Q & A: Francesco Filidei on His Opera ‘L’Inondation’ & Approach to CompositionBy João Marcos Copertino
Composer Francesco Filidei is on a good streak. After the success of the creation of his new cello concerto in the Festival Presences, he is having his opera, “L’Inondation,” performed a second time in Paris’s historic Operá-Comique. We met during the rehearsals of his opera to debate his views on composing and opera.
OperaWire: “L’Inondation” is on its second run at Opéra-Comique. This is a big thing. How will it work now as a second staging of the opera?
Francesco Filidei: This time, we have new singers and another orchestra; it will be a different way of playing it and listening to it.
OW: Recently, you created a new cello concerto with Radio France, and now an opera. How different is composing an opera from composing a concerto?
FF: I don’t know if it is so different. For me, it is a way to tell a story.
[Maybe] the opera is more complex. For an opera, the most important thing is the libretto. In the sense that once you have the structure—the skeleton—it really goes fast. If the skeleton is in place and it is very well done, the music goes without any problem; it flows. And then, let’s say the music is the flesh of the skeleton. Then, there is the orchestration that dresses this body. So that’s the three different moments of composing [an opera].
Inside the cello concerto is something of me. You can read it in many ways—as a cello concerto or a symphonic poem—but there is something of me behind it. With the concerto for cello and orchestra and the other concertos that I have composed, I have always raised the question of what figure will be behind the landscape—the figure is a kind of image. [As if] you have a figure with the sea behind or the mountains. This aspect is very important to me because, many times in contemporary music, we forget to work with images. In contemporary music, we work with textures, but the images are important too.
OW: Would you say picturesque?
FF: I would say it is trying to find the relationship between the image and the background. There are two conflicts of emotions—the image and the background—and then I merge the two.
OW: There is one thing about images in opera: whether the text can be understood. In “L’Inondation,” the text is very understandable. Contemporary operas do not take that for granted.
FF: It depends on the opera one is writing. In [my] case, storytelling is very important. [“L’inondation”] is written by [Joël] Pommerat, so there is a strong relation to theater. Also, after [Debussy’s] “Pelléas et Mélisande,” the French language… Let’s say that, in France, the theater is more important, historically, than opera. I am speaking as an Italian. For us Italians, it is the contrary. In Italy, opera wins. In France, the words are more present, so one has to respect them in one way or another.
This was so difficult for me because it is hard to know what you can or cannot do with words in French. There are rules, but they are not written. It is really like speaking another language. So, for example, in Italian, the accent is quite easy, there is a tonic accent, and you know what to do. It is natural to me. In French, there are rules that, very frequently, one doesn’t have to respect. In these moments, one needs to be irregular with the words. Moreover, the way of singing in Italy is different than in France, so the voice and the orchestra… One ought to respect that.
OW: It is interesting that you bring “Pelléas” to the conversation because there is a lot of “Pelléas” in “L’Inondation…”
FF: Of course, but here we are in Opéra-Comique, the place where “Pelléas” was born. In a way, it is one’s responsibility to think about that. Also, when we chose the singer, it was very important that she was able to speak perfect French.
OW: Especially because Opéra-Comique has very particular acoustics. It is a small house, and you can hear the language. French is a particular language because it has many nasal sounds. How did you deal with that?
FF: It is not easy. Well, it is always difficult because in just one second, you can overload the singing, and nothing will be audible. It is always difficult to find a good balance—to capture what the stage director wants while remembering the fact that one has to sing with their mouth facing the audience to be heard.
The orchestra is small, but it is true that the orchestra sounds a lot in this hall. Especially if you are in the parterre seats. So, basically, I really lowered all the dynamics to get less sound from the orchestra. And I think this is the main problem: to let the orchestra play softer than usual. But it is always like that. In any case, the orchestra has to be sustained [present]. There are a lot of colors in the orchestra.
The most important part for me is this: the idea is to have the singers singing in quite a connotative way. I was writing an opera for a particular place [Opéra Comique, Salle Favart], a place where, more than any other place, the history of French music happened, so I tried to respect the décor of this place. One enters this Italian-style theater, and with the form of the opera, tries to respect the place. And I also tried to destroy it. Little by little, the things that once were thought to be connoted by that style in a way are not anymore. As if to signify that this theater, so classical, is not anymore: it is a feint.
