Francesco Maria Piave
Première on 21st February 2005 at the Nationaltheater Munich
From Film to Opera. How Doris Dörrie Conquers New Territory.
Rigoletto is your third production for the operatic stage, which you, as you say yourself, still regard as new territory. What do you believe is the major difference between work on a motion picture and work on an opera?
It is clearly the music that determines the rhythm of the production. This is totally unfamiliar and beautiful for me. In my film work I invent all the rhythm of a story myself, because I also write the screenplay. That's the hardest part of making a movie, finding an interior and exterior rhythm, a rhythm of the plot, the action, and the interior rhythm of the characters. It's the greatest source of errors: you think once the exterior rhythm makes sense, then you automatically have the rhythm for the characters. But that is often not the case. That's what I find the special, fascinating quality of opera. The musical rhythm of the work takes hold of me, carries me along, I can move within it, breathe with it, and this is way I tell the story.
In opera you have a prescribed story you cannot invent yourself as a screenplay. Do you feel restricted by this?
No, but I am highly dependent on a good story. In my previous opera jobs I had and have three good stories and fantastic music to go with them: Mozart's Così fan tutte, Puccini's Turandot and now Verdi's Rigoletto.
When you began working on Rigoletto, was there something like a priming spark that brought you closer to the piece?
As a film maker, I'm used to first looking at a story from the inside even though you have to tell it from the outside. With Rigoletto it was spontaneously the relationship between father and daughter that ignited the strongest feeling in me. If there is an emotional moment like this, one that scores a direct hit on me, then I can build the play concentrically around it. In this case it was, as I said, Gilda and her father.
A father-daughter relationship with lethal ending. Can this be generalized?
The tragedy of the relationship between parents and children that is so exemplarily revealed and elevated to extremes here can be found in the mixed messages, as psychology calls them, with which people can murder children. In the opera the music tells us so fantastically that the tenderness, the protector instinct of the parents is the one side, but that Rigoletto in his loneliness and deformity - which I see more on the inside than the outside - expects his daughter to assume responsibility for his happiness, and that is probably the worst thing you can inflict on your children. From the moment when Gilda starts seeking her own happiness, Rigoletto sees his own existence, his happiness imperiled. From that moment on he becomes a cruel father, who severely punishes his daughter, who refuses to forgive her, who will not allow her to disengage herself from him - ultimately this is what kills her. Anyone who is a father or mother has to fight against the fact that the time will come when you have to let go of your children. This experience is painful for everyone. And the opera brings this out so clearly. After all, in normal life we don't sing when we have problems. Here, however, the singing starts at the point where words fail. And I can relate very strongly to that. Singing is the desperate expression that remains when every attempt to behave in a civilized manner, to treat things rationally, to talk and discuss, collapses in failure.
Rigoletto thus behaves egotistically toward his daughter. This reflects a very powerfully patriarchal way of thinking. How much sympathy do you feel for this character?
As a writer and author and, of course, also as a director, it is always important to feel something for every character. I'd like to be able to sympathize with murderers, with villains and with patriarchal fathers. This is very easy here, because I can understand Rigoletto very well, as well as I understand Gilda or the Duca. The fact that their relationship winds up so catastrophically and costs a human life, that is the tragedy of this story.
Rigoletto is an opera with pronounced theatrical archetypes: the womanizer, the hunchback, the corpse in the sack. Are these obstacles for an interpretation?
No, I see them more as sources of enthusiasm. When you write a screenplay the first rule is to be very clear. These trappings that you mentioned allow me to take a direct approach to the characters, to look at them more precisely. In this sense, I am more convinced that the Duca is not just a womanizer but also has a tender side. I simply believe the music. I believe him when he sings in the first act duet with Gilda that he really loves this girl, that he is enchanted by her and through her has discovered something in himself that he never knew before. In that moment, it is true.
Gilda, whom the duke also sings of as a "donna celeste" appears very idealized in keeping with the idealized image Rigoletto has of his daughter or the duke has of his beloved. What do you see in this character?
