Elena Langer in Conversation : Figaro Gets a Divorce, WNO

Elena Langer in Conversation : Figaro Gets a Divorce, WNO

This season, Welsh National Opera has devised a trilogy of operas under the banner, ‘Figaro Forever!’, celebrating Beaumarchais’ lovable, roguish fixer-factotum. With two new productions and the world premiere of a brand new opera, the company is offering a unique journey through Figaro’s story and that of his familiar, beloved cohorts. From the youthful japes of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville we travel to the less certain, pre-French revolution world of nuptial comedy-confusion and resolution in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. From thence we go … where? What does happen to Figaro and these cherished characters through the upheavals of 1789 and on, as they enter middle age?

Elena Langer’s Figaro Gets a Divorce takes up the story, but does not proceed in literal historical terms from where Mozart leaves off. Rather her new opera imagines a future Figaro and Susanna, Count and Countess and other characters in a darker, 20th century setting which sees the once-‘happy-ever-after’ couples compelled to flee an unspecified revolution. The opera’s libretto has been written by WNO’s artistic director, David Pountney, who takes Beaumarchais’ own lesser-known, third Figaro instalment, La Mère coupable (‘The Guilty Mother’), and Horvárth’s acerbic 1936 play, Figaro läßt sich scheiden (‘Figaro Gets a Divorce’) as his starting points [see here and here for further discussion of Horvárth, whose best-known play, Tales from the Vienna Woods, was turned into an opera by HK Gruber for the Bregenz Festival in 2014].

Born in Moscow in 1974, Langer has made London her home since 1999, when she came to the UK to complete her composer’s training at the Royal College of Music and Royal Academy of Music, and subsequently decided to stay. In addition to writing concert music and multimedia works, Elena has developed a keen interest in opera. From 2002-3, she was the first ever Jerwood Composer in Association at Almeida Opera, which led to two short opera commissions: Ariadne (2002) and The Girl of Sand (2003). The former work is featured on a newly-released CD, Landscape with Three People, which is attracting highly favourable reviews; notably for Langer’s strikingly effective vocal writing. Further, larger scale operas have followed, including The Lion’s Face (Linbury Studio, ROH), and Four Sisters (Richard B Fisher Centre for the Performing Arts, New York).

Elena talked with Steph Power about Figaro gets a Divorce (directed by David Pountney) ahead of its world premiere this Sunday February 21 – and ahead of the first night, Thursday February 18, of its immediate ‘prequel’ The Marriage of Figaro (directed by Tobias Richter).

Both can be seen at Cardiff’s Wales Millennium Centre and touring, together with The Barber of Seville, directed by Sam Brown (opened Saturday February 13). Further information: WNO.

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Steph Power: Figaro gets a Divorce is your first major opera, but it’s by no means your first stage work. What’s the creative process been like with David Pountney, your librettist and commissioner? Has it differed greatly from previous experiences?

Elena Langer: Each time is very different. My previous collaborator was Glyn Maxwell, who is a poet and has a completely different way of writing. His words are very beautiful and poetic and inspiring and, in a way, it was easier to write vocal music to his words. I enjoy writing for the voice – actually it feels easier to set a text than to write music without one! But David gave me such a good structure, which I’d never had before. The words were just words – functional in a way and not trying to be poetic – but I found the whole process very useful and fun, and I think this is a more theatrical piece than my previous stage works.

It’s a very strong narrative, and of course takes a lot from Beaumarchais and Horváth – David’s described the libretto as being one third each writer. But did you get a strong sense of the staging too as you composed the music, since he’s also directing the opera?

Actually, I think he takes more from Horváth than from Beaumarchais! Yes it was very clear what each scene was doing, and visually I could imagine it easily because the designs were ready quite early on. When I was working on it I said to David that he must have staged it already in his head even before I’d written the music. And he said, ‘of course I did!’ So I asked, ‘well, what are you going to do when the music arrives?’ and he said, ‘I’ll adjust to the music!’

The opera has more than a hint of Horváth’s satirical edge. These familiar characters are now fleeing revolution and having to cope with all sorts of pressure, so it’s a dark setting. But there is humour, and a sense of balancing the absurd on the one hand and very real dangers and tensions on the other.

I even wish there was more humour, more lightness! But yes, that describes it – it’s a rich play and I think David’s made a good operatic version of it.

What are the most important themes of the piece for you personally as its composer?

For me, probably the most important thing in the whole opera is this Mozartian idea, in fact, that the characters forgive each other. The idea that people live their lives and do all kinds of things, make mistakes, make decisions that turn out right or wrong, but then, in the end, you just know who your people are; who you’re staying with. Overall it’s confirmation and forgiveness. It’s a trust in humanity no matter what happens. Many times in the opera the Countess says to Susanna, ‘it doesn’t matter what he [Figaro] has done, if you love him, you stick with him.’ The Count and the Countess have illegitimate children, they have slept with other people and so on, but eventually it doesn’t matter. In the very end they forgive each other, they trust each other and stay together.

That happens with Figaro and Susanna too doesn’t it – the forgiveness? They don’t actually get divorced do they?

