Rene Van Peer leads a talk back with Boris Yukhananov and Dmitri Kourliandski
17 June 2017

Muziekgebouw, Amsterdam, June 16

RENE VAN PEER: Considering the theme, why this opera at this specific period in time?

BORIS YUKHANANOV: Ours is a time when tyranny has lifted its head in all its forms. We now stand before a world tree that bears just one fruit. This tree can grow no further until the fruit explodes. With our opera, our “opera operation,” with all of Dmitri Kourliandski’s genius and elaborate music, and relying on the magic that theatre has at its disposal, we are trying to speed up that process.

DMITRI KOURLIANDSKI: If I’m right, your question was why do we speak about this specific era? I would say that there is no time in this opera. We don’t speak about time at all. We don’t speak about concrete moments in time because tyranny, or love, or power, or death, etc., all exist forever, always, at the same time, in parallel. And in our lives we switch back and forth between these concepts. It’s very important always to remember that we are all tyrants actually. And at the same time we are all survivors of tyranny. It is up to us to question ourselves: who are we, and when do we apply these various concepts to ourselves.

BORIS YUKHANANOV: I would put it this way: The final tyranny is that of the brain.

RENE VAN PEER: Then what part of the opera is most important?

DMITRI KOURLIANDSKI: The question of what is most important is the most difficult for a composer. The most banal answer to that is: the whole opera is important.

RENE VAN PEER: And how about you, Dmitri?

BORIS YUKHANANOV: I thought you would say the finale. If we speak about climax, for instance, one of those terms from the lexicon of theatre poetics that is losing importance, then in some paradoxical manner we bring about a climax in Agrippina’s fifteen-minute aria. This is the slow, tender, terrible whisper of a mother who has returned from hell. This is the climax.

RENE VAN PEER: How does this current work follow from the earlier work that you did?

BORIS YUKHANANOV: There is an arc that connects this work with the end of the 1980s. Russia has survived three revolutions. The first was in 1917. The second was Perestroika, an era of regime change. The idea of connecting these two texts, Seneca and Trotsky, first came to me in the eighties. It was my desperate futurologistic cry. It was a declaration about what was going to happen to our country in the 1990s. It was a prophetic sense I had in my mind. Because we anticipated the coming spilling of blood and the coming fall of an empire, as well as all the horrible events in each individual life that were going to accompany this. And then all of it did occur. The revolution that is unfolding even now is akin to emptiness slowly doing vicious violence to itself. Here and now is when we need to speak about tyranny. This is the tyranny that emptiness wields over the human being. I recently came up with a formula. In regards to the individual, our era, as it were, markets emptiness. It puts forth special individuals whose function is to manaage and deal in emptiness. Their revolution is the third revolution.

DMITRI KOURLIANDSKI: I will answer this question concretely, because it falls outside my previous line of works. It really is a work apart. And that is very important for me, because it is, in a way, my own inner revolution. The material is dear to me, but for me it is definitely a new kind of work. This is surely the result of my collaboration with Boris, which has now lasted for eight years or so. I would say this is the starting point of a new cycle which I hope we will continue to develop in the future.

RENE VAN PEER: How does the music relate to the theme of the opera?

DMITRI KOURLIANDSKI: Directly, I would say. Even in the way it is structured, for example, in the way it is constructed. Because there are three layers in the music. I call the first layer totalitarian. This layer is notated in a normal, classical, very strict, fixed way. So, this is the layer of the solos. They represent the totalitarian idea. The next level, as I call it, is the climate. It is more or less unpredictable. You never know how it will turn, when it will be loud and when it will be very soft. It is unpredictable and is a more or less uncontrolled layer. The third layer is that of the chorus. The chorus is the people. The people create the true atmosphere of the opera. They sing nonstop for over an hour. But they rely exclusively on their own ears. There is no direct, no concrete score for them - just basic instructions. Since the chorus members are following their own ears, the audience is led by their intuition. These three layers represent my approach to the stage, which is the basis for this opera.

RENE VAN PEER: How did you construct the electronic layer?

