The Gospel According to John Corigliano

Opera and the Role of Art

FJO: I was rewatching The Ghosts of Versailles the last couple of nights. It had been years since I had seen it. Just like The Red Violin, Ghosts is engaging in a dialog with the past. That seems to be a characteristic of a lot of your music. I never realized before that in the libretto the attempt to save Marie Antoinette involved taking her to America. Of course, it doesn’t happen. Finally she’s at peace and resigned to her fate since the past is ultimately over and life needs to go on. I think that’s ultimately what so much of your music is also about.

JC: Don’t forget that the story of Ghosts of Versailles was made up. We made it up, Bill Hoffman and I, precisely because we wanted to say certain things. I think one of the important things had to do with art of the past and change. The very plot of Ghosts of Versailles deals with that in the sense that it confronts the French Revolution from another viewpoint. The French Revolution is the ultimate modernist statement. Destroy everything. Don’t build on the past. There is no past. That kind of violent revolution where you chop everyone’s head off and build something totally new is very much like a certain kind of philosophy of musical expression: you don’t look back, you only build new.

But there are other kinds of revolutions. The revolution that happened in the Soviet Union, for example. Leningrad becoming St. Petersburg without thousands of people having their heads cut off. They looked to the past and renamed the city because of the greatness of the past and now they want to be a contemporary city and move on. It’s a view of art and life that I think Bill and I share. You should embrace the past and understand it, deal with it and go forward. The Ghosts is most misunderstood when people hear refractions of the classical world and say, “Oh, that’s like Mozart.” In fact, 90 percent of the piece is quite wild, often not tonal, and the illusions and refractions of the past were built into the plot. So I asked Bill: “Can you give me a world of no time? I want to go into the past, into the world of Figaro and the characters of Beaumarchais. But I don’t want to be stuck there like in The Rake’s Progress. I don’t want the piece set in 1792. I don’t want to be limited to neo-classicism and box myself in. What I really want is a world of smoke. Can we look to the past and suddenly jump into it and be there? Can we co-exist with the past and this world of no time?” And this took months and months of talking. And he said, “Well, I can give you two things that could do this. One is a world of dreams and the other is a world of ghosts. Both of them have no period and both of them can go anywhere.”

From that The Ghosts of Versailles evolved from a dramatic solution to a musical problem. I used to love neo-classicism—and my early works reflect that—but I didn’t want that kind of classicism. I wanted a refracted classicism against a world very much of our time so that one could co-exist and take a telescope and suddenly be time traveling. The solution was ghosts as an idea. We plotted out the French Revolution as a metaphor for the kind of change we didn’t like that had been whitewashed—this always happens when people win things, history is rewritten. Interestingly, the views on the French Revolution by the French now are very different. In fact, they had the trials of Marie Antoinette and Louis on television verbatim—we, by the way, have the verbatim trial of Marie Antoinette in our opera—and the French people overwhelmingly felt that the whole thing was unjust. This is a big change from the lockstep situation of, “Revolution is wonderful.” There are some terrible things about that kind of revolution: the destruction, the inability to grow from what was and grow forward, and in a sense going backwards in many ways because they had to start from nothing. Starting from nothing is very good because you’re not inhibited by the past. But starting by understanding the past and then being able to go into future is even better. It’s everything. It’s the past. It’s the present. And then you must think to the future. Now getting caught in the past, that’s a problem, and I know composers and artists who are caught, but you don’t have to be. And in this day and age, the whole idea of information and multiplicity of inputs is tremendously important because the 21st century is the Age of Information. We can go to this computer and we can access any music or any art or anything else from any part of the world, from any generation from the beginning of recorded time to the present. How can we then box ourselves in so that we do this but not that. It’s so limiting. The way of inclusion rather than fundamentalist exclusion is the way for me. The Ghosts is all about that. On the other hand, it isn’t preaching that, so people don’t even know that.

FJO: When I first saw Ghosts, years ago when the Met premiere was televised, I kept dwelling on the fact that the Met hadn’t done a new opera in 25 years. So when I saw you using Figaro and Cherubino, characters that were comfortable to the Met crowd, I was dismissive of it without really paying attention to it. But hearing and seeing it now, I get it. It’s not safe. You’re actually implicating the institutions and the audiences for classical music through these ghosts. It’s a metaphor for classical music becoming a celebration of ghosts.

