Johannes Maria Staud on Die Antilope:
“The opera tells the story of a young man, Victor, a character that draws on Victor Krap (Samuel Beckett, Eleutheria) and Bartleby, the Scrivener (Herman Melville). Victor, a nonconformist social outsider, escapes from an increasingly claustrophobic company party (complete with stagnant and meaningless party chit-chat) by jumping out of the window. This results in Victor stumbling through an absurdly distorted urban world, his ‘journey through the night’ leading him to the strangest situations, sometimes menacing and appalling, sometimes funny and grotesque, always wavering on the threshold between real and unreal. Our hero is torn between the desire to be an outside observer, a spontaneous man of action (he is not immune to moral indignation) and allowing himself to be swept away by the dynamics of the curious situations in which he finds himself. At the end of this journey, Victor – whose true motivation remains a mystery – turns up unexpectedly back at the company party under extremely strange circumstances. The party, which had been frozen in time during his absence, resumes as if nothing had happened. The Möbius band has closed.”
A lost flâneur - Johannes Maria Staud on Die Antilope
Johannes Maria Staud characterises the protagonist of his music-theatre work Die Antilope as “a young man who refuses to yield to society’s demands in an unusual way”. The libretto of the work, which will be premiered during the composer’s residency at the Lucerne Festival, was developed with the poet Durs Grünbein. Unlike in their previous collaboration on the opera after Edgar Allan Poe, Grünbein and Staud did not use any existing literary model. The composer spoke of his new opera to the dramaturge Christian Kipper from Lucerne Theatre, which commissioned the work together with Lucerne Festival.
Victor, the only named character in this opera, is essentially a tragic hero: he jumps out of a window in order to escape an office party and encounters various figures from whom he remains alienated, without ever being able to break through his isolation. What kind of character is that?
Victor is the common thread in this cyclical work who guarantees cohesion throughout the episodes. The remaining characters, who are exemplary, simplistic, exaggerated types that we all know, remain accessories as it were, the background onto which Victor’s strange interactions with his surroundings are quintessentially portrayed. Again and again, Victor protests against being subjected to clearly defined roles, something which seems a given in his world. He doesn’t want to conform to society, breaks free and therefore also speaks another language in a grand act of Dadaist liberation, which must remain incomprehensible to those around him. Nevertheless, he continues to try and make contact in the varied situations into which he stumbles – but in precisely his own way. Victor is not a “classic” outsider, a castoff in the mould of Wozzeck or Billy Budd. I see him more as a flâneur who wanders the earth, who doesn’t belong anywhere, but observes everything around him very precisely. His forlornness may indeed be read as a symptom of modernity in which communication becomes increasingly meaningless, reduced to empty clichés. Victor remains a puzzle until the very end, making him something of a musical figure.
There is one scene that takes place in a zoo but it hardly explains the title. Why does the work bear the title Die Antilope?
When you listen carefully to the libretto, many animal metaphors crop up. Animals are of course beings that we more or less live with and that possess their own kind of communication that we can only follow to some extent. Victor, with his own language, can somehow approach these beings. Perhaps he feels particularly close to the antelope as a tenacious, erratic animal that is often on the run, fearing for its life? The gobbledygook that Victor speaks – during the working process, Durs and I called it “antelopish” – basically relies on different artificial languages. In one scene, for instance, he speaks Esperanto, which is appealing because the meaning of the words also filters through to those who do not speak the language. When we were creating Victor’s language – in principle he speaks a different language in every scene – we combined our playful instincts, our enjoyment of phonetic peculiarities with a systematic puzzle, the encoding of hidden content. It is not important whether the spectator sees through the system. Much more important is that the hero’s failed attempts at communicating are central. Only at one point does Victor receive an answer in his language, albeit from a sculpture – the decisive turning point in our opera.
What is the role of the music in this work?
We didn’t think an awful lot about the relationship between text and music. We didn’t want to create a literary opera in the conventional sense of the word but at the same time, we also didn’t want to stifle the plot by favouring static music images. It was supposed to be somewhere in the middle, hovering between narration and exaggeration, between realism and absurdity. The music has to take into account the comprehensibility of the text, but ought also to inject meaning, deceive, seduce and imply the un-said. In some places we have employed speech because the recitative has no place in my compositional style. Alongside the individual situations, the figures are also characterised with the help of the music although I, like every composer, had to be careful not to fall into clichés. However, for me it is important that there is also a part of the composition that remains unexplained, something unexpected that captivates and engages us.
Most of your experience lies in instrumental music. You are currently composing a violin concerto for the Lucerne Festival. What do you have to do “differently” when you compose an opera?
My instrumental music is essentially based on dramatic principles: it is always about a precisely calibrated build-up of tension. Each of my compositions is a small drama, even without text. Nevertheless, one has to go about composing an opera differently because you have to keep in mind what is happening on the stage. The music must not only follow its own rules as is the case in an instrumental work. The dramatic situation is decisive for the compositional process but is also very inspiring for me as a composer. That is why I contributed so much during the development of the libretto, constantly discussing with Durs in a climate of deep artistic trust. It always started with a vague atmosphere, which we then defined more and more precisely. For some scenes I needed more text, for others less. During this process, Durs’ ability to communicate the essential points succinctly and with a poetic emphasis came in very handy. I find it dull to receive a finished text which I am supposed to then set to music. I gain my inspiration through ideas, exchange and collaboration. In this way, the libretto was developed at the same time as the music.
Christian Kipper, 08/2014 | Translation: Celia Wynne Willson