“Often a more naive vision of this Russian tale has been made, but we wanted to talk about the cruelty of a war,” explains director Alex Ollé. He admits that for the staging the letter of suicide was revealing and a “key element” because it expresses very well the trauma of combatants who are unable to resume their lives.
In the prodigious version of La Fura, Ollè literally places us inside the brain and the thoughts of a soldier who is in a coma in a hospital. In his bed, the young man lives a delirium, a schizophrenic situation in which the devil is presented as the voice of unconsciousness, as the alter ego of the soldier. The powerful theatrical story captures the emotional intensity, bitterness and scraps of a soldier’s life shattered by the horror of war.
All this in a hard show, with some texts of interest, mainly the satirical and poetic of Ramuz in the language of Molière that the Belgian actor shelled with excellence and that marries very well with the spirit of this chamber work created by Stravinsky for a traveling theater, with a strong influence of jazz and catchy dance rhythms such as waltz or ragtime. A score that was performed with great efficiency by musicians of the Camera Musicae Symphony Orchestra and especially by the young violinist Bernat Bofarull who contrasts with the weight and hardness of the stage direction, the images of war and torture and the silences that are seen sweetened by the musical fragments of the great score. The work ends up being a powerful criticism of the wars that left a strong impact on the Festival’s public due to its dramatic strength.
An uprooted and horrified Stravinski is updated with Ollé’s look, adding to the work a new historical and social context, since in his proposal the is joining references such as Dalton Trumbo’s film ‘Johnny took his rifle’, in that a soldier in a coma creates an ‘alter ego’ to do everything he never could, “which opened up the possibility of turning the piece into an inner drama,” the director clarifies. To that he adds a bitter bite of reality, the dramatic letter of the American soldier Daniel Somers, a war hero who fought in Iraq and returned home with a post-traumatic syndrome to end up committing suicide in 2013, without being able to forgive himself for having participated in a massacre.
In this new proposal, the narrator, the soldier and the devil are represented by a single actor, a splendid Sébastien Dutrieux. In this way, the devil is not presented as an external existence, as an evil that comes from outside, that there is but that could not be there, but rather as the inevitable dark corner of ourselves. The devil is us.
“Grey’s use of electronics aurally modernized the old opera house, and his warmly modernist score compassionately accentuated Topi Lehtipuu’s frightening portrayal of a monster discovering the meaning of emotions. This “Frankenstein” illumines the ultimate “outcast”.
“As in many postmodern adaptations of literary classics, the ‘oppressed’ characters from the book still get a voice thanks to this polyphony. This multitude of voices had the effect that I started sympathizing with the Creature even more than I had done in the novel”.
“Une belle réussite au total qui laisse quelques mélomanes sur leur faim mais a le mérite de faire avancer la réflexion sur l’opéra contemporain, sa (dé)construction et sa reconstruction. Le mythe de Frankenstein serait alors vécu comme la métaphore de la (douloureuse) création artistique.”
“On l’aura compris, le tout de cette production vaut plus que la somme des parties, et c’est le concept global et la réflexion qu’il suscite, plus que l’efficace mise en scène ou la partition hétéroclite qui emporte l’adhésion, servis par une distribution sans faille et par un orchestre impliqué et galvanisé”
“It forces us to reflect with a Frankenstein 2.0 narratively appealing, musically fascinating, easy to follow but intelligent, perhaps with the aim of bringing new audiences to the Opera without traumatizing or displeasing the old”…”If we want the Opera to be still vital in a few centuries, alongside the preservation of tradition, we need to courageously launch completely new creations such as this Frankenstein, works that bring the sensibility of time musically and narratively, and in places and contexts of representation that allow access to a wider number of spectators “.
“Text and music go hand in hand”… “Júlia Canosa i Serra takes from Mary Shelley’s novel for the libretto, enriching it with new lyrics. The futuristic embedding replaces the epistolary framework. The transhuman dystopia meets the past recounted in retrospective video projections, which, in its cinematic theatrical abundance, impressively takes you into the forest and snowy landscapes”.
“His opera (Mark Grey’s), which launches an aesthetic dice to the public, is a digest of the history of electronic music, often filling the big gap between tradition and avant-garde while maintaining a tonal universe, with superb vocal lines”…”Through successive flash-backs, the story of Frankenstein rewinds on stage by snatching the memories of the creature (Grand cousu). And this fiction within fiction… is such an artistic UFO that one can wonder if it belongs to the genre “opera”. The site Operawire ranks it among the top ten operas in 2019 “.
“As contemporary as it is, Mark Gray’s music is never hermetic. It emerges an undeniable power in phase with the story…It sticks to the plot, is strong and sometimes dazzling. Composed in parallel with the work of the other “creators” of this updated Frankenstein, the score envelops everything in osmosis with the libretto and the scenography”.
