I came to London because I had been told me that … in the Royal Opera House (ROH) there would be a development session for Stephen McNeff’s (http://www.stephenmcneff.co.uk/ ) opera-in-progress of Pedro Páramo. As I’ve already mentioned in these pages, I was invited as artistic advisor. And before I go any further, a fervent Thank -you to the Anglo-Mexican Foundation, whose support made my trip possible!
In four days of rehearsal with a stage director and orchestra conductor, five singers put together seven scenes of this new opera of McNeff. The first three days are just with piano reduction; the third day a guitarist, a cellist and a young woman who astonishingly triples on clarinet, bass clarinet and soprano sax join the group. A workshop like this is a kind of hothouse, in which the essential elements –apart from the good earth of a great score— commitment, love, skill, and a pinch of luck. I continue to be astonished by how much can be accomplished in so little time.
And hey – we’re not talking about yet another production of Don Giovanni or Bohème here, but about completely new music. Gorgeous, to be sure, but COMPLETELY NEW.
The seed from which this tree has blossomed took root some five years ago, when I asked Stephen McNeff for a piece for Rumor de Páramo / Murmurs from the Wasteland, an international commissioning and recording project of which I am the commissioning artist. At that time, McNeff knew nothing of Rulfo or of his iconic novel Pedro Páramo. In the course of composing his beautiful Pavane –in the old way— for doña Susanita, he fell deeply in love with Rulfo, and decided he wanted to compose a chamber opera on Pedro Páramo. Something like two years ago came the word that his publishers, Peters Editions, had been granted the preliminary permission by Balcells in Barcelona. This past May Stephen wrote to me with the wonderful news that the ROH had granted him the development session, together with the invitation for me to come as artistic advisor.
During these four days of rehearsal, I see each of the participants tangibly connecting with these seven scenes, so that even before the presentation on Friday they start to acquire an emotional force that takes my breath away and often brings me to the brink of tears. McNeff says numerous times how fortunate he is to have singers of this calibre in the Workshop. This is true: but it’s also true that his score fully deserves them!
The conductor is Domenic Wheeler, a marvel of good humour, patience, and clarity. And he even sings, really well! No idle commentary, because it means he understands the voice and what it means to write for it, which astoundingly not everyone in Music-World does … http://www.operauk.com/wheeler.html
The stage director is John Lloyd Davies, who is also ROH Director of Opera Development. He is a total professional, completely committed and full of energy, plus good humour.
They’ve brought over Matthias Janser from Barcelona as project assistant, really tech director. Like all the best of his tribe he radiates astonishing tranquillity. He moves almost invisibly among the cast, arranging a light here and a stone there, jotting in his notebook. For Friday’s presentation he’s in the control booth at the light board and everything happens just as it’s supposed to.
It’s Wednesday when I start to feel it, while they’re rehearsing the scene between Eduviges Dyada and Juan Preciado. There’s a moment whenClaire McCaldin, suddenly going high, sings “We were the best of friends”, with that burnished color that the mezzo voice can have in its upper register … and I realize we’ve entered a different territory, that in which you can let yourself be filled with passion for the music you’re interpreting, you can let it all loose. Before, it was all woodshedding, with the almost total coldness that this implies: “all channels set to Receive”, as I think of it. You must enter into the music with all the openness and skill of which you’re capable and with the neutrality necessary to have the score very present. And then you begin to make it your own, after you enter extensively into the music, the music starts to enter you; and you feel the beginning of that extraordinary alchemy which is interpretation. Which is how music reveals itself to us.
MY PARTICIPATION … I came with no fixed idea of what might be useful or inspiring: in fact it seemed to me a bit arrogant to arrive with the idea of instructing. I tried, rather, to give some context to the efforts already underway; in the same sense that Lettvin once showed me Goyas’s “Black Paintings” to help me get into the slow movement of a sonata of CPE Bach.
So I speak a little of the historical context: of the years of conflict in Mexico after Independence, and of the additional years of bloody and fratricidal conflict after the Revolution; and of how Rulfo experienced that directly. Also, briefly, of the literary context: in my time with Rumor I have done my share of reading on the subject. I described how at the beginning, right after Pedro Páramo was published in 1955, there were those who wanted to label Rulfo as just another “regionalist”. Very shortly it became quite clear that he writes of themes which are fundamental to human beings: hunger, the hunger for power, the search for the father, love, death. He does it in such a way that what begins firmly rooted in that Jalisco soil becomes something universal.
I also say that for me, part of what confers universality on this novel is that within the pitiless portrait which Rulfo paints of Pedro Páramo, he also paints Pedro’s love for Susana San Juan, the only person in his life he’s truly loved – and the only one he can never possess.
THOSE IMAGES … From Mexico to London I schlepped that great book of Rulfo’s photography, as eloquent as his words. ( Juan Rulfo’s México: Published in English by Smithsonian Institution Press; in Spanish [El México de Juan Rulfo] by Lunwerg Editores, Barcelona … Thanks AJ and Jenny!). I showed those images, as Lettvin showed me Goya.
