A MAGIC FLUTE :: Interview with Peter Brook

What urged you, twelve years after Don Giovanni, to revisit Mozart and to take on the challenge of The Magic Flute?

This desire goes back a long, long way. I had abandoned opera after several years experience at Covent Garden and at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, due to an absolute hatred of this motionless form as it was in that period – not only opera as a form, but also the “institutions” and “systems” of opera which block everything. I told myself it was a waste of energy: in theatre, away from opera, one can go a lot further with the same energy – so why waste breathe on a form that is so difficult? Towards the end of the 1950s I abandoned opera forever.

Twenty-five years later when Bernard Lefort [director of the Opéra de Paris; ed.] came to me and suggested I do De la maison des morts at the Bouffes du Nord, suddenly the urge was there: I told him that rather than do the Janacek opera I would be very happy if he allowed me to tackle Carmen, with complete freedom. Because I think one can do something completely different if one has the absolute freedom with every aspect and all the conditions. First of all there is the casting of the singers – to do it like in the theatre and work with the same team for an entire year: to work exclusively on one single work for a year allows one to develop enormously. And then, regarding the score and the libretto: my collaborators, Marius Constant and Jean-Claude Carrière and I had to have the freedom to change them, to arrange them in our own way: not for the sake of modernising, but to clear them of all the accumulated clutter that had been imposed by the convention of the form over the years. Thirdly: to place the music and the singers, without an orchestra pit, in direct relation to the audience – so that the primary relationship for the spectator is directly with the characters who express themselves through song, supported by an orchestra which would be behind them, not in front – in the wings infact. The final condition was that I wanted to be able to rehearse for three months!

I did all that because for me the music of Bizet touches one deeply; it has a rare quality that can only truly be revealed in an intimate setting. And I have the same conviction regarding The Magic Flute. In addition, some weeks after starting Carmen I organised a small, very simple, workshop at the Bouffes du Nord, with a small team of singers and a pianist. In that space we improvised – they were free to move, sometimes to within two steps of the front row – certain scenes from the Flute. And it was deeply moving. There was such an intimate relationship between the music and the singing, that it became a different work. I announced several times that I was going to do the Flute, it was our major project alongside The Tragedy of Carmen and Les Impressions de Pelléas (a version of Debussy’s opera, ed.). In the meantime it was suggested I do another opera that I really like, Don Giovanni. And as Stéphan Lissner in his first season at the Aix-en-Provence festival, wanted to break conventions and break down barriers, we were able to impose almost identical conditions. And so between the opening night and its reprise, one year later, the entire team - singers, orchestra, conductor - remained the same, and we had undertaken a long tour. Daniel Harding, our conductor every evening, was constantly rehearsing so that we could adapt to the different venues, and the singers worked more and more as a collective, something which would never have happened in the traditional opera houses where one rehearses for two weeks for just five performances. My urge to do the Flute, therefore, derives from this desire to closer and closer to Mozart, thanks to the conditions of the Bouffes du Nord which we try to regulate on our tours.

According to what vision did you work on Schikaneder’s libretto and the music?

Freedom! It is authored by three people: the composer Frank Krawczyk, my long-term collaborator Marie-Hélène Estienne and myself.
With Franck Krawczyk we are trying to do something ‘Mozart-like’, that is to say, the way that Mozart himself dealt with his music. He always said, ‘Where there is depth, there is also lightness and improvisa-tion.’ He didn’t hesitate to rewrite parts, to change things, turn things around, give them to another…. And that flxibility simultane-ously generated the clarity which also reveals the depth. I’ve noticed this with Don Giovanni: an academic approach to the work would, I believe, be incompatible with the essence of Mozart’s art.Over the past 30 years I have seen many productions of The Magic Flute, and have ob-served that the dramaturges and set designers primarily focus on all of the visual imagery, which I find too imposing. You usually see that with Carmen as well: the image that is projected and that you are saddled with weighs too heavily on the rest. What I want to achieve is for the singers – the young singers – to be able to move in a natural way, so that they can tell the story that unfolds as the liv-ing and lovable characters that they are, with-out there being projections, constructions, videos or revolving decors added on top of to that. So we are working without any scenic element whatsoever. We are starting from the music and asking ourselves how we can present it without the weight, the heaviness and solemnity of a large opera. And we want to approach it in a playful manner. Mozart repeatedly reinvented himself, and that is also the direction in which we are seeking: with deep respect for the essence of the work and the intuition that with Mozart it is not about disguising or modernizing but simply letting it emerge …

Interview by David Sanson – translation by Duncan Roberts