Christophe Coppens. Photo: Pieter Claes (detail) View full image

Christophe Coppens directs La Monnaie Norma

Christophe Coppens’ new production of Bellini’s Norma opens at La Monnaie/De Munt on 12 December. He explains his concept of the work

What was your first experience of Norma?
Norma was the reason for me noticing opera in the first place. I was quite young when I saw a fragment on tv of Monserrat Caballé singing the famous Casta diva aria. She was in an arena, the wind and rain were in her hair, blowing her chiffon dress, and her voice and the music were magical. I was blown away. I started researching and buying records and I’ve loved opera (and Caballé) ever since.

How did you go about interpreting the work?
The plot of Norma is tricky. It’s rather simple, as opera often is, and not very interesting. It centres on Druidry, which is not very sexy. What do you do with it?

When you listen without knowing the lyrics, you hear glimpses of a nationalist style in some of the choruses. That reminded me of articles I read about neo-Nazis buying deserted villages in Spain, Germany and Italy to create communities where they can raise their children with their beliefs and close to nature. I was not interested in using neo-Nazis or their symbols, but I kept their anger, isolation and fear of the unknown.

I created a community that is extremist, new right and nationalistic, set against anything new or enlightened. From the beginning we see that it’s capable of doing harsh, extreme, racist things to those who don’t share its beliefs. This is topical, because we see the rise of new right and nationalistic behaviour everywhere, and it’s not far-fetched – it’s all in the music and the things the characters say.

It is important to realise that Norma is part of this group and shares its beliefs, or she did years ago. Maybe their values are part of her struggle. I keep vague what it is they actually stand for and who the enemy is. I prefer to leave it up to the imagination of the viewer.

The most important element is the love triangle, and this backdrop explains why Norma has to have a secret life, in order to be the woman she wants to be – that’s the struggle. Firstly, she is a woman, mother, daughter, friend and lover, and only later a scorned lover. All these things make her a layered, relatable character.

What does the production look like?
I wanted to create a dystopian world to contain this group of people, so I created a concrete echo chamber that contains different spaces – a parking lot, meeting room, train or restaurant. Nature is present by its absence, but it’s trying to return, with moss and weeds coming up through the cracks in the concrete. There is a romantic longing for nature, for a lost world.

The other main element is the car. A car is a non-space, something to get you from A to B, and not a pleasant environment. It has many connotations. When you drive, you can sense the energy bubbles of the other cars. If you look in your back mirror, you can sometimes see an angry face staring at you, and headlights and a bonnet that are designed to impress and bully. You can understand so much about people from the way they drive – it’s fascinating. I use the car as an element in every scene, as a sort of a capsule of the scene’s emotions – the car as ectoplasm.

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