OW: Could you say more about this idea of destruction?
FF: One very important point is that to write an opera nowadays is to have the possibility of destroying it from the inside. Little by little, an opera that one thinks is classic is not. When I was young, composers like Britten were not interesting to me. Only later did I understand how big he was. I was trying to experiment, and now I am more attracted to things that seem to be old but actually are not.
One example: At the beginning of the composition, we—Pommerat and I—discussed having an ensemble instead of an orchestra. I was resistant to using a classical orchestra. But then Joël Pommerat decided to put the murder—which is usually at the climax—at the beginning [of the opera]… So there’s empty space after the murder, a moment in which anything can happen, and I can do something different. The gesture is to destroy.
The other thing was a film by Roman Polanski, “Repulsion,” where a character sees this little figure on the wall, and then she goes crazy. It is sort of the same in the opera. Sometimes you have beautiful moments and then suddenly crack! Things had appeared to be natural, but then one senses something is wrong.
OW: And the inundation metaphor…
FF: For me, the real inundation of the title happens in the pit. In the end, when the woman says, “It is me,”—she finally breathes—the whole orchestra breathes without their instruments. It is like a big ectoplasm happening in the pit, and all the control that the players usually have in the breath inside their instrument is not there anymore. It is like the spirit went out of their minds; they cannot control it anymore. And it is not controlled by their mentality anymore; [they’re only] an echo. It is a project of deconstruction.
OW: Very recently, new operas have become a thing; can you say a bit about that?
FF: At least in Italy, [new] opera is something that is going extinct, partially because the fascist regime embraced it. There is a very interesting book on the topic, Francesco Bracci’s Italiani contro l’Opera (2020), that tries to explain why even intellectuals became against this art form.
Opera is still used, but with the revolution of pop and electronics and the fact that the voice can be electronically amplified nowadays, the voice, the most human instrument, has become old. The main problem of opera now is that when one hears a non-amplified voice, it sounds old. When one composes an opera nowadays, one must accept that. One also has to put into question why it sounds old.
As for the fact that things are changing, I am not so sure. Maybe in the United States, but you see, in Europe, not so much. In the big opera houses in Germany, there are a few new operas each year. Before the war, each theater had one or two new operas per season. Also, each big composer wrote just one opera. Messiaen, Kurtág, just one opera.
To me, the big problem in Italy is that we have forgotten our history. And we think we have a sensibility for opera. It was born in Italy, in Florence. We forgot that. On the one hand, we have the San Remo pop song. On the other, composers composing for just a happy few. In the opera that I am composing now, I try to have an aria or something for each singer. We have all the voices, too, an alto, soprano, bass, bass-baritone, all the voices. Everyone has more or less their own space.
OW: I particularly appreciate your concern with opera as an art form. How do you see it in face of the power of opera nowadays?
FF: For a long time, the real star has been the stage director… We are in a society that is all “in the moment.” In opera, in just two hours of music, you can construct time. This is an idea that goes against the grain nowadays.
I say all the time that that is the main problem in life. The fact is that with music, you can control the time. With a quarter of time in a piece of music, you get the possibility of controlling the time of your own life.
The problem with the young generation is that there is nothing after one day. No future. When you understand that you can control time with a story [in music], you have the possibility to control time for yourself, for your life.
OW: Do you pay much attention to the audience?
FF: The audience…? More to the critics! And I am really angry if they don’t understand it. Now, I am better, but I always suffer a lot with these things.
OW: What don’t they understand?
FF: I think it is anthropological. More or less, what I get is that I am trying to find something that is not there; the music is saying other things, and I am not ready to get it. So, the problem is how explicit I need to be about how much I want. As an Italian, I try to be as Italian as possible.
OW: Any final words on your opera composing?
FF: It is important to put things down to see that they have a life. That is why I write opera. Because for me, opera is dead, the opera in the sense of what opera meant to Italy in the last century. Opera, nowadays, is not [a thing] anymore. A young composer today works on Artificial Intelligence, and that is fine. For me, this theater is not for our society nowadays; it was thought for a society of other rules, where people could see each other [Filidei refers to the structure of an Italian theater].
To live nowadays with a thing that is not anymore is deafening. It gives one a feeling of melancholy that says I am here; I am living.
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