Calixto Bieito has laughed heartily at Tosca, but refuses to allow the opera to descend into pure entertainment. He now wants to free Puccini’s popular work from operatic clichés.
“As a little boy, I listened to Tosca on a cassette with my brother, over and over again. And we cried, my brother and I.”
What was it that made you cry?
“The music – the music in the final scene. Oh, how we cried! But when I was older, perhaps around 17, and saw Tosca performed on stage, I had to laugh when it came to the final scene.”
You laughed at the suicide scene?
“I’d heard the story of the stage crew who’d replaced the mattress Tosca was supposed to land on when she jumps from Castel Sant’Angelo with a trampoline, and the idea of a bouncing soprano at the moment of death was incredibly comical. But the music has always touched me deeply, and continues to do so.”
What’s special about the music in Tosca?
“Puccini’s musical dramaturgy is highly conventional. The music follows the action and characters’ emotions very closely. It’s verismo – opera in a realistic style – intended to reflect a given reality. But I like the opportunity to move away from this – to remove the historical-realistic plot and focus on the people and what happens between them. I want to release the characters from operatic clichés, but without ruining the opera and the power still inherent within it.
Dream and reality
Tosca is set in specific locations in Rome, during a specific period in European history. Together with detailed stage directions, this has created a clear idea of how the work should be staged, with the church of Sant’Andrea della Valle and its altarpiece, Scarpia’s desk, the candles which Floria Tosca ritualistically lights around the body, the starry night and the infamous jump from the castle walls. Bieito wishes to open up the work by making it more abstract – more dream-like. But this is also a portrayal of the reality the director observes around himself today.
“This is a story about our time, with its oppressive power-seekers who control the world. It’s grotesque.”
Calixto Bieito refers to Spanish writer Javier Marías, who on 21 May 2017 published the article ‘La peligrosa parodia’ – ‘The dangerous parody’ – in El País. Here, Marías describes how international politicians seen in the news on a daily basis appear as grotesque characters we are able to parody, which helps us to keep them at a distance.
“And for many, Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin were also grotesque parodies. But in retrospect, we know what happened. Many of today’s politicians don’t care about the people. Like Scarpia in Tosca – he doesn’t give a damn about anyone or anything, as long as his own needs are satisfied. Scarpia consumes women, he wants to have sex with Tosca, to then just throw her away and replace her with someone else. And unfortunately, the world is full of such people,” says Bieito, and refers to the recording of Donald Trump stating ‘I'm automatically attracted to beautiful [women]—I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything... Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.’
Do you think there are more of these types of people now than when Puccini created the work?
“Yes, I think the tendency is stronger now. Ethics within our society are being eroded.”
Provocation and entertainment
In Bieito’s version of the opera, Mario Cavaradossi is still an artist, but his paint brushes are replaced with an installation that provokes Scarpia.
Is Cavaradossi seeking to provoke?
“No, he wants to be free and experiment. I imagined the artistic partnership between Tosca and Cavaradossi like that of Niki de Saint Phalle and Jean Tinguely. They collaborated on projects and installations for several decades. And I thought that the work Cavaradossi creates using tape and the Virgin Mary in the first act could have happened in a Metro station in Paris or in Manhattan. He just wants to create something crazy, there and then. They’re young, happy people who just want to be free, both when creating and when loving.
‘Vissi d’arte’, sings Tosca in the second act – ‘I lived for art’. For Bieito, this is the work’s most important sentence.
“The young artists are being suffocated by the system that surrounds them, which wants to force them into a simplified, kitschy image of what an artist is or what art can and should do.”
Does this relate to the world we’re currently living in?
“We’re living in a time in which free art is constantly under threat, reduced to pure entertainment, something that simply satisfies – which people want and consume.”
So you’re criticising art as entertainment using one of the greatest commercial successes in opera history?
“Yes, it’s fun, I like it.”
But in your production, it’s Scarpa who triumphs in the end. Is this a kind of warning?
“No, it’s a portrayal of what I see – an economic system which is suppressing artistic freedom. Have you noticed how in a number of magazines, the section that was previously entitled ‘Art’ is now called ‘Entertainment’ or ‘Art & Leisure’?”
What’s wrong with art entertaining?
“I'm not against having fun, but it can’t only be about having fun. Art should make us think and awaken our entire spectrum of emotions. That’s how it can set us free.”
In what way?
“It gives us the opportunity to test and experiment with our feelings, which I think makes us all better people. Art challenges us by not providing clear answers, and thereby forces us to think, while entertainment simply points us in a single direction and says, ‘forget everything’. It’s like a numbing drug.”
The operatic punch
The Catalan director has a long-standing relationship with Norway, and with Oslo in particular. He directed Peer Gynt (2006), The Abduction from the Seraglio (2007) and Brand (2008) at the Bergen International Festival. The latter was also performed at the National Theatre, where he was also responsible for A Dream Play (2014) and Mysteries (2016). In recent years he has been the Norwegian National Opera’s principle guest director, and produced The Tales of Hoffmann (2013), Carmen (2015) and War Requiem (2016). Opera is a genre that he has great belief in:
“Opera shows art’s unrelenting ability to move us, including purely physically. To experience music is a bodily experience. The percussion instruments hit you right in the stomach, the music punches you in the chest – ‘boom!’ It’s fantastic.”
In what ways does this experience influence your way of working with opera?
“I don’t say very much to the singers. I don’t give them thoughts – I give them images. It’s also important for me to create a nice, relaxed atmosphere during rehearsals, where everything is possible and the performers’ bodies are not full of tension and stress, but freed by the music. When this happens, the unconscious flows to the surface, bringing with it thoughts and mental bodily expressions. Creating this freedom and initiating this flow – that’s my job.
Do you feel free as an artist?
“I’m free in rehearsals. Honestly, I don’t know whether I would have survived if I hadn’t been able to do what I do – without the opportunity to express myself I think I’d have been destroyed.
Is that what happens to Floria Tosca in the final scene?
“Yes, I think she goes mad. At the same time, she’s trying to calm her lover, in the same way many mothers tried to calm their sons and husbands who were arrested after the Spanish Civil War – ‘Don’t worry, nothing is going to happen,’ they said, ‘I’ve spoken to the captain.’ They said this to protect the men in their final moments – to protect their hope. But in actual fact everything is ruined, including for Tosca and Cavaradossi. The free artist ends up like a clown, a Ronald McDonald, a nothing.
But they don’t die?
“Actually, Puccini didn’t want Tosca to die. Allowing her to die is a more commercial ending, where things are resolved – she’s freed from suffering and we get to grieve. But it is possible to disappear or become nothing without dying physically – when you’re without human rights, work, freedom of expression and dignity. There are so many people who fall outside the societal system, even in a country like Norway. I’ve seen this myself when walking from Oslo Central Station to the Oslo Opera House.”
He’s walked that route many times, but Tosca will be Calixto Bieito’s last production as principal guest director at The Norwegian National Opera & Ballet.
“I’ve started to say farewell to many people here in Oslo, where I’ve spent some of the best years of my life. I’ll remember powerful rehearsals, the faces of fantastic singers, and the children of the Norwegian National Opera Children’s Chorus. You have an iconic opera house, but it’s what’s inside that has the potential to free us. I hope that performances here will continue to leave just as strong an impression as the opera house itself.”