ART IS REALITY TOO
by Søren Schauser
The premiere of The Picture of Dorian Gray took place on 22 August 2013 at Concert Hall Aarhus and was seen everywhere as one of the big events in Danish musical life.
The Danish National Opera was not unfamiliar with the idea of venturing beyond the ordinary. In particular the complete production of Richard Wagner’s demanding The Ring of the Nibelung in 1987 had placed Denmark’s second-largest city on the musical world map. But when former opera director Giordano Bellincampi took up the challenge of The Picture of Dorian Gray a decade and a half later, it almost seemed a rash decision.
He said yes to a music drama by a young composer with no experience of other operas; indeed, a music drama based on Oscar Wilde’s most controversial novel – and with no singers on the stage!
Judging by the early reviews, the house also seems to have won a Pyrrhic victory. The reviewers in the national press didn’t quite know which leg to stand on. They used words like “different and exciting”, “ambitious opera project”, “easy to be entertained by” and went home again. Confusion on a higher plane, one might say.
But as is often the case with Thomas Agerfeldt Olesen’s music, the opera was later to grow in the awareness of the Danes to become decidedly memorable. Not least thanks to the great efforts of Bellincampi’s successor as opera director, Annilese Miskimmon - a vital and dedicated factor throughout Danish National Opera’s successful production. At first we are confused by his crossing of genres, by the midget and the modern dancers, by the hidden singers and the outbreaks of ‘musical’ – but slowly the frustration grows into enjoyable wonder and then into a kind of admiration. In short, his works begin as a confusing foreign language with no known dictionary and not rarely end up as an expression of something familiar.
Oscar Wilde’s horror story is played out among the British upper class in the age of Queen Victoria.
Basil is a painter and takes a fancy to Dorian Gray – a nonchalant, good-looking narcissist. Dorian has his portrait painted by Basil and falls in love with the finished painting.
He then meets the hedonistic, somewhat Mephistophelian Lord Henry and becomes obsessed with the idea of eternal youth; and in a way the idea becomes reality: the portrait begins to age and decay instead of himself.
Dorian now lives 18 years with no sign of aging and can plunge into the night life in earnest. But a number of men as well as the actress Sibyl suffer from his lack of conscience. He sees his portrait again in its terrifyingly decayed condition, cannot accept the consequences of his actions, and decides to kill the painting.
The Picture of Dorian Gray clearly has homosexual overtones. But the sexuality is explicitly thematized neither in Wilde’s novel nor in Agerfeldt Olesen’s opera. Oscar Wilde himself was gay and his aesthetic ideals were a matter of course in his life. He suffered no fewer than two trials for ‘sodomy’, went into exile after the final verdict and two years in prison, and remained profoundly surprised and terribly disillusioned over all these events.
Wilde’s own life rather resembled the fate he gave Dorian Gray. He was born in Ireland and was educated at first at Trinity College in Dublin. Although he never had an academic career, he would have been able enough to have one. But he quickly fell for London’s society life and became known as one of Britain’s most colourful artistic figures.
When he was short of money he spent his evenings at restaurants. The Victorian couples at the tables faced each other in respectable boredom. The celebrity could go over and sit with them, fill his belly at their expense and in return entertain them for hours with his brilliant conversation and affability.
The Picture of Dorian Gray was his only novel. He embarked early on he writing of plays and became world-famous with the comedy The Importance of Being Earnest from 1894. Wilde fell in love with women several times, including with Florence, who later married the author of Dracula, Bram Stoker – and had two children with his wife, Constance. But he was also semi-open about his homosexuality and for years had his fellow writer Lord Alfred Douglas as his regular partner. In the end the verdict sent him to prison for two years and made his subsequent emigration to Paris necessary. He died in 1900, world-famous and poverty-stricken.
Oscar Wilde is said to have portrayed himself in all the main characters of the book: “Basil is what I think I am. Lord Henry is what the world thinks of me. Dorian is what I would like to be,” he said.
The novel and the opera both place all the more emphasis on one of the most important currents of the late nineteenth century: Symbolism. The world could only be described indirectly and in hints. Art was therefore full of metaphors and hints. And the phenomenon of the double played a major role. There is a direct line from “the shadow” in Hans Christian Andersen and the “doppelgänger” in Dostoyevsky to the painting in The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Thomas Agerfeldt Olesen’s opera also has death as its theme. Death is “the true goal of our life,” as Mozart said. For if one is not aware of the brevity of our time on earth, one possesses the gift of neither creativity nor conscience. Beings with eternal life would not write so much as a note and would lose an important motive for good behaviour.
But the relationship between art and reality is also about culture versus nature – as is particularly evident from a well known anecdote from the world of painting.
Claude Monet painted innumerable pictures of his garden in Giverny in northern France. A large tree stood a little asymmetrically on the lawn and never appeared in the paintings. So when he grew old and was unable to paint any more it appears that he went out and felled the tree. The art had to trump the reality, and had now definitively become the true image of the garden.
The same subject has preoccupied Thomas Agerfeldt Olesen for many years. The composer attended a Rudolf Steiner school as a boy, and was influenced by Anthroposophy with its poetic-romantic view of nature. Stones, clouds, trees and all other aspects of nature seem to be animated by spirit in Steiner’s universe. And not rarely, the art of Anthroposophy takes on life-like or ‘biomorphic’ forms. Thomas Agerfeldt Olesen has that relatively diffuse boundary between art and reality flowing in his veins.
A strong feature of the stage work Victor’s Golgotha from 2004 was the orchestra’s ‘artificial’ imitations of the ‘natural’ human voice. One frequently hears hints of actual words being spoken. That is, even though the sounds come from instruments!
Thomas Agerfeldt Olesen has made the most important roles in the work as different as possible: Dorian is to be sung by a soaring countertenor; Henry by a diabolically deep bass; Sybil by a pop singer. All the solo singers stand with the orchestra and thus must not be seen by