How to tame your dragon
A new production of Mozart’s Mitridate that opens this month at Royal Danish Opera features a creative team with three Maestro Arts artists – Fernando Melo, Ralf Pleger and Alexander Polzin. Fernando Melo reflects on the benefits and challenges of this way of working and explains his vision of the choreography
The departure point for this production of Mozart’s Mitridate was to have dance and music on the same level. The choreography is not supporting the singers (which is the convention in opera) and the music isn’t background for the dance (the convention in dance). Finding a balance within this hierarchy has been an interesting challenge for me, director Ralf Pleger and stage designer Alexander Polzin.
The three of us worked together previously on a production of Tristan und Isolde at La Monnaie in Brussels and Bologna. We come from completely different backgrounds – film director, sculptor and choreographer – as does our co-director Émilie Rault, who is an actress and opera director. This means we bring different perspectives. When solutions come from outside the field, they are usually more interesting. They don’t respect or take too much consideration of the conventions and expectations, and that’s exciting.
‘It’s like a dragon with four heads. One of us wants to go right, one wants to go left, but we have to fly in the same direction’
The challenge of working in a team like this is that everyone has a say, so it’s like a dragon with four heads. One of us wants to go right, one wants to go left, but we have to fly in the same direction. This requires a lot of talking, listening and agreeing. It’s a true exercise of collaboration, working together towards the same goal. The reason we’re still working together is because it works. We know how to collaborate, respect each other and listen to each other’s point of view, and we take that all into consideration before deciding the next step.
To make such a collaboration work you have to show up with 100 per cent and listen to what the other person has to say. Proper listening is not easy, even a relationship. Instead of saying ‘No’, you say, ‘Yes, and’ or ‘Yes, or’ and you try. If you try and it doesn’t work, it’s clear to everyone that it didn’t work, but you’re in an environment where it’s okay to contribute your ideas, even if they’re silly.
To achieve our mission of giving the dance and music equal importance, we agreed with the Director of the Skånes Dansteater, Mira Helenius Martinsson, that it was crucial for me to have a proper creation period with the dancers. In contemporary dance, this period is the part of the process in which you discover a vocabulary of movement with the dancers and develop new ideas. So I had the unique privilege of spending five weeks with the dancers before the singers arrived and we had the luxury of working on the actual set on the floor in the Skånes Dansteater.
We created hundreds of scenes and out of those bits and pieces I started composing a sequence of movements and scenes. Slowly, we were able to build a sketch of what was possible with the dancers, and the synchronization between the dancers and the set. By the time the singers arrived we already had a skeleton of the production.
‘I realised that to achieve our goal of the dance being at the same level as the music, the entire production had to be choreographed’
After much consideration and experimentation, I realised that to achieve our goal of the dance being at the same level as the music, the entire production had to be choreographed. It’s not about dancers dancing and singers acting: every movement of the singers, the stage and the bodies of the dancers had to be choreographed. That’s how we could find the perfect balance.
We have created a completely different experience of opera for the audience. They are immersed in Alexander’s world, which is not realistic, and the bodies move in a non-realistic way. The images we present to the audience bring a new dimension to the opera, one that is not necessarily narrative. Everything you see becomes a metaphor, just like listening to instrumental music or experiencing a work of abstract art. It is an exercise in interpretation – the meaning of what you see comes from you. This is different to most of the operas I’ve seen – it’s more like watching contemporary dance. You can grasp the meaning of what you see without being able to put it into words.
‘I can come with contemporary dance and the audience can find their own meaning’
The structures of Baroque music and opera seria mean that they are also abstract, and that abstraction is the perfect place to create contemporary dance. It’s removed from how we make music today and how music moves us now. With music that doesn’t necessarily narrate the feeling, I can come with contemporary dance and the audience can find their own meaning. The audience isn’t given what they should feel. That’s an interesting way of experiencing performing arts in the contemporary world.
I’ve been a fan of Baroque music since I was very young. This is early Mozart – he was 14 when he wrote it, although it’s not even his first opera, and I think it’s a masterpiece. You can recognise some of the themes of his later works, but he is still playing the rules of the game, which he later ignored.
‘I’ve learnt that if you surrender to the creative process, you achieve things that you couldn’t possibly have thought of otherwise’
I come to rehearsals prepared with many ideas to explore, but I’ve learnt that if you surrender to the creative process, you achieve things that you couldn’t possibly have thought of otherwise. It’s like the process of sculpting. I start with a huge rock, made up of many scenes and ideas. Then I sculpt it, removing everything that is not coherent, taking pieces away and only keeping the most important, coherent, beautiful jewels – the little diamonds I find inside this huge rock of ideas.
I know a piece is ready when there’s nothing more we can take out, rather than when there’s nothing more we can fit in. It’s a long process and it can be fun – the difficult part is when it’s time to put everything together and rehearse it to perfection. It’s the most interesting way to work and achieves the best results.
Mitridate opens at Royal Danish Opera on 8 April and at Malmö Opera on 14 April as a co-production with Skånes Dansteater.