’s marriage collapses, the aristocracy and the people rise up and the king is finally murdered. Baritone Michael Nagy, familiar to opera audiences from Vienna and Zurich to Bayreuth and Oslo, takes the role of the powerful yet hapless and powerless Edward II in Christof Loy’s production. Dramatic adviser Dorothea Hartmann caught up with Michael Nagy at the end of the first week of rehearsals.
Intrigues, affairs, abuse of power - Edward II’s biography appears to have all the ingredients of a perfect opera. How has Andrea Scartazzini approached the character? Has he lifted him out of the 14th century and into the present day?
Michael Nagy: The basic issues facing the Edward II of the history books have not changed. As the ruling monarch, how do you go about wielding power? Do you abuse your power for your own ends? Another thing is that Scartazzini’s opera looks at the big existential issues that concern us today as much as they concerned the mediaeval Edward, issues revolving around the intrinsic nature and identity of a particular individual. What exactly is this “I”? What does my sexual orientation mean for me and society? What factors delimit, or determine the boundaries of, my existence? And more than this: What happens after we die? And love is a huge subject, of course, with all its shades and including questions of yearning, passion, eroticism, jealousy - in this case involving a triangular relationship between two gay men and a woman. Andrea Scartazzini has pulled off a coup: without denying the traits of the historical personage, he has managed to create a character who could just as well be living in our midst today.
How close is the character of Edward II to your own?
I’d love to be able to say that he’s a terrific guy! And that all true enough, but it’s only half the story. Edward is a fascinating character: he follows his own sexual leanings, undeterred by doubts, unwavering in the face of resistance from church and society. Very impressive but also very scary, the way this king goes his own way. Edward isn’t a nice person, he’s just different, an outsider and, as such, a shameless exploiter of his power. He humiliates political and personal enemies alike, even ends up having them killed.
It’s in the nature of a world premiere that there are no past performances to relate to and no mental images of previous singers. How do you go about approaching a role that’s completely new and unknown?
First I look at the material available. I’ve dipped into a few biographies of Edward, and of course I’ve read Christopher Marlowe’s 16th century play. In that way I got a rough idea of who I was dealing with and I can now relate to his portrayal in the libretto better: Thomas Jonigk has sketched a bristly, dramatic character and cut the material down to its essence. My next access point is via the score. When I got my hands on the piano arrangement, I was amazed at how bare it looked. At first I really had no mental or aural image of how it might sound at the end of the process.
Then comes the hard work. I committed the role to memory, primarily the words and the rhythm. The metronome is ticking away and that’s the only objective reference point that you have when you’re learning. So it’s rhythm, text, rhythm, text, and then the music is added.
And now, with a few rehearsals on piano behind us, I’m looking forward to hearing what the score sounds like in the hands of the orchestra. Edward’s nightmares, the angry mob stirring up hatred against him, the yearning he sometimes expresses, premonitions of his own death. What I can say at this early stage is that Scartazzini has written a thrilling score. That’s clear from a glance at the piano arrangement. But in the piano rehearsals you don’t get the colour provided by the full orchestra. And I can tell you, I’ve never been as excited in the run-up to the first orchestra rehearsal as I am with this production.
Director Christof Loy was very clear that he would like to see you in the role of Edward II at the Deutsche Oper Berlin. You’ve sung in a number of Loy’s productions. Can you say a few things about what it’s like working together?
There’s no director I trust more implicitly than Christof Loy. I’m sure he senses that, too, and it’s probably a necessary precondition when you’re working with material that’s not part of the normal repertoire. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, I’d say that any time spent working with Christof Loy is a life-changing period. I find myself considering issues that wouldn’t be raised without his input. And then the rehearsals phase can turn out to be an existential experience for me, too, as a singer. With “Edward II” I’m hoping that, through my work with Christof Loy, my interpretation will reflect every aspect of Edward’s character and will do justice to the multi-layered personality, his conflicts and psychological injuries, his questions, his yearnings and his fear of death.
“Edward II” by Andrea Lorenzo Scartazzini
Libretto: Thomas Jonigk
Conductor: Thomas Søndergård
Director: Christof Loy
With Michael Nagy (Edward II), Ladislav Elgr (Piers de Gaveston), Agneta Eichenholz (Isabella) inter alia.
World premiere: 19th February 2017.
Follow-up dates: 24th February, 1st, 4th & 9th March 2017