“Rhythm breaks invoke gigantic effects, piercing the melodic heart into thriller projections. Mark Grey writes in musical strata, arranged to the point, soliciting ingenious colors and sensible moods: the very subject creation of the opera, it delivers its facets without exhaustion of resources. Innovation can be found on the set, both in Júlia Canosa’s libretto and in Àlex Ollé’s consistent staging.”
“A new successful Opera, enjoyable from the profane of the work as from the most astute enthusiast, which gives an emotional crescendo, both from a sonic and visual point of view, which fascinates and at the end conquers without exception placing many questions, always current, on the relationship between Creator and Creature, on the acceptance of the Different, between Machine and Man, on the benefits but also on the risks that any experimentation can involve”.
“With ‘Frankenstein’, premiered on Friday at La Monnaie / De Munt in Brussels, the stage director Àlex Ollé – La Fura dels Baus -, the composer Mark Gray and the librettist Júlia Canosa have created a subgenre, the ‘sci-fi “opera”, because here the plot is born of futuristic fiction and is not an adaptation of a repertoire opera, the proposal surprises and excites, with an impressive visual apparatus and a top stage direction”.
“Frankenstein is one of those works that demands to take a step back, and while its philosophical and abstract side may still scare an unaccustomed audience, Frankenstein is in any case the kind of approach the opera needs.”
“We found that Richard Strauss and Richard Wagner were not at light years away, when Gray put down his impressive score”…”Well, making your own opera, that’s what Gray and Ollé have done. With impressive results. Chapeau!”
“Another critical collaboration is playwright Júlia Canosa i Serrra, who has concocted a highly successful libretto, a fairly free adaptation of Mary Shelley’s famous novel that has inspired many others, particularly in the cinema”.
“Composer Mark Gray is not an iconoclast but a great craftsman who gives us a score with many references to 20th-century examples such as Britten, Adams or Bernstein. Electro-acoustic efects get one important part in this opera and provide an enrichment of the score”.
THE WORD MAGAZINE is Belgium’s leading English-speaking free media platform, documenting and championing the best in neighbourhood living, music and art. Published every two months, the magazine is distributed in over 500 distribution points across the country.
Taking opera as a contemporary art form which reflects our current society, Frankenstein makes for a gripping example of how philosophical and ethical questions on the advances of biotechnology and modern medicine can be flawlessly integrated into a musical production. Grey and Ollé tasked librettist Júlia Canosa i Serra with converting the novel into a modernised opera production, moving away from the more simplistic Hollywood adaptations. As a key fixture of the science fiction genre, Shelley’s Frankenstein evokes a dystopic retelling of the Greek myth of Prometheus; of artificially creating man from clay. When applied to today’s context, this Augustan story is more than comprehensible when matched against notions of genetic engineering, selective breeding, assisted reproductive technology and social media. Timely, pertinent and more than relevant, La Monnaie’s Frankenstein is not to miss.
— READ MORE ON thewordmagazine.com/art/five-reasons-not-to-miss-la-monnaies-world-premiere-of-frankenstein/
Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” is one of the most iconic novels ever written, its meditation on men’s relationship with technology always appealing to people across generations.
Film adaptations of the legendary work have been a major fixture of 20th century popular culture and in recent years, there have been a number of composers who have tried to put their own touches to an operatic rendition.
Now composer Mark Grey will get a chance to showcase his own vision when his opera “Frankenstein” has its on March 8, 2019.
Grey has been commissioned by such organizations as the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, National Opera of Belgium La Monnaie | de Munt Opera, Carnegie Hall, CalPerformances, Los Angeles Master Chorale, Kronos Quartet, Berkeley Symphony, Phoenix Symphony, Green Bay Symphony, California Symphony, and Los Angeles Children’s Chorus, among others.
The composer recently talked to OperaWire about the inception of “Frankenstein,” his vision for the piece, and how he hopes audiences will interact with it.
OperaWire: What was your first experience with the Mary Shelley work?
Mark Grey: I sat down and read the novel when I was in high school, probably around the age of 16. As with most of us though, the introduction to “Frankenstein” and Mary Shelley came much earlier in life through the exposure of stereotypes of the creature in cartoons, or use of the word “Frankenstein” adapted into everyday life – but probably most by the imagery of 1931 film with Boris Karloff as the creature. I do remember seeing the 1931 film in the mid 1970’s (probably around age eight) during the Creature Feature television series in the US.
OW: What was the development process of the opera like? Was it your idea to create this opera?
MG: Actually, I was approached by La Monnaie as they had been in discussions already with Alex Olle (from La Fura dels Baus), our stage director. Alex had been wanting to stage this work for well over a decade, but it is very tricky to set novels for the opera stage. La Monnaie (and Alex) felt the music should be written by a native English speaking composer, as there is a great deal of subtlety and nuance in Shelley’s language, as well as numerous historic and literary references, say Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and the list goes on.
OW: The libretto was written by Julia Canosa. At what point did she join the process?
MG: Julia joined our team as the production was firming up.
OW: And what was the process of working with her?
