Contemporary opera: A conversation with Vasco Mendonça

Xl_vasco_mendon_a © Hugo Glendinning

Vasco Mendonça is one of the rising stars among contemporary composers. In addition to his studies with Klaas de Vries and George Benjamin, he has participated in the Rolex Mentor and Protegé Arts Initiative along with Kaija Saariaho and represented Portugal at UNESCO’s International Rostrum of Composers. His first piece of musical theatre, Ping, was adapted from a Samuel Beckett monologue and premiered in 2011. The House Taken Over (2013) – based on Julio Cortázar’s short story La casa tomada– was commissioned by the Aix-en-Provence Festival, and Bosch Beach (2016) – which illustrates some contemporary facets of Hieronymus Bosch's painting The Seven Deadly Sins– was composed to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Flemish painter's death through a commission by the Jheronimus Bosch 500 Foundation. We had the opportunity to ask Vasco Mendonça about how he sees the creative process and what he has learned from his experience with George Benjamin and Kaija Saariaho.


Your three operas are based on existing works (a monologue, a short story and a painting). Are you more interested in reinterpreting than in creating from scratch?

Vasco Mendonça: Actually, it’s more of a strategic decision than an artistic one. It’s always good to have a strong starting point from which you can develop the work. The idea of taking existing material is a sort of safeguard for the strange voyage into the unknown that creating opera can be these days. I particularly like the medium of the short story because it’s very condensed. With a pre-existing text that provenly works, you know that the subject and structure will work too. Although it was a bit different on Bosch Beach - because there was a premise -, the fact that the starting point was Bosch narrowed down the way in which the idea of sin could be developed in the work.

In the three works, there is something about the inner world and the outer world. Do these two layers communicate within your music?

It´s something I’m very interested in, not so much from the musical point of view, but from the theatrical one. One of my main interests is the idea of alienation, the impossibility to communicate. The opposition between two worlds with a separate existence is actually always established very clearly: the siblings threatened by an unknown force in The House Taken Over, unable to communicate because of trauma; the tragic example of our decaying culture (represented by people sunbathing on holiday) unable to feel empathy for their equals (migrants risking their lives to get out of their country) in Bosch Beach; although in a more experimental way, the Beckett work also shows a sort of caged existence within a very strict frame, like a mechanism crushing any sort of organic drive – which is ultimately a formal breakdown of communication. And this idea of crooked paths of communication (or non-communication), especially from a very intimate and domestic point of view, is something I’m very attracted to in my work.

How did you inject that into to your music?

In The House Taken Over, I created a sort of fluid ongoing structure in which things just dovetail into each other, with points of repetition. I wanted to create an idea of constant motion as the surface of the house becomes smaller and smaller, to obtain an organically active feeling as the music grows more tense. In Bosch Beach, it was the other way round: the challenge was to describe the refugees’ tragedy with modesty, so as not to make it a shallow cultural appropriation by an European white man. So I decided to create a series of stylized numbers – the trio, the love duet, the drinking song, etc. – with strange characters and excessive language. It was like a baroque opera in the middle of hell! Every time I musically described this world of suffering, I decided not to vocalise it. I composed ritual interludes going round and round in repetitive textures that sound like processions, a sort of communal catharsis, as if you’re in a trance.

Would you be ready to make changes to your opera scores for future productions?

My relation to the three pieces is different, in terms of what I would agree to change in them. I see The House Taken Over as a finished chapter and it has already been produced twice: once semi-staged in New York and once in Aix-en-Provence. I feel that Bosch Beach is a piece that can have a second life because of the segmented nature of the piece. I’m actually transforming it into a series of musical numbers for voice and ensemble, with a different text. It’s a bit comparable to what Ligeti did with Mysteries of the Macabre, from his opera Le Grand Macabre. It’s the first time I’m doing this, and it’s an interesting process, because you have to understand the exact character of each original number, and how it can be used to create different meanings. Ping is a bit more experimental, so it’s rather more malleable. It’s a sort of livre ouvert.

Are you working on a new opera now?

I’m in the early stages of a pocket opera for children. It’s quite a challenge, because contemporary music is not the easiest sound world for children! And children are very demanding audiences, because they’re really intelligent and intuitive: if the piece doesn’t work, if it’s not funny, scary or witty enough, then they just switch off. And they don’t judge the form, they don’t care what it is – only if they like it or not. I love that!

Your three operas were commissions. Were you given any instructions concerning the nature of the music?

In all my commissions I mostly had carte blanche to do whatever I wanted. I feel very lucky because the process of opera involves so many different people and artistic personalities, and it´s sometimes not easy to navigate it. When Bernard Foccroulle approached me for The House Taken Over, he asked me to suggest a subject before talking about the artistic team. It was a comfortable process. For Bosch Beach, the subject was already there when I joined the process, but I was still able to discuss the libretto with the librettist.

Then comes the question of communication between the director, the composer and the librettist…

That’s probably one of the main questions in creating opera these days. I like to do opera because I’m interested in theatre, not in music. As an opera composer, it doesn’t make much sense to be just the creator of a soundscape that will be then managed separately in some other way by a director. For me, theatre is always my main concern when I´m composing opera. And every composer has a type of vocal writing, a type of text that they’re interested in: is it ritual opera in which there is no storytelling or is it a fast story? It’s important to get some input about theatrical aspects very early to know how it might fit the musical and vocal writing.