If you do not know Mexico how can you know those landscapes, those faces, those ghost towns? All you know will necessarily come from the daily news: heads rolling down the streets, drug cartels, corruption, mendacity, ineptitude. I suppose that if I came with any particular idea, it was that I wanted to communicate compellingly that what we DO have in Mexico is our two thousand-year history and culture, from the abomination of caciquismo (corrupt power-hungry government) to the glory of our musical and literary patrimony, of the past and especially of today.
THOSE WORDS … I read the beginning of Pedro Páramo, in Rulfo’s words and then in Margaret Sayers Peden’s wonderful English translation.
I don’t know why –except that they are for me emblematic of Rulfo and of his raw material, and that they always move me deeply— I then read the first two paragraphs of Nos han dado la tierra (They have given us the land) of El llano en llamas (The Burning Plain); and then my own translation.
There is no music like these words.
… AND THOSE SINGERS! … Mary Plazas, distinguished soprano based in England but of Spanish-Portuguese background: Dolores Preciado http://www.owenwhitemanagement.com/sopranos/Mary-Plazas/
Claire McCaldin, mezzosoprano: Eduviges Dyada http://www.claremccaldin.com/
Nicholas Sharratt, tenor: Juan Preciado. http://www.nicholas-sharratt.com/
Michael Burke, baritone: Abundio y Fulgor Sedano http://oclassical.com/artist/6943
Owen Gilhooly, baritone: Pedro Páramo http://www.owengilhooly.com/
All of them with impeccable diction and tuning, not to mention their just astounding sight-reading. They’re all experienced performers of new music, as well as of the traditional rep. All of them regularly perform with the ENO (English National Opera), among other companies. Despite all this fame, they’re all notable for their intuition, curiosity, and openness.
And all, let me not forget to mention, with magnificent acting ability and stage presence. It’s very moving for me to see how, over these few days, each of them really BECOMES the character he or she is representing. Stephen comments to me that this must be due to the great English theatre tradition – in addition to top-notch training, naturally. Young Irishman Owen Gilhooly BECOMES Pedro Páramo, radiating menace, brutality, cynicism.
THE PRESENTATION, FRIDAY 26 …
The set: in the center of a little labyrinth made of thick cord, some houses made of painted shoe-boxes. Scattered throughout the labyrinth, some small white stones. The house in the centre faintly illuminated with a lightbulb inside. Here and there two or three trunks. Hung above, some yellowing old papers, and two ornamental bird-cages. Costumes very simple: for the men just trousers and shirts, and for the women long homespun skirts and some fabric which serves as rebozos (Mexican shawls).
The presentation of the seven scenes is a resounding success. There’s no mistaking the vibe: the audience is gripped and enchanted by both text and music, as well as by the extraordinary interpretation which made of this new opera in process something real and tangible.
After the presentation, Stephen Spears briefly of the genesis of his opera. In the question-and-answer session that follows, someone asks me if there is anything particularly MEXICAN about Pedro Páramo. I think for a moment and then say, Well yes, there are a number of elements – but one which for me is very significant is a concept very particular to Mexico: that death is part of life.
Just a few weeks ago, I point out, in every town in Mexico and the majority of its homes, altars and offerings to the dead were placed placed with great love and care. In public spaces there are enormous altars which can occupy most of an entire plaza; with flower-petals, seeds and sand of various colours all of which signify a whole complex iconography. The home altars generally are more homely, and very personal. If the dead person liked Tecate beer, well there you will see his or her can of that brew, together, perhaps, with a bit of a favourite dish. And this is not at all morbid, I say: rather, it is a celebration.
They all look at me jaws dropping with wonder.
After the presentation I have a little conversation with the young woman who plays clarinets and soprano sax. She comments about how cool it is that I am there, and I compliment her on her playing. And then she says how much she likes the music! “You know, especially if you play quite a lot of new music, sometimes you play a piece and you feel, ‘Ah well, that was just a one-off, I’ve no desire to play that music again, ever.’ But THIS music, I want to play it lots of times, what a pleasure!” I say, “Well, you should tell McNeff, don’t you think?” Blushing, she says Goodness, he’s so famous, why would he want to hear from me? So I say to her, Look, even for a famous composer it can be really nice to get positive feedback – especially from a young musician. It’s kind of like the future of his music, no? That night I mention the conversation to Stephen, and he chuckles. It turns out she didn’t up the nerve to say anything to him; and he IS pleased to hear her comments!
After my return a few days ago, I’m describing some of this amazing trip to a dear friend -- who besides being a fine poet is someone with whom I’ve collaborated extensively. I comment, somewhat ironically, “So it was I, the Half-Mexican, who went to London in representation of México”. She thought for a moment and then said, forcefully and yet with great tenderness, “Don’t talk like that anymore, being half and half. You are whole. Wholly of there because of your mother and wholly Mexican because of your father.”