Jüri Reinvere interviewed by Alf van der Hagen
Peer Gynt resembles the prodigal son in Jüri Reinvere's new libretto: He finds himself by losing himself.
- Yes, I admit it: I enjoyed the challenge of creating a contemporary opera about symbols of our time, while following in the footsteps of the two godfathers of the Scandinavian arts, Henrik Ibsen and Edvard Grieg. My first opera was based on Sofi Oksanen's 2008 novel, Purge. It's still too early for me as an artist to create my own storyline for an opera. It's too big, too demanding. I need a foundation to lean on, and write a completely new libretto on top of that.
What were you looking for in Ibsen's Peer Gynt?
- Obviously Norwegians know Peer Gynt via Ibsen, but most people outside of Scandinavia really know Peer Gynt because of a few scenes from Edvard Grieg's music: They know that the mother, Åse, will die, they know there's an ethereal girl just sitting and waiting somewhere, and they know the seductive, dancing Anitra. Grieg's Peer Gynt is a huge symbol at the centre of classical music: it would be hard to find a more famous monument. If you say “Peer Gynt” outside of Scandinavia, most people think of Grieg rather than Ibsen.
For me, it was crucial from the outset to include the whole thing, and not just zoom in on a few famous pages. We needed the whole of Ibsen's work there on the stage.What kind of opera is your Peer Gynt?It's a classical opera in the sense that at its core there are singing voices telling a dramatic story. The libretto is used to communicate between the characters, not as separate material. These days this is an aesthetic statement which is no longer that much in evidence. It's this form of musical theatre that I personally believe in most: opera as a magnificent, macroscopic symphonic form which takes its structure from the libretto.
Let's go straight to the character. I don't know if I like him … How do you feel about Peer Gynt?
- But he's everything! He's everything that it means to be human. For me it was important to understand how Ibsen himself viewed the character. We all know the story about Ole Bull as a potential model. But even more important is the parable of the prodigal son, from the New Testament. That's the basis. And the other underlying source that Ibsen used was the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard's concept of human development.
From the aesthetic, via the ethical, to the religious?
Exactly! Towards the end, Peer Gynt raises the question of God's existence and mercy. In one sense it's a Christian play. And this was an important task I set myself: never to abandon Ibsen and Kierkegaard's philosophy.But you've done lots of new things with the libretto, including creating new characters and new scenes.I've been as creative as I possibly could in doing this 150 years later, while never incorporating anything new that I don't think Mr Ibsen could also have accepted today. I shared my flat in Berlin with Kierkegaard and Ibsen while I wrote; I kind of felt their spirit surrounding me. And I always asked Mr Ibsen when I was in doubt, and if he nodded at me that was fine.
What was it about Kierkegaard's approach to Ibsen that fascinated you?
We could talk about this for hours. The concepts of grace and Christian morality are aspects of the play that I absolutely didn't want to repudiate in an era that increasingly tries to dilute this background. It doesn't mean we have to turn this into a Christian opera. Peer Gynt is like a grab bag of themes that Ibsen scatters in front of us. My job was to create a libretto that others could play with: in this case the director, Sigrid Strøm Reibo, and Katrin Nottrodt, who designed the sets. I try to write so that people working with the play can bring their own strengths to the production. So some will find the Christian aspect while others will emphasise other elements. That's how it should be.
Is Peer Gynt a play about Norwegians?
- No, I look for the universal. But I understand that many Norwegians know several of the speeches by heart. Peer, you're lying! No, I'm not! What line should open the opera? That was the first difficult question for a non-Norwegian librettist. It turned out to be the pastor's speech: “Night is no night, and day is no day when one stands in the light. Lies become truth and truth lies if you believe the delusions of anger.” And then you can move on to Åse's final speech in scene 2: “Oh … Peer, you are lying, you are lying! … lying.” While the very last words to Solveig as an old woman are: “You never change.” Peer: “… No. Never …” Solveig (smiling): “One can always hope.” Peer: “It's good to live with hope.” Solveig: “Oh, you simply lie and lie and lie.” Well, that's just an example of what I can do with the famous quotations.We like to think that Ibsen is passing judgement on his countrymen, with Peer being our worst side: the greedy one, the person who uses others and is self-sufficient.As I said, my goal wasn't to create a Norwegian opera. I wanted to write about westerners in general, and to critique the greed of the West … But I don't see Peer Gynt the way Norwegians do.
Is the story of the prodigal son really a judgement on the youngest son?
- In one sense, the prodigal son was actually the only one who lived! The others were so careful, they stayed at home and experienced nothing. They really had no lives.
You're a cosmopolitan artist: you grew up in Estonia, studied in Poland, lived for fourteen years in Finland and for the past ten in Berlin. You like putting literary texts into your own compositions, and switch between different musical styles, both avant-garde modernism and a somewhat romantic style …
- Completely romantic!
What advantages does living in all these different worlds give you?