[Laughs] Well, you could say it’s a misleading title! He forgives her fling and they get back together.

Perhaps the word ‘divorce’ has a wider meaning in that the opera’s about people who are ripped away from their homeland?  And there’s social upheaval too, continuing on from the Rossini and especially the Mozart, where the servant bests his aristocratic master.

Yes – ‘divorce’ here can be interpreted on many levels from the superficial or immediate one of marriage and divorce, to all those things. And Susanna is very disappointed in Figaro when he tries to become a bourgeois!

There’s the sinister Major, too, who tries to usurp Figaro’s role…

The Major is a character in the Beaumarchais, but David increases his presence and makes him more evil – and I very much enjoyed writing his music because it’s always fun to write music for baddies! For me the Major carries something from Russian literature: from Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, where there’s this very attractive but devilish character, Woland [Satan, who visits the determinedly atheistic Soviet Union in the disguise of a ‘foreign professor’].

The Major (Alan Oke). Image courtesy of Welsh National Opera.
The Major (Alan Oke). Image courtesy of Welsh National Opera.

That’s a fascinating connection apropos themes of repression, freedom and redemption. Did you bring your Russian heritage consciously to bear upon writing the opera – artistically or otherwise – or is it simply part of who you are?

I think it’s bound to be a part of my work. I was very much educated in the Russian tradition and it must come through. Musically, through my orchestration probably. It’s difficult to say because I’m a mixture of the two worlds having moved to London. But I still have it strongly because I grew up with Russian literature, reading a lot of those long, heavy novels and listening to a lot of Russian music. But then I came here to the UK and learned other things – I wanted to forget various Russian influences and become something else!

You grew up in Soviet Russia and witnessed the fall of communism there. The opera is set in unnamed 1930s European countries, but takes design cues from news propaganda. Does that framework speak to you personally?

Well, I’m completely apolitical. I grew up with all those changes and I’m just not interested in it – you get very upset and it can take over your life. I know some musicians who would go to demonstrations and, you know, journalists were murdered in the ‘90s in Moscow and each time you feel that personal loss. But then you just stop – it’s impossible. Eventually over the years when I came here I realised that I don’t care any more – it’s too difficult.

The subject of the opera seems domestic rather than political – it concerns a family group who have to cope with an external situation over which they have no control.

Yes, exactly – that’s what you feel when you live in Russia. There’s always a situation that you can’t control.

FigaroGetsaDivorce-DavidStoutElizabethWattsRhianLoisMarkStoneNaomiOConnellAndrewWattsMarieArnet.Photo-RichardHubertSmith
Figaro gets a Divorce at WNO © Richard Hubert Smith

Coming back to your different musical worlds, in the opera you also interweave vernacular strands: cabaret and dance music. Of course dance music also happens to be important in The Marriage of Figaro!

Well, I wanted it to be fun – and writing this kind of music is very fun for me! In 2012 I wrote a short opera which I think helped me to get this commission from David: it’s called Four Sisters. It hasn’t been done in the UK, but by three different companies in the ‘States so it has a life! Four Sisters is a very superficial little story about four girls in New York. I was reading Tchaikovsky’s letters where he said, ‘I always solve a problem how to write an opera very easily: I write it as God put on my soul.’ It’s hard to translate, but he means that he doesn’t think about the problem too hard – he just writes whatever comes. My Four Sisters is a mixture of Chekhov’s Three Sisters and Sex in the City. The girls have similar names, but in fact they’re very much Western girls from Manhattan. So the libretto was very light and, for the first time in my life, I experimented with writing light music. I enjoyed it so much, and the piece was quite successful in the ‘States. I gave the DVD to David and he liked it.

Divorce also has another kind of lightness in its delicate textures and striking orchestration. You use an accordion, for instance, which carries both ‘serious’ and ‘popular’ worlds; it functions as a form of continuo instrument as well as suggesting tango, for instance.

Exactly. This is the first time I’ve written for the accordion – it was fun.

In his plays, Horváth alludes a lot to cafe music; the Schrammelmusik he would have heard in Viennese bars and cafes often involved the accordion. Did you have that in your mind at all, or was it purely to do with timbre?

Maybe subconsciously, but in fact it was more of a tactical musical decision with the accordion. I was allowed to add one instrument to the orchestra and I chose the accordion because it has a huge range like a piano and it could function as continuo as you say, and could be fun in the cabaret sections. It mixes so well with all the groups of the orchestra – it’s a kind of magic! When it plays with the woodwind it sounds like woodwind. When it plays with the strings it becomes like a string instrument. So it was more of a practical, purely musical decision.

One of the things you don’t do in the score – thank goodness! – is attempt to sound at all like Rossini or Mozart! But you don’t sound like Kurt Weill either – which is an avenue some might equally have been tempted to go down, given the opera’s Horváth connection.

Yes, to do any of that would be immediate failure!