I have no difficulty seeing her as a human being, a child of her father. The devastatingly moving quality children have is the way they want to protect their parents, regardless of how their parents treat them. Even a child who is subjected to physical or psychological violence will, up to a certain age, always defend its father when he is attacked. This enormous protective reflex children have and their readiness to protect parents, I find that very stirring. Everyone knows how bad it is for a child to experience weakness in a parent, when it sees its father cry. It's downright murderous for a child. This is why I keenly understand why Gilda is so torn, when Rigoletto forces her to comfort him, to protect him, to give him all her warmth. Demanding that sort of thing from children is something like a taboo injury, but I can also see why someone seeks this kind of unconditional tie with children, especially when that person is himself sad or embroiled in a crisis. The pedagogically "correct" way of going about things would be for Rigoletto to say: I am the father, you are the child. I nurture you, but you are free to find your own way. He can't bring himself to do that because he is so horribly lonely.
And that's why he reacts so extremely, confining her as he does?
But to a certain degree we all do that with our children: naturally we'd all rather lock up our children. We don't want them going out into a dangerous world, having our daughters in some disco surrounded by wild young men finding their great love, who then takes them away from up. The opera very clearly reveals that to us.
You very distinctly pinpoint where the danger is, namely in the cynical, cruel society to which Gilda and Rigoletto are subjected?
I spent a long time reflecting on how we might display a society like that today. Unfortunately the only equivalents we could find for that - whether our party society or the widespread TV decadence you'll find in a show like "I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!" - would not be recognizable as a completely vulgar, cynical, brutal, decadent society, just because it's the world we live in. That means you can't put this story in that normal environment, but you have to go to some extremes to display that dehumanization.
The famous movie classic The Planet of the Apes was obviously an inspiration here?
Yes, it was an inspiration, although the film told us that apes are ultimately more human than human beings. In the opera, this is only true under certain conditions, revealing this primarily in the character of the Duca, whose love of Gilda offers him an opportunity for greater humanity. All the others behave as crudely as animals, although animals are only following their instincts. I must confess that I have long had an interest in the behavior of animals, especially primates. My very first job, as a matter of fact, was in the Institute of Behavioral Studies in Seewiesen, which I started after completing my studies in film editing. Back then I was a great admirer of Jane Goodall, who had lived among the chimpanzees. I remember how horrified this zoologist was when she was forced to discover that her adored monkeys were capable of waging war, that they also battled without any reason, and massacred one another out of vengefulness. That was such a incredibly shattering experience for her because she actually believed monkeys were better humans. On the other hand, our attempts to project our human behavior on animals are centuries old, and there are countless examples of this in art history. The monkeys are usually used as a two-way mirror that continuously raises the question: which is more "human" - humans or animals? Today's genetic research has discovered that humans differ only slightly from primates in their genetic potential, which confirms how thin the layer of our civilization is. In view of this fragility of civilizational substance, every cultural effort is so endlessly important. This is why it is also so important not to lose music and the art form of opera as an option, an appeal to us to behave in a civilized fashion, because there is no point fooling ourselves: the majority of young people have already lost these cultural values, that is to say, they no longer have them on their radar screens. And herein lies the third consideration of the Rigoletto concept, that we are most likely to bring across this art to the 30 to 40 generation if we tell our story in the images of our modern media world, and thus keep them alive. After all, it is a total cultural horror scenario that all the opera houses might one day collapse and with them all the treasures of our operatic and musical culture. And here I speak from my own highly personal experience: only four years ago, when I started doing my own operatic productions, did I begin to realize what I had been missing by not knowing and enjoying this operatic treasure. That is why I now believe that we must do everything we can to make opera more easily accessible, to expand its area of influence. Otherwise things may start looking like our first scene, where the opera houses have almost all disappeared, because they're flat broke anyway, and because the cultureless have gained the upper hand.
This conversation was conducted by Hella Bartnig.
English translation by Donald Arthur
© Bavarian State Opera