- Well, it's certainly a rich life! Obviously, there are lots of challenges involved in keeping it together, in terms of both living between different countries and with the music as a whole. As you say, I have two strands in my music: one is very modern, and the other undoubtedly conservative. My operas tread a path between these. With the exception of a small quotation from Edvard Grieg, there are no direct musical quotations in my Peer Gynt. Everything is new. But I've used many of Grieg's gestures: pauses, certain types of cadences that he often uses, particular transitions that evoke Grieg's expression. There is definitely a discussion going on about the pastorale musical form, yes, a few things like that.
But I want to stress that my romanticism in Peer Gynt isn't a restorative romanticism, but romanticism with a glint in its eye and a view to the future. It contains a critique of our lifestyle, in which we Europeans, romantically enough, have become so dependent on monuments from the past that we have almost lost our ability to look to the future.
All the same: whom do you look up to in the history of music?
- Some composers, like the French composer Charles Tournemire, have meant a huge amount to me, although he hasn't played a particularly big role in the history of music. But for me as an individual, he is important and feels very close. And there are composers I admire for their excellence, even if they haven't played a special role in my life, like Beethoven. On the other hand, Brahms has played a massive role, as has Bach … And Russian music; I still think Tchaikovsky is one of the greatest composers of all time. Even if he fails now and then. I'm definitely not a Wagner fan, for political reasons apart from anything else, even if his skills in the main, although not always, were unbelievable. On the other hand, Richard Strauss is very important to me. My operas are indebted in their essence to Strauss and his librettist, Hugo von Hofmannstahl. To me, Richard Strauss is the perfect opera composer.
Why did you write the libretto for Peer Gynt in German?
- Because I knew it would need to be translated into Norwegian. I felt that German was a little closer to Norwegian than, say, English, which would have been more natural for me to write in. But obviously, German is the perfect language for singing, while also facilitating the work of translation.
What did you like best about the working process?
- It was a real pleasure to be able to play with humour. My first opera was extremely tragic in terms of content, for obvious reasons, and it was liberating to step out of that world and use comedy as part of my music again. I think modern opera has forgotten the comedy. We've become uncomfortable with the language of comedy. It was liberating to put this back, and also to play with language.
Why do you want to work with opera? You could have carried on working in many other genres.
- Opera as a genre is monumental; it's approaching insanity. And it forces me to ask myself what opera and opera culture are really about. I feel content in this kind of area, where different artistic forms overlap. Opera demands enormous energy: everyone involved is placed under great pressure. A huge machine is set in motion: it's Ibsen's material along with ancillary themes from our own time, national conflict, the current political situation, child terrorists, the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, it's all there in this production. But the questions in Peer Gynt are still relevant, however much the world has changed in 150 years.
I've written in every literary genre apart from the novel, but writing a libretto is like nothing else. It doesn't resemble anything. You have to forget all you know about writing in order to get started. First you have the words, and then the music. It changes everything you've written in an almost metaphysical way. In musical theatre, you can tell stories between the lines. In one glimpse, you can reach the unattainable essence, this core of truth that's truer than true. This is what is so difficult to achieve, which the words can't do by themselves but which, oddly enough, you can do with an opera.
- I am strongly convinced that we have drifted into a kind of dream about our own identity as westerners. It's self-delusion. You can see it in how we relate to the past, to our great forefathers, to how we listen to the music of yesterday …
So you want to wake up the audience?
- No, I wouldn't say that. I work the way Ibsen did; I tell the story, and people have to decide what they want to do with it. Whether they wake up or sink into a deeper sleep.
What do you think about the future of what you're working on? Are you fighting on the defensive? Do you feel that, as an opera composer, you represent a dying European culture?
- Yes, absolutely. There's definitely a process of dying going on, if you look at it from a big enough perspective. But this is a natural part of the cycle, and it doesn't mean we have to die along with this here and now. It's important to live and carry on living, and to really value our cultural values. I don't know what it is that’s made those of us in western culture start saying we don't value culture in the way we needed it before. The reasons for this are more complex than we think.
I'd love to hear you talk more about this!
- I view society as a body, with the economy and culture as the two legs. If one of the legs is destroyed, sooner or later the body as a whole will collapse. One leg can't exist without the other. Instead of the economy, you could talk about commerce. Because that's a theme in this opera: the importance of commerce and the importance of culture. Something's happened in the West over the past few centuries: we've exaggerated and praised the importance of commerce, and ignored the importance of culture. They're shutting down music classes in Finland because they don't bring in money. In Hamburg, there was talk that schoolchildren no longer needed to learn handwriting, because typing on a keyboard was enough. This is a clear sign that we are willing to go wild and move away from the basis for civilisation as a whole, as we know it today. I see these things as big warning lights. But I don't see them as reasons to commit mass cultural suicide. It's a cycle that has happened many times already in the world. It's part of the cycle of life and death - or to put it in Christian terms, it's the idea of death and resurrection. It's a normal part of existence.
At the same time, is classical European culture valued in concert halls in other parts of the world?
- Yes, we've created a system in which we're closing down concert halls and publishing houses every week throughout Europe, while in Asia they're building the same things up every week. They are hungry to identify themselves with our culture there. It's worth noting that we are willing to close and cancel things ourselves, but they aren't. They are proud of the things we once created. And they need it. And yes, you could view these themes as the foundation of the new Peer Gynt opera, definitely!