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Birtwistle in interview on The Last Supper

(February 2000)

Harrison Birtwistle in conversation about his new opera, The Last Supper, which received its premiere at the Berlin Staatsoper on 18 April.

How important was the millennial context to the creation of The Last Supper?

Well, I suppose if I had to write this piece at any time, it should be now. But as Robin Blaser and I worked at it, this aspect became less significant. What really interested me was that it is about a group of ordinary men – some of them fishermen, "the salt of the earth" – caught up in something extraordinary. Also, how an historic event becomes ritualised to be reinterpreted as myth.

There are several textual layers in Robin Blaser’s libretto.

That’s right. The main part of the text is modern English, but Robin has embedded allusions to other poetry, such as by Crashaw, Traherne and Nerval, which are fragments drawn from across 1000 years, with the distinctions blurred so you can’t always tell what is what. Then there’s a Chorus Mysticus of nine female singers who sing liturgical music in Latin, linked in subject matter to the dramatic events, providing another level, and their music is heard in the same sound perspective as the orchestra. Certain aspects of their music are sustained horizontally by a Chorus Resonus, pre-recorded on tape, which is projected around the auditorium. So, what starts out as a straight dramatic text, is continually being overlaid in musical time.

The drama’s set in the modern day. Does the role of Ghost provide a link back to the historic events 2000 years ago?

Ghost was Robin’s idea. She’s partly a Choregos figure as in Punch and Judy, standing outside the action, and partly a representation of the Holy Spirit acting as an intermediary between the divine and the human or, if you like it, the audience. She starts the drama by inviting, on our behalf, the disciples to another supper in our own time. They’re individually invited and don’t know who else is coming. The eleven join in an accumulative dance, but there’s one dancer missing – it’s rather like a mouth with a missing tooth. Then Judas, the twelfth, appears carrying a red piece of cloth. We had to provide a special dramatic function for Judas – he’s the only one of the disciples to come from the city, which is one of the reasons for the mistrust, but in other ways he is the most typical of humanity. The disciples rediscover their memories of events, joyful and bitter, and wonder whether Christ himself will appear once again among them.

Christ is portrayed on stage, yet his Passion is also played out in a series of visions which cut across the physical action, like the Passing Clouds and the Allegorical Flowers in The Mask of Orpheus. What is the function of these tableaux?

There are three visions taking us back to Christ’s time, The Crucifixion, the Stations of the Cross and The Betrayal, which take us in reverse order through events in Jerusalem. The opera ends with Christ in the garden saying "Whom do you seek", and then the cock crows. It’s where we’re being led. The visions are for pre-recorded chorus on tape and I imagine each being staged like a painting, a tableau vivant but with very little movement, rather like the pictures of the 17th century Spanish artist Zurbarán. There are also a number of tableau-like sections which are contemporary in setting. Robin has written a scene where Christ "washes the dust of centuries" from each of the disciples in turn, which provides a ritualistic cleansing of the "bestiality and vileness" of the intervening 2000 years. Following this, the supper itself resembles Leonardo in the positioning of the characters, but the disciples have had to re-assemble the table themselves from fragments, and at this moment Ghost sings a terrifying war poem about "Don’t you hear Messiah coming in his tank", so this tableau is harsh, almost garish.

Why is it that a number of instrumentalists appear on stage as the story unfolds?

It’s a way of integrating the drama and the music, while at the same time distancing us from the world of opera. Pairs of instruments appear at the sides of the stage, for instance two bass trombones during the Lord’s Prayer scene, later a pair of cor Anglais, two alto flutes, then two clarinets, functioning like the appearance of obbligato instruments in a Passion or oratorio. They don’t act or take part in the physical drama as in some other music theatre works. Rather they provide an antiphonal commentary on what’s happening. I wanted to explore a new relationship between text and music – it’s more abstract and the music is leaner and sparer than in some of my other pieces. I’ve tried to write more of a simple, continuum-like music which allows the text to get across.

The Last Supper is an iconic subject meaning different things to different people, across a wide spectrum of belief or non-belief. What was your over-riding purpose in writing the opera?

Well for me this story can’t be a purely liturgical experience. It has to be attached to real characters to take on human meaning. Ultimately the piece can only represent a single personal viewpoint – it’s certainly not intended as a generalised celebration of the millennium. The Last Supper is just the type of big subject that I’m increasingly attracted to – something that really matters – and musical theatre is the only way to tackle this. In my view a big subject can’t be expressed fully without music.

Interviewed by David Allenby

>  Further information on Work: The Last Supper

Photo: Richard Kalina

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