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Detlev Glanert in interview about his new opera Caligula

What first interested you in creating an operatic adaptation of Albert Camus’s play Caligula?

I’d written operas where a group of characters interact with each other, but what struck me about Caligula was the way in which Camus creates a drama surrounding one person who dominates all the others. This offered a new adventure to me.

Do you see Caligula as a historical or a philosophical drama?

It is not about Caligula, the historic Roman emperor, but rather about modern dictators such as Stalin and Hitler. If it is a philosophical play Camus wrote that it only presents a simple idea that “People die, and they are unhappy”. The consequence of this for Caligula is that he can only make people happy by demonstrating his total freedom, at whatever cost. What is most important to me, however, is that the play works brilliantly as a true drama, examining the self-destruction of Caligula and the absurdity of the human situation.

Historians have questioned the exact nature of Caligula’s madness. How do you view Camus’s depiction of this?

Camus is not interested in the historic background to Caligula’s madness, such as the murder of family and friends as he grew up, or the epilepsy inherited from Caesar. The opera starts with the death of his sister and lover Drusilla, which unhinges him and sends his inner sense increasingly out of balance. He is not, however, a madman but rather an intelligent, rational creature who skilfully experiments with human beings, just like Hitler or Stalin. And the horrific truth is that we understand him, because we all have the capacity to become such a monster.

Caligula describes himself as “the only free man in the Roman Empire”. What does the drama tell us about the nature of freedom?

Camus understood the nature of the dictator, that his total freedom breeds terror. Uncontrollable, with no boundaries of convention, nature, politics, or morals, the result is chaos – the flattest form of existence. And those in his court are trapped as if in a closed room with no escape. In this claustrophobic world Caligula sets up his human laboratory in which he forces the characters to react like chemical agents – they have no alternative, other than death.

The mirror is a potent symbol in this opera. Does it here reflect the true nature of human society as in your opera The Mirror of the Great Emperor?

Not in the same way. The physical mirror in the imperial bedroom only allows Caligula to see himself – it is a reflection of his inner voices. But Caligula functions also as a metaphorical mirror to the other characters, as he reveals the truth of society through the dictator’s cynical role as ‘great teacher of the people’. With the treasury depleted his ministers insist that balancing the books is the absolute priority. But his proclamation that citizens assign their wealth to the state before they are murdered is met with horror. This extreme outcome of money being more important than life itself carries a terrifying logic.

Have you adopted the structural elements found in the play?

There are a series of dialogues in which Caligula provokes the characters around him, always revealing an aspect of his own mind. Also running like an accelerating ritornello is the theme of death, starting with Drusilla’s before the curtain rises and ending with Caligula’s murder by the conspirators. I had to find a musical counterpart to the centrality of Caligula within the dramatic structure, and decided to associate him with a 29 note chord, from which the material for all the other characters could be drawn, as if they are only aspects of the emperor.

How have you characterised through voice type?

I was interested in the notion that the natural speaking pitch has dropped over the centuries, so rather than writing the lead roles for soprano and tenor, Caligula is a baritone and his wife Caesonia a mezzo. The servant Helicon is a countertenor, as historically he could well have been a eunuch. Of the other roles the young patrician is a trouser role for a contralto, and the other palace inmates are spread around the voice types. Overall there is a dark tinge to the vocal tessitura.

How do you musically depict Caligula’s inner thoughts?

The chorus, in its offstage capacity, plays a major role, expanding Caligula’s inner life. Their material is centred in his tessitura, elaborating his thoughts until their voices become bigger than his own. I also use a tape at the beginning and end of each act, containing heartbeats and sounds of breathing, from which the music evolves, and into which it expires.

Camus offers great opportunities for plays within the play. How have you adapted these for the opera?

Camus was much closer to the theatre than many of his contemporaries such as Sartre. Caligula is particularly rich in set pieces, such as the Act 3 circus presentation of the emperor as Venus where I have the characters playing percussion. There is also Caligula’s dance and the charades of his supposed death, playing a horrible joke on the would-be conspirators. Best of all is the absurd poetry contest with the emperor acting as referee with a whistle – this comic scene before the final tragedy shows how well Camus knew his Shakespeare.

What role can the opera composer have in exposing truths about society and politics?

When I’m asked if music can change society I have to answer “No”. A composer can, however ask the right questions, even if he cannot always provide the correct answers. What I’ve attempted in all my operas is to find subjects that can engage modern audiences. Joseph Süss or Jest, Satire, Irony of Deeper Meaning may be set in a historic period, but the issues they raise are burningly relevant today. Even in a small provincial town, an ideological devil like Caligula could appear. As he cries out, when murdered: “I am still alive”.

Interviewed by David Allenby

Detlev Glanert
Caligula (2005-06) 135'
Opera in four acts
Libretto by Hans-Ulrich Treichel after Albert Camus

Photo: © Iko Freese / DRAMA

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