With years of study at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique de Lyon, followed by a spell in the company of the Opéra de Lyon and the Aix Festival Academy, baritone Stéphane Degout has gradually conquered the world's main opera stages. This year, he's returning to the Aix Festival to create the title role of Pinocchio, to music by Philippe Boesmans and a libretto by Joël Pommerat. It gives us the chance to interview this great singer about role creation in contemporary opera.
SD: So far, I've created two roles: in Benoît Mernier's La Dispute in 2013, and Philippe Boesmans' Au Monde in 2014 at La Monnaie in Brussels. Boesmans' Pinocchio will be my third role creation, with the fourth in the works: George Benjamin' s new opera in a year's time at Covent Garden, of which I've only found out the title and synopsis last week.
To give you a potted history: I met Benjamin just under two years ago, when Covent Garden gave him the commission and he said that he wanted me in the cast. I went to his place and I spent the whole afternoon singing Pélleas, some melodies, and then a series of exercises so that he could "get the measure of my voice" and understand the range. It was a bit intimidating. The librettist and Katie Mitchell, the director, came along to meet me. I thought we would be discussing the project, but no: we just talked about last year's Pélleas at Aix. But I wanted to know more about this new role, so I was asking questions: "What will I be singing? What's the character? The story?". After an embarrassed silence, Katie Mitchell told me "George doesn't discuss his music until it's finished. No-one knows what it's about except the librettist and the director". Paradoxically, I had a kind of surge of confidence, and launched into this adventure.
SH: Tell us about Boesmans' Pinocchio, which you'll be creating at this year's Aix Festival...
For the moment, I've only got some parts of the score: it's arriving a bit at a time. It's based on a play by Joël Pommerat, who has already worked with Boesmans on this kind of project, notably on Au Monde. The workflow is the same here: Joël is adapting one of his own plays into an opera libretto, which Philippe is setting to music.
What kind of message can Pinocchio give to a 2017 audience?
First, bear in mind that we're starting with Pommerat's version, which is a different thing in itself: Joël has adapted the fairytale for the present day. The villains in his play all have contemporary features. Gullibility and manipulation of a child are themes which are still relevant, so Pinocchio is timeless. Crucially, Pommerat's Pinocchio isn't a cute piece of wood: he's a creation who completely escapes his maker Geppetto, and in a bad way: he's into his first teenage crisis the moment he's born.
Opera has a great fairytale tradition, all the way from Mozart, Rossini's Cenerentola or Bernstein's Candide to Stravinsky's The Nightingale or even Glass's Beauty and the Beast. Bosemans has already done Shakespeare's Winter's Tale in 1999. Do you know the direction this version is going in, both musically and theatrically?
There's a dose of the fairytale, the supernatural: Pinocchio's nose is very long, the fairy is enormous and the characters appear with animal's head. At the same time, there's an aspect which is very primal, raw and violent. It's a contrast to Au Monde, where there was no fairytale. That was a family in our own era with worldly concerns, and we were immersed in the dark regions of psychology. For Pinocchio, I think he is going to touch the fairytale again. It's still a surprise. In any case, the music inevitably brings something timeless.
aIn Pinocchio, you're going to be playing three roles: the impresario, a crook and a murderer. What do these characters look like and what do they mean?
And there's one more! Actually, all I know is what I've seen from the play. The impresario is a sort of ringmaster who speaks directly to the audience, telling them what's about to happen. I think he will be miked, as he is in the play. Obviously, the microphone is a constraint, but it can also create opportunities for the composer. The other characters are the ones in the original fairytale, painted in broad brushstrokes in relatively short scenes that go straight to the heart of things.
How would you describe Boesmans' music?
I think it's contemporary music that doesn't sound like contemporary music (laughs). It's music that sounds good and is good to sing, which is very pleasant, and it's immediate.
Boesmans takes great care over his singers' comfort levels and is perfectly happy to rewrite the parts that don't suit their voices. He doesn't come with a highly rigid, formulaic writing system. He's very adaptable to what he's faced with, and in Au Monde, he really wrote for us. Mernier's La Dispute was the opposite: the music was far more difficult and we had less flexibility. Everything was written in a very extreme way, which made for a very powerful result, but was tougher on the singers.
