"Fuoco sacro – A Search for the Sacred Fire of Song" – Interview
Jan Schmidt-Garre in conversation with Rebecca Walter, January 2022
What was at the beginning of your project „Fuoco sacro"?
A voice. Without image, without body. I was listening on the car-radio to a CD review of the rarely performed opera „Zazà“ by Leoncavallo, and the voice of this Zazà struck me like a bolt of lightning. There was a tremor in this voice, vulnerability, knowledge, humanity, as I really only knew it from Callas. And from Carla Gavazzi, a wonderful singer who appeared in my film „Opera Fanatic". That was Ermonela Jaho’s voice. At home, I immediately did some research, watched Youtube videos, and then went to London to see her live as Butterfly at Covent Garden. There she gave herself to the character so much, disintegrated and died before my eyes, that I thought, „How great that I was able to witness that, but how unfortunate that this was Ermonela Jaho’s last night ever.“ I felt like I was witnessing one of those rare moments when art and reality merge, like when Keilberth died conducting „Tristan.“ But Ermonela Jaho wasn’t dead. Three days later she came back to the theater, well recovered, did her strange warm-up on the gymnastic ball, which I was later to learn about, and died again on the open stage in front of an audience of two thousand. That’s when I knew what kind of film I had to make.
And how did the other two protagonists come about?
It wasn’t meant to become 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, cool, 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 play them off against each other, and now that I’m talking, I’m already dreading this false emphasis. As if Jaho were hot-blooded and unreflective. Nonsense: she knows exactly what she is doing and how she must do it. Maybe even she is the controlled one and Hannigan the one who gives in to affect.
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, which promised a great performance of „Salome“, 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.
You conduct conversations with the singers, but most importantly, you observe them in moments that are rarely seen: during warm-ups, just before the performance, or immediately after.
I thought of Stanislavski, who, before he became the great director and acting teacher, was an actor himself, and apparently a very good one. As a young man, Stanislavski literally spied on the famous actors of his time, such as Eleonora Duse or Tommaso Salvini, to find out their secrets. He observed what they did before the performance, what their rituals were, what their dressing room looked like, and so on. He wanted to find out what these geniuses do differently from their normally gifted colleagues. That’s what I did with the singers.
And what did you discover?
Very simple things, but they are very characteristic. Ermonela Jaho, for example, always asks for a dressing room on a different floor to her colleagues. Not that she is arrogant and wants special treatment – not at all, she is a most modest person and very collaborative. But she does have to tune herself in. She can’t be talking to the Suzuki singer ten minutes before the performance about lazy agents or about unmusical directors. She’s already in her fictional world by then.
Is she already in this world when she walks through the half-finished Butterfly stage set in her bathrobe?
That’s part of the process. She does that even on the 55th performance. She takes in the aura of the evening and does test steps in the other reality of art that will later emerge for everyone. This is exactly what Stanislavski reports about Salvini – which Jaho certainly doesn’t know. When she performs, she must, as she says, already be in this other reality. After all, she doesn’t just come from the wings, but from Cio-Cio-San’s bedroom. And because she always manages to experience this fictional world from within, she can turn even the 55th performance into an event. It really is the first time for her again and again. In this respect, it makes no difference whether she has a huge repertoire like Barbara Hannigan, or always sings the same five operas.
Barbara Hannigan talks about the process of opening up that takes place throughout the entire day of the performance.
That’s her perspective. Ermonela Jaho certainly wouldn’t put it that way. Barbara Hannigan is all about receptivity. She wants to be as open as possible, to be able to feel and respond to every vibe around her. That’s her method of avoiding routine, that is, keeping herself from applying the recipe for success from the night before.
You must have had shots of Asmik Grigorian before the performance. Why did you cut them out?
You don’t cut out anything, you cut in. It’s constructive work. As a director and editor, you are not a sculptor who uncovers the shape hidden in the material, which is what spectators often think, but rather a painter or a constructor. The spectator is not at all aware of how fictional such a documentary film is. The Turkish journalist Can Dündar recently said: „Documentary means: Rewriting history.“
But your starting point is always reality.
Absolutely. And in all its banality and randomness. You can plan and anticipate a shoot as well as you like – what actually happens is to a large extent random. And often insignificant. It’s pure raw material from which only in the editing process do I create the reality I had planned to encounter. And that applies just as much to the purists among documentary filmmakers who seem to be reproducing naked reality, like Frederick Wiseman.
But you don’t manipulate the footage.
