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Louis Andriessen: Interview on Writing to Vermeer

Louis Andriessen in conversation about his new opera, Writing to Vermeer, being premiered in Amsterdam on 1 December 1999.

What was it about the artist Vermeer that first attracted you and Peter Greenaway to consider him as a subject for an opera?

I see a polarity between Rembrandt and Vermeer, rather like that in music between Schoenberg and Stravinsky. It’s not that one is better than the other, just that Vermeer is the artist I love more. What particularly interested us both was Vermeer’s seemingly contradictory combination of warmth and distance in his paintings, generating love but through cool and formalistic means. Peter produced for the opening of the big Vermeer exhibition in The Hague a ‘tableau vivant’ with the three women central to the artist’s life reading their letters to him – this was the starting point for the opera.

So the work is not a biographical narrative?

No. There is very little known about the artist’s life, so the opera is structured around six fictitious letters created by Peter as if from Vermeer’s wife, his mother-in law, and a female model. After the violent film-noir action of Rosa, in the new stagework Peter wanted to capture the seeming serenity and simplicity of domestic life as seen in Vermeer’s paintings. This could have resulted in an intimate chamber opera, but we have added sudden ‘windows’ upon the turbulent contemporary events, The full stage opens up to show reality outside the home and studio, with such things as the fighting between Catholics and Protestants, the fire in the city of Delft, or the self-inflicted flood that was released to drown the French invasion of 1774. This catastrophe acts as the final curtain.

How is the dramatic structure reflected in the music?

There are six scenes of more or less the same length, and working in the background are structural elements drawn from the Six Melodies for violin and piano by John Cage. However to create operatic drama I had to step outside the static picture-frame of the letters, so I explored the subtext of what the women were feeling rather than what they were writing. Also there is development in musical terms in that the second half is a mirror of the first part, building dramatically towards the end.

What is the role of the children at the front of the stage?

This is a little elusive for me. Theatrically they are often distanced from the action, introducing the letters or commenting on their content, but they should also be understood as showing the affectionate bond within Vermeer’s own family. Peter has described them as resembling baroque putti, so they embellish but are also integral to the architectural material. Musically they act as a bridge between the three women and the chorus in the pit.

In fusing a contemporary language with a historical world, did you draw on early music models?

I like to think of the instrumentation as a modern polaroid picture of a baroque orchestra. The scoring is string-based, with little wind writing, and there is a continuo-like function provided by two pianos, harps, guitars, cimbalom and percussion. I have deliberately not used ‘hip’ instruments such as saxophone, electric bass guitar and electronic keyboards. In terms of early music, I used some of the melodies employed by Sweelinck in his fantasias, and in one scene the model plays and sings a German song which he used for a set of variations. But if we are talking of earlier composers, Ravel is probably the most important here, because I needed a sound which is in some ways artificial and objective, but also tries to be as beautiful as Vermeer’s paintings.

Interviewed by David Allenby

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