MG: It’s been a wonderful experience working with Julia. Both her and myself are the types of people who put 1000 precent into our projects and dig as far deep as we can when researching. In this unified front, and both not wanting to set the novel verbatim, we were able to re-conceptualize the Frankenstein story and set it in the future. Using flashbacks and memories, similar to that in novel however set in a different context, we migrate between fluidly between the present and past.
OW: How is the opera different from the book narratively and thematically? Was there an attempt to incorporate the book’s epistolary novel style into the opera’s framework?
MG: Yes, we use the creature’s memories (after being reanimated) similar to Walton’s letter’s to his sister in the novel. The memories are the vehicle to navigate through Shelley’s scenes, again however not verbatim, but massaged for our operatic setting.
OW: When you started composing the opera, what themes did you seek to explore in the music and how did you go about it? What is the musical style of the opera?
MG: I actually ended up treating the music as kind of a “Frankenstein” of itself – as Victor assembled his creature out of various parts. I sketched several contrasting and short musical block scenarios, then played with them like a Rubik’s Cube – finding combinations which worked around Julia’s text. As I would develop the more complete idea, Julia and I would revisit the libretto and adjust text to really condense the most fruitful elements.
OW: What is the instrumentation and how does the orchestra work in this opera?
MG: I chose the instrumentation for the orchestra to offer maximum flexibility when changing musical gears between scenes, exploring orchestral colors and emotions. As well, we have introduced electronics here – surround soundscapes to create moody moments as well as highlight say the “electrocution” of the creature, or the “white out” at the beginning of the opera. In the pit there is a sampler player performing alongside what the orchestra is playing, extended the timbral pallet.
OW: How did you choose to portray the major characters musically and how do they differ from one another?
As the libretto was being developed, both Julia and myself instilled / highlighted the strengths and flaws of each character, honoring Shelley’s original setting, but also expanding on it. For example, in Shelley’s novel Elizabeth is fairly neutral in her exposure, however here we gave her much more of a voice, acting really as the “earth mother” in our setting – the most rational one of them all – Victor’s reality check. In this fashion, we expanded and ran even further by coloring each character inside music, new poetics, lights, set, stagecraft, etc. Avoiding the use of strict/traditional operatic leitmotifs, say via a melodic instrument, I ended up setting “leitmotif-like” rhythmic and harmonic cells as the characters return to stage – where you ultimately feel an implied return and not a blatant reference to them.
OW: What do you hope audiences take away from their experience of “Frankenstein?”
MG: Ultimately, this work is a warning of what lies ahead in humanity’s future – as in the novel. We live in a world now of bots / AI / unmanned drones / robotics / big data / crypto currencies, etc, and as the intangible code of now becomes the physical reality of the future, we must proceed with great caution and respect the great unknown.
OW: Switching gears a bit, what other operas are you working on or preparing?
MG: I am writing another opera (chamber) with Julia now titled “Birds in the Moon.” It’s a traveling chamber opera staged in a mobile state of the art, self-contained, shipping container – a theatrical magic moving box. The music is scored for two voices, string quartet, and soundscapes. The April 2020 premiere production of this 70-minute work will be premiered in California.
The work is loosely based on the eccentric theory by 17th Century scientist Charles Morton, who hypothesized that birds migrate to the moon. According to Morton, birds migrated every year to the moon. Some came back, the rest were lost in space. It would take the birds a journey of 60 days at 125 mph, to arrive to the moon. Charles Morton’s eccentricity serves the libretto with its main theme, the journey of the migrant – using the bird as a metaphor for a person.
One of the most unique technical aspects of this chamber opera is the set itself and its mobility. Lights, sound, video and props are all powered by contemporary solar energy battery cells concealed in the bottom of the shipping container, acting as the floor of the set. Meyer Sound Laboratories Inc. will collaborate on developing a bespoke sound system for installation in the traveling stage. This gives our production the freedom to stage the work anywhere a container can be parked, without external power supply. As the sides of the container open, exposing the action, we place the string quartet on ground level, just in front, rolling out stairs either side of the musicians to create an intimate orchestra pit – and giving the characters freedom to roam from the elevated stage, down to ground level around the quartet, or even up to the container’s roof – where our mythical bird can fly free.
With this ultimate flexibility, we can stage the work in remote locations but also theatrical spaces, inside or outside, deserts, mountains, cities, towns, villages, parking lots, quarries, college campus, malls, U.S. / Mexico border areas, beaches, State Parks and near Capitals. Essentially, bringing the theatre to the people.
I Had the pleasure of sharing the stage with Mark Grey among many other speakers at the Homo Roboticus Conference hosted by La Monnaie in Brussels. Mark Grey and I were invited to explore the analogies between the creation of Cyborgs and Robots and Frankenstein, the Opera based in Mary Shelley’s novel which will be premiering next March 8th, at La Monnaie. Homo Roboticus launched its homonimous book which poses pressing ethical questions which need to be thoroughly discussed in parallel with the rapid development of new and groundbreaking technologies.