What are the main difficulties you face with this type of role creation?
With Au Monde, the difficulties were inherent in the project. The requirement was to enter into a very specific universe: a dark story with characters who, once you dig into them, are very dark themselves. Joël's shows are special, often with very little light. We spent five weeks working six hours a day in almost total darkness, which was pretty tiring on the nerves. I think we're going to have the same kind of thing at Aix, except that it's going to be 40 degrees outside and we're going to spend six hours in the studio quietly baking.
How long to you get to work on the score before rehearsals?
It all depends on the composer. For La Dispute, we received the score several months in advance. For Au Monde, we had already started rehearsals by the time Philippe finished writing the last few scenes. I think Pinocchio is going to be the same.
What's your view of the current state of contemporary opera?
There is a certain level of risk taking. I think the national opera companies have it as part of their mission statement to do one commission (and therefore one world première) every one or two years. There have been several in Lyon, a few in Paris. Things are certainly happening – less, of course, than in the 18th and 19th centuries, were you always went to see the latest opera by whichever composer.
Is it important to put new works in front of the audience and not fall into the temptation to fill houses with the classics of the repertoire?
Absolutely. There has to be a happy medium. The big question is whether one should completely embrace novelty, or transform existing works to bring them up to date. In this, one has to consider the work of the director and the person doing the programming. In my recitals, I'm free to bring forward works which go off the beaten track. But some opera houses have programming that's just as ambitious in opera as it is in recital, with faithful audiences who are used to it.
What appeals to you about this business of role creation?
The surprise. For me, there's a level of risk taking that's inherent. It's also a breath of fresh air, with no great singers of the role to whom you have to compare yourself.
There's also the element of "artistic mission" when one's involved with a contemporary piece. Some singers categorically refuse to take part in this: personally, I get a certain pleasure from it.
At the same time, it's a bigger responsibility. A new score is harder to learn because you don't have a point of reference. Plus, of course, there's the stress of some element of the score that you can get blocked on or which you can't sing technically. Will the composer agree to change it?
What are the vocal differences in contemporary opera? Are there changes needed in singing technique?
I'm not convinced that the technique is fundamentally different. When I was studying in the Aix Festival Academy, we met an American singer whose speciality was contemporary roles: she asserted that this kind of music had completely changed the way she worked. When vocalising, she was no longer trying to hit a perfect fifth or an octave, but was delibrately putting in accidentals. It wasn't "do, re, mi, fa, so" any more, but more like "C, C sharp" and so on. That made for some pretty strange vocalises, but she had worked with it to the point where it became a natural language for her; she had to change exercises for each new work because each one had a new language.
Personally, I haven't followed her advice! I analyse the rhythm, the harmony, the melody, and I've never felt any real technical difficulty or anything completely difficult for the voice. If singing a contemporary opera distorts my voice to the point where I can't sing anything more classic for the rest of the season, I can't see the point in doing it.
What about the audience? At the moment, do you think contemporary opera is sufficiently accessible for them? Isn't it always at the margins, even scary?
I think we are touching an audience – but perhaps in a different way. We're appealing more to the intellect. In La Dispute, there are some reasonably lyrical moments that almost stick in the memory, but most of the time, it's a fairly codified language which needs a user guide. With Boesmans, things are somewhat clearer – which, by the way, some people have complained about, saying that it's "easy listening". Make up your minds!
What place do you think new opera has in the current political, economic and cultural environment?
There are obviously political operas like Thierry Escaich's Claude, which was performed in Lyon. The libretto was by Robert Badinter [French lawyer and politician who played a key role in the abolition of the death penalty in France] and was based on Victor Hugo's Claude Gueux. Olivier Py was the director, and the choice of Py and Badinter made it pretty clear that this was a poitical item – that was never an innocent project.
With new work, it's essential to take the audience out of its comfort zone. In every era, there have been works that were banned because they were disturbing. I think creative artists should be the itching powder of society.
Translated from French by David Karlin