That depends on how you define manipulation. At the beginning, the editor Sarah Levine and I view all the material. I copy along, mark good spots, make notes about possible combinations and placements. This takes forever and is the less enjoyable part of the work, for this very reason: because the material is still so random and unshaped. Then we start compressing scenes, still carefully, with a lot of air. By making a selection, we already detach ourselves a bit from, let’s say, the old reality. And then, imperceptibly, we move into the hot phase, where we begin to combine modules, to shift them and to feel the pulse of the material more and more. Some scenes I see and hear a thousand times, it’s like psychoanalysis. Wrinkles open up in the fabric – you can’t imagine that. Everything becomes transparent. I could write a two-hundred-page book about one sentence by Asmik Grigorian, so much unfolds there. I hear so many nuances and undertones. That is also somehow perverted. At some point, the singers are just colours on the palette with which I paint my picture. After all, they don’t need this film. They serve my fulfillment, and I should be grateful to them for that.
For you, it’s artistic work?
Compositional work, yes. Hindemith recognized that when he said to Arnold Fanck, on the occasion of his editing of the film „In Storm and Ice,“ „What you’re doing is pure music!“ That would be the goal. At least mine.
And where does that leave reality?
Hopefully it will return in the end. Purged. Only here does the ethical question arise for me, that is: does the overall construction do justice to the subject matter? I’m currently editing a film about the Indian architect Balkrishna Doshi. When he builds a university, he doesn’t just fulfill the specifications of his clients. He realizes his vision of an ideal campus, which he thinks of in terms of interactions: Exchanges between students and professors. A chance encounter in the cafeteria that might lead to something more important than the seminar the student misses. Doshi overfulfills the wishes of his clients. Hopefully, that’s how it is at the end of the edit: that the film is truer than its source material.
What is it like, then, when you meet the protagonists again after completing such a work? Who, after all, have probably moved on?
I’m surprised that they’re still alive.
What do you mean?
Like the murderer in Süskind’s „Perfume,“ I squeezed them dry to get their scent. There can’t really be anything left. That’s nonsense, of course, but it describes a bit the feeling one has towards the protagonists after such intensive work. At first I don’t even feel the need to see them on stage again. That only comes back slowly when the film begins its own life, independent of me.
What would you say makes up the work of a documentary film director above all else?
(Thinks.) The loading of the scenes.
What does that mean?
It’s about identifying what the essence of a scene is, and then finding the context in which that essence can be experienced by the spectator. That’s it. And that’s the hardest thing. One scene is strong at the beginning, another at the end, and a third can lie around unredeemed forever. Maybe a really great scene that we thought was a no-brainer. Then we try out different options, putting it in all sorts of places, until all of a sudden it comes to life.
And if not?
Then it’s kicked out. That’s the famous „kill your darlings"; you have to be merciless.
Did that happen with „Fuoco sacro"?
Fortunately not with a big scene, but with a take from an interview. I ask Ermonela Jaho what she would do if she couldn’t channel her pain into song. „I don’t know,“ she says, „maybe I would end up in a psychiatric hospital. I couldn’t survive.“ We didn’t find a place for this sentence to unfold its power without seeming indiscreet. Perhaps it is just for the best. Besides, the observational scenes are always much more important and meaningful than interviews.
In „Fuoco sacro“ you found a third form, the inner monologue of the heroines.
The „Inner Films,“ as we call them. The idea was to get as close as possible to what goes on in the mind of a musician while she sings. A painter can talk while she works, but a singer cannot. I’ve also tried this with pianists and am in the process of making a series of short films from this.
It’s interesting how Asmik Grigorian always switches between playing the role – „Jochanaan, I love you so much!“ – and coaching herself – „Back, support!“
That is probably very realistic. I suspect that these two personalities are actually active in her when she is on stage.
Frederick Wiseman, whom you mentioned, doesn’t do interviews at all. As a matter of principle, he also doesn’t make any comments in his films. For him, these are all impurities of the mere form of documentary.
It’s not really a commentary in my film either, but rather a second level that contributes my personal perspective. I think it depends on the film. I also have this purist side and have made many films that are strictly observational. But with some, a few words can make an extreme impact on the viewer. Then it’s almost liberating when you break away from the purism that’s in the bones of all of us since film academy. Ultimately, it’s all about experience, about my experience as a director during the work, and about the experience of the audience.
What do you want them to experience ideally?
Oh, I always want the audience to have tears at the end. And in this case I hope that they experience what singing can be: an audible kiss.