Can you tell us about your experience with Katie Mitchell for The House Taken Over in Aix-en-Provence?

I was quite fortunate that she directed my opera debut: it was like taking a masterclass in directing just by watching her work with the singers! She was very respectful with the musical text. When you go into stage rehearsals, there are always changes, sometimes motivated by “issues” with the production. I was quite careful to make my music fit the action and there were almost no problems, except at one particular point in the piece, when an extra six seconds or so were needed for the singers. A couple of bars were needed. It was a miscalculation on my part and I remember telling Katie Mitchell that I was going to try and find a simple solution. And she replied: “Let’s do it the other way round. I’ll try to see if I can make it work, because that’s how you thought the music. And if I really can’t, we’ll talk about it.” On the next day she came in with a solution! She didn’t want to impose her own theatrical pacing, which was quite an important point for me.

What path does an opera take after the premiere?

The typical life span of a new opera is quite short, and that’s a pity when you look at the financial investment and creative energy put into a work. I must say I have been completely spoiled in my productions: Bosch Beach had around 10 performances and The House Taken Over more than 15. The House Taken Over was then taken up by a small venue in New York and we’re now discussing a third production, so there´s a wonderful after-life happening. But I know that this is not the norm. A new piece needs, first and foremost, to survive its creation. Most often a premiere is not an accurate rendering of the piece; a premiere is how the orchestra or the ensemble survived the premiere. The musicians have to discover the composer’s language, understand how things work, listen and appropriate it. And that takes time. When we got to the fifteenth performance of The House Taken Over, it was a different piece, it was much more convincing. The music was exactly the same, but the ensemble knew exactly how things fit, making it a much more interesting experience for the audience.

Do you think opera house programmes leave enough room for new operas?

I think there’s still a lot to do. It’s not just with opera but with the entire music milieu these days. Of course, you need to keep revisiting the masterpieces of the past, but does it need to be in such an uneven proportion? You have 300 performances of the same Beethoven piece. Couldn’t you just skip maybe 2 or 3 and make room for a new work? What kind of musical repertoire do we want for this century? The new repertoire is not given enough opportunity to solidify and be appropriated. Look at some wonderful masterpieces of the 21st century: George Benjamin’s Written on Skin, Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de loin or Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland. This is just the tip of the iceberg, so why not also invest in a little less safe values? Of course there will be failed works, but there will also be wonderful pieces just waiting to be revived. You don’t become an operatic composer just by writing opera at your desk, you become an operatic composer with stage experience.

What was your state of mind when you started studying with George Benjamin?

I had already done my Bachelor’s and Master’s studies, I’d had a few years of professional experience. I really needed to take some time to think about my development as a composer and identify my own blind spots. I always kept in mind this quote from Philip Larkin: “Originality is being different from oneself, not others”. I was always aware of the danger of finding a formula that works for you and to keep repeating it over and over again. I needed some time to discuss my work with someone who could be critical and precise. And I was always very impressed with George’s music, it’s such a wonderful balance between instinct and intellect.

What kind of teacher is George Benjamin?

He’s a polite and generous person, with a clinical eye and an incredible ear. He has this level of instinctive intelligence in the way he thinks about music, astonishing objectivity that creates immense poetry. A sort of genius craftsman, physically sculpting music like a craftsman works clay. There’s incredible poetry in a well-carved clay pot or a well-woven chair, because there’s a wonderful combination of form, function and concept. I learnt how to restrain my tendency to overintellectualize because, ultimately what’s important is the matter of music.

Tell us about your collaboration with Kaija Saariaho for the Rolex Mentor and Protegé Arts Initiative…

It was a completely different experience, at a different stage of my career and life. What is very inspiring about Kaija is that she doesn’t talk a lot, she keeps very much to herself. And so, there is this sort of gravity, of consequence in what she says. Every advice she gave me was incredibly perceptive and always addressing important questions of my work. What really amazes me about her work is how she maps out those dream-like textures, that can sometimes induce these rare states of conscience. Her music evokes a sort of fantasy world, whose warmness can sometimes have a really heavy undertone and resonate in some pretty dark corners of your conscience. And it was wonderful to see how being with her has in the long run resonated with my own music. My exposure to her and to her music has somehow awakened me to a different, more meditational element, which wasn’t completely formed in my music: a need for space, breath and silence.

What are you next projects?

I’m having my violin piece A Box of Darkness with a Bird in Its Heart – which was commissioned by the Philharmonie de Paris and Casa da Música – performed by Diana Tishchenko all over Europe. At the end of March, I’ll have a premiere with the Ballet national de Marseille at La Criée – Théâtre National de Marseille of the stage music I wrote for choreographer Tânia Carvalho, and this piece will then go to the Théâtre du Châtelet (in collaboration with the Théâtre de la Ville). This summer I’m recording a portrait CD with the percussion ensemble Drumming GP, for which I still have to write a new piece for voice and percussion. Then a string trio for cellist Anssi Karttunen’s group, and then back to opera – this time, children´s style!

Interview by Thibault Vicq


Photo credit © Hugo Glendinning

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