DMITRI KOURLIANDSKI: The electronic layer is drawn from the early measures of the famous revolutionary song “Varshavianka.” This is the song of the Russian revolution. Although it originated in Warsaw, it was Lenin’s favorite song. So I took the beginning measures of this song and stretched it out one hundred times. It has been one hundred years since the revolution so we stretched it out one hundred times. As such, from less than one minute of music, I came up with nineteen minutes of material. I called it the “trepanation of sound,” because by stretching out the sound, you actually enter the territory in between the individual growls of sound. You open, you trepanize, the material, so all that you heard tonight is more or less made up of this strange melodic, harmonic material that emerges from this process of trepanation.

RENE VAN PEER: Is that something that you discussed with Boris?

DMITRI KOURLIANDSKI: Yes, of course. Because it comes out of the basic idea of the text of the project. In the very beginning I looked for a starting point that would open a door for me into this theme. This song was that starting point. It was the symbol of the revolution.

RENE VAN PEER: There was one point where I was wondering about a speech I could hear. I think it was during the aria by Agrippina. What was that?

DMITRI KOURLIANDSKI: That is Lenin speaking, several of Lenin’s speeches, documentary recordings, which were also stretched out a little bit. Not a hundred times, but a little. So it’s kind of direct speech from the ghost of communism. I call it a duet. Because it is a real duet for Agrippina and the ghost of Lenin. The ghost of Agrippina and the ghost of Lenin.

BORIS YUKHANANOV: What amazed me most in Dmitri’s music was the tenderness and soulfulness that Dmitri extracted from the depth of text. Naturally I’m referring to the text of “Octavia.” Therein lies a paradoxical situation. Nero loves. He is a loving soul. He is full of feelings. And Seneca, who loves Nero as a student, tells him: “Your love is impossible. The people will not accept it.” And Nero replies: “I am the emperor. Am I not allowed to love?” And with all the love and tenderness that exists between them Seneca replies: “No, you are not.” So the paradox arises from this confrontation. This is the seed of tyranny. It blossoms unexpectedly. Nero kills his mother, burns Rome, kills Octavia and sends for Seneca to be killed. That is the situation that is buried deep inside this text. And Dmitri took this love and brought it to bear, at least for a time, on the present. In some sense it was important for us not to shout like we did in the eighties. Our goal was to achieve a feeling that corresponded to the present time. This feeling of tenderness in a horrible time. This is what fills Dmitri’s music. I thought that was very important inside this tyrannical form.

RENE VAN PEER: I have a question about the design. It’s impressively huge. It is blown up to mythical proportions which makes me think of gigantomania as it has appeared throughout history. Is that tradition part of what you have done?

BORIS YUKHANANOV: Gigantomania is part of that sickness we are all experiencing. It has many names. Tyranny is just one of them. Stepan Lukyanov, the designer, embodied this in the central object – that three-story building that is a head - in an amazing and very precise way.

DMITRI KOURLIANDSKI: Just a few words about gigantomania. My sense is that we all must spend about an hour inside that enormous head, musically and visually. So, yes that’s gigantomania. It is very much connected to Stepan’s idea, to turn something quite small into something much bigger.

RENE VAN PEER: Well, I have to say that… I can’t say that I enjoyed it, but I thought it was wonderful. It was really fascinating. I want to see much more of you work. Are there now any questions from the audience?

SPECTATOR’S QUESTION: What does the score look like?

DMITRI KOURLIANDSKI: The score looks… well… it is quite complex. As I told you, it consists of three layers. For the soloists - simple melodic material, very strict. They have no opportunity to waver from the written score. For the chorus the score is a set of instructions. They actually read what to do, how to behave, how to react. This is the score for them. And for the third part the score is… there is no score, there is just basic material and there is the program that I developed with Oleg Makarov, who is the sound artist on this project. So, there is a strict score, there is a free score, and there is no score.

SPECTATOR’S QUESTION: Where is the conductor?

DMITRI KOURLIANDSKI: The conductor? There is no conductor. The conductor is dead.

BORIS YUKHANANOV: In theory and in practice there are two scores. One is the composer’s score. The director creates another. But for such a production, which is, in fact, a “blockbuster,” a style I have worked in for some time, I make a director’s score. It is very precise and it is connected to the music, the lighting, the movement on stage, and the work of the entire technical staff. It is all connected in one score and is measured down to the second. It was like those toy soldier games emperors used to play; we, the technical and other departments, played it all out beforehand in model form. It was all in our heads from the very beginning. And we put in details only in the last moment. There could be no mistakes. It was done very quickly, but all the parts came together. It is like a fresco. It is a complicated system of layers. Two scores. One show.