Comparisons Have no Place in Art – Interview on » Fuoco sacro «
Christoph Schlüren in conversation with Jan Schmidt-Garre
How did you come across the three singers?
I heard Ermonela Jaho by chance on the car radio and was overwhelmed by this voice. There was a vulnerability and humanity that I really only knew from Callas. And from Carla Gavazzi, a wonderful singer who appears in my film » Opera Fanatic « and to whom I also refer in » Fuoco sacro «. At home I immediately researched, watched Youtube videos and then saw her live in London, as Madam Butterfly at Covent Garden. My first thought towards the film was not a sophisticated concept, but simply the desire to record and publish a lot of her singing, so that others can also experience this miracle.
And how did the other two protagonists come about?
As I got deeper into it, I realized that this wasn’t going to be a portrait, but a film about those extremely rare frontier crossings that we ultimately look for when we go to the theater. But it was clear to me that there is no second Jaho. That there is, however, a singer who crosses the same boundaries, even though she is the opposite of Jaho in every way, was something I knew, and that singer was Barbara Hannigan. She was the only one I immediately thought of. One who is intellectual, thoughtful, eager to experiment, downright athletic in testing and stretching her own means. Somehow these two women belong in the same film, I thought, but how can that be? I don’t want to compare them with each other, because in my opinion comparisons have no place in art.
With two protagonists, comparison is almost inevitable.
And that’s why I wondered who else I should add, a male singer perhaps, but I didn’t know anyone with that power. And then I heard about Romeo Castellucci’s rehearsals in Salzburg and about the singer of Salome, Asmik Grigorian. She was at the same time an ancient tragedian and a person of today, true to the text and totally free, a teenager and a woman. And there I had the constellation that I hoped would work.
Can you name any outstanding films about great singers that have inspired you?
One film comes to mind that has impressed me for a long time: » Let’s Get Lost « about Chet Baker, who also sang beautifully. Bruce Weber made it, the fashion photographer. But I don’t really care about the film genre, if that exists at all. A friend wrote me after the premiere that she appreciated about my work that I make uniques. I like that term very much. When I take my cue from other films, it’s not so much in terms of content, but rather in terms of form. Questions like: How do you create a certain atmosphere? What is a productive contrast? What kind of context do you have to build up so that a scene that had great magic on location also unfolds its magic in the film. That’s not a given at all; in fact, it’s perhaps the hardest thing to do. You see the scene and know from your memories of the shooting that it was a very powerful moment, but suddenly that power doesn’t want to emerge. It’s terrible. And then you tweak it, move the scene, build an entrée or an exit for it – until it finally works.
To what extent has your experience as an opera director affected » Fuoco Sacro «?
I’ve only been directing operas for ten or twelve years, whereas I’ve been making films for much longer. But it’s possible that the female characters I’ve directed have had an impact on » Fuoco sacro. « I’ve always let my female protagonists in opera be very strong. They are actually always the main characters with me, whether that’s Manon or Arabella or the Countess in Figaro or even Marietta in » Die tote Stadt «, an opera with a terribly reactionary conception of women. It just comes to my mind that I had trouble with the male lead in my first student film. It was a film adaptation of the love scene from Verdi’s Otello. And my Otello asked angrily at one point, » Is the opera called Desdemona? « In my very favorite production, in Fidelio, I even had Leonore be on stage through the entire opera, so that she sees everything and everything goes through her.
And the other way around? Are there repercussions from » Fuoco sacro « on the operas?
During the filming, it was very interesting for me to experience the opera rehearsals now from the singers’ perspective. I realized that most of what the directors say at rehearsals bypasses them – at least if they are as talented as the three in the film. They draw from completely different sources. Short, precise hints are enough.
What would be the central messages of » Fuoco Sacro «, that is, the ones that could ideally reach the viewer?
Only those who surrender completely, without reserve, without a false bottom, will win! What we actually know from all great art. And so it is here, too. That communicates I think. I myself don’t have a message in terms of content, but, as with all my work, I want the viewers to engage more deeply with art, to open up and really let themselves be touched. The film doesn’t want to teach, it wants to make things tangible. And in the end, I always want the audience to cry!
Did the singers willingly accept the challenge of commenting on their own singing with headphones and eyes closed? Were there any remarkable different reactions to it?
All three are fearless women, border crossers. That’s why they’re so good. When you challenge them, as I did with my séances, they embrace it wholeheartedly. But it’s interesting how differently they then experienced the situations. Barbara Hannigan looked at her recording more from the outside, while Ermonela Jaho went so deep that childhood memories came up and she understood for the first time why the character of Angelica is so close to her. And Asmik Grigorian shows perhaps most realistically what is really going on inside her on stage, namely a constant back and forth between identification with the character – » I despise you, Jochanaan, you piece of shit! « – and control of the instrument – » Back! Breathe, breathe, breathe! «.
What projects would you like to realize in the next few years, especially with regard to singing and opera?
I would love to stage Tristan. In the past I would have been afraid of Wagner’s lengths, of these endless monologues and dialogues, but in the meantime I believe that I could develop the inner drama of these scenes out of the music, so that I could stage an action that is just as detailed as this highly differentiated music. So that it would be really exciting. And the main character would undoubtedly be Isolde!