You draw on an eclectic range of idioms, but always through your own, individual voice.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the dilemma of consistency of language in contemporary music. It’s incredibly difficult to write music which is consistent in its language, but when you quote it’s a compromise, and pastiche is also a compromise. I do write pastiche but I try to make it as mine as possible. We do need to recognise that it’s a tango, for instance – you’ve got to have the bass and the percussion. But I think for me the solution lies in little details. I use the core of the genre or style but I add something of my own – whether it’s in the melody or in instrumentation or by breaking up the rhythm. By these little details it’s possible to avoid being too vulgar!

Figaro gets a Divorce at WNO © Richard Hubert Smith
Figaro gets a Divorce at WNO © Richard Hubert Smith

Perhaps it’s about being playful? I see Cherubino’s aria ‘Mi fa palpita’ from The Marriage of Figaro comes up in your opera, but in an unexpected way – and not musically!

Yes – in the words and staging…

…people can come to find out! Back to those different worlds a moment, am I right in thinking you wrote about elements of Russian folk music for your PhD [at the Royal Academy of Music]?

Oh yes, but my PhD is pseudo-scientific, not real! For my composer’s PhD I had to write an hour and a half’s music plus a supporting paper. My written English wasn’t that good but, through writing it, I improved. In Moscow I studied for four years as a musicologist from the age of fifteen to nineteen. I left school very early to specialise in music and that’s what I became; I did composition on the side only, and studied piano and music theory. When I finished my course I realised I’d completely lost interest in musical theory and musicology – not forgetting that it was Soviet musicology! It seemed so pointless trying to describe music – it didn’t at all connect – and I stopped doing it and focused on composition instead. So it was funny and strange that I had to write this paper, to do something which I really didn’t like! But I did it, and I suppose it was helpful because I tried to find an angle which would be original: I mentioned composers like Tristan Murail [a French composer associated with so-called ‘spectral’ techniques] who mixes folk singing with electronics, for example – a use of folk music which would not be immediately obvious.

A good use of the task for a composer! Regarding the English language, how did you find it in the opera, setting an English text – not your first language? Though you’ve done it rather a lot by now!

It’s very nice to do! I remember when I started, with the piece Ariadne [see introduction, above]; that was my first setting of the English language. At that point I was working at the Almeida Theatre. In order to do this, I asked Patrick Dickie, the producer there, to read the text to me a few times. So we stayed in this theatre late at night and he was alone on the stage and he read it for me a couple of times. I needed some artistic person to read it properly to me so that I could know where the stresses were, what the intonation was – and that helped. Though when I sent the work in they still needed to correct a few mistakes – and I can’t avoid them still now.

Well, even with first-language English composers there’s no guarantee that they will set English words well! And in the vocal music of yours that I’ve heard, you’re very skilled at giving words space and atmosphere. How did you approach the dramatic pacing of the opera?

I would read the scene and vaguely try to imagine a musical shape which could go with it. My approach was, obviously, number one, to read and think and to devise each character separately. But when I more or less knew what my characters were doing, in terms of the shape of the scenes, creating tension and so on, it was more a purely musical approach – and traditionally so; you build up, you have a climax and then a resolution or a contrast and so on. It was more to do with musical considerations than with theatre – and I didn’t think I’d created different music for each character, though in fact I have! But for me the shape of each scene overall and the point of each scene was more important than anything else.

It must have been fascinating to work with characters that are known, and have already had a journey through Rossini and Mozart and others.

It seems like lazy composing! Actually the opera is going to Geneva in 2017 and I’ll maybe do some editing and tightening of some scenes – only a genius composer can make everything work the first time, and I like to do this! And also maybe to write a song for Susanna and a song for Figaro.

They are much older by the time we encounter them in Divorce, and we’re used to issues of love and sex in opera – and art generally – focusing on younger people, so it’s very refreshing. But there are young characters here too: Serafin and Angelika. How do you see them?

Yes – the main attention is on the middle-aged characters: the Count, Countess and the Major, and Susanna and Figaro as a couple. Serafin and Angelika are children – it’s their first time. For their last scenes I’ve written lyrical music for them and nothing else.

So they’re innocent children of the revolution and we leave them as they go off to make their future – along with an unborn child…

…Yes – we don’t know what they all become! How they develop, what mistakes they make.

Maybe there’s another opera yet to come?!

Oh God!! [Laughs] Maybe we should mention this to David!

Haha, yes! In the meanwhile, Figaro remains the lynchpin of the plot, but it’s the Countess who I think emerges as the strongest character in your opera – she’s the one who stands up to the Major.

Yes, it’s a good development. I worked on her character extensively with David because she evolves gradually, becoming stronger. It’s she who says we must let go of the past.

All the ingredients from past Figaro encounters are here but with a very different, dark flavour: the letters, the blackmail, the confusion, the disguises, the gender bending.

Lots and lots of gender bending!

And here, luggage plays a role! Obviously as refugees they’re carrying all their possessions with them.

That’s David’s thing – he likes suitcases! I’ve even written suitcase music!

Maybe it’s also a playful way to allude to the ‘baggage’ of Figaro’s history?!

Yes! And it’s all nerve-wracking really, because you never actually know what the piece is like until it’s performed in front of an audience. You try to imagine how it will be as a whole – but you can’t know until it actually happens.