JC: It absolutely is and it’s scary. We have to wake up people. We have to make them see their blindness. And, of course, I think the only way to do that is through the music. I believe that replaying the old music, no matter how grand it may be done, is not going to do that. On the other hand, you don’t abolish that. The Eroica Symphony is such a great piece that you have to hear it and you have to hear it live. We can’t dismiss these things. You must understand the importance of the past. But if you don’t realize the importance of the present and the future, you don’t nourish that—and our art form does not—then it’s like a tree that grows no new shoots. Without new shoots the tree dies.

FJO: In terms of experimentation, there have been things you have done that have been wildly experimental, even in The Ghosts of Versailles. I think it’s the first time that a production commissioned by the Met had a synthesizer in the orchestra.

JC: Don’t forget the fifty kazoos! It is a very adventurous piece and that’s why I bristle when somebody can remember only the Alberti bass and the fragments that come into it from the past because that’s not the central point; that’s the periphery of the piece. What’s really upsetting is that its adventurousness was not noticed by a lot of people because of exactly the prejudices you came to it with. And now it languishes in a sense. It is there as a very wonderful thing that happened but no one’s doing it.

FJO: And it’s your only opera.

JC: And it will continue to be. Why would I write another opera? I had a successful opera, not only critically successful but it sold out every performance it ever had. It was brought back the following season. It was done in Chicago. It was done in Hannover and sold out every performance. And yet every opera producer will say to me, “Write me an opera.” And I’ll say, “What about The Ghosts?” and they’ll say, “That’s the Met’s opera. We don’t want that.” What’s the point of writing an opera? If you write something that’s successful and it doesn’t matter. It was twelve years of work. And this opera was successful, and yet the European companies didn’t even travel to Hannover from Munich or Berlin to see it. And why? Because what it stands for, an anti-modernist view, was not something that at that time was particularly well thought of in Europe. That’s changing now, that rigidity. It was thought of as a piece that was reactionary when I think it’s actually a pretty forward-looking piece.

FJO: And now of course seeing somebody ordering people’s heads chopped off has some new really visceral connotations.

JC: Yeah, it does. And maybe we need to look at the idea of that kind of change as savage, as not always necessary. And maybe we should question the people who do not question. Why is there one way? Why has music advanced so that we cannot look at the past? Even science learns from the past. What is it with the art form that you have to abolish the past in order to say, “I exist.” It’s all egocentrism.

FJO: In a way art is just reflecting the larger society. Politically we’re so polarized.

JC: We’re in a terrible era politically, there’s no question about it. One of the problems in art is in reflecting optimism and the fact that we find it very hard to do. The worst part of our political situation is that we find it very hard to have the same kind of feelings about either ourselves, our country or our world that Aaron [Copland] had in the ’40s. It’s very hard. During and after World War II, there was a feeling that America did the right thing. He could write a piece like Appalachian Spring because there was that belief there. But Aaron stopped writing at a certain point. He was really disillusioned about the world, our country, and a lot of other things. And I think it’s very hard not to be.

I think art can reflect tragedy. My first symphony is about my friends who died from AIDS. There’s no question that it should be able to reflect this. But there has to be more for it to be really rich. We have to have a sense of joy, enthusiasm, exuberance, especially from 20-year-olds. It’s really awful to hear threnody and elegy, one after another, from young people when you expect a sense of exuberance and joy. I think in these times it’s very hard for people to find that, but I think you have to try. Without that, there’s no core. Everything is turning into the negative.

FJO: But even you, when you were first making a name for yourself as a young composer, wrote a piece called Elegy.

JC: Sure. And an elegy is valid. All is valid, except angst is not the only way. Art is not only about angst. I was really thrilled when Paul Moravec won a Pulitzer for a piece that was a complete exuberance. I was startled when I heard it, because I didn’t hear it until after it won and my view about a Pulitzer Prize-winning piece is that it’s usually very serious and very somber. I’ve never in my life ever seen a Pulitzer Prize go to a piece that is effervescent, not for the last 40 years.

FJO: And certainly your own piece that won the Pulitzer wasn’t.

JC: It’s a very serious piece. And I believe in that. But I was kind of thrilled to see that the Pulitzer recognized somebody who was writing from another viewpoint. I think that it’s very important for us to have that rich experience in art and not to think of art in this romantic twisted view that art is only about anguish and angst. It isn’t. The best works of art of the 18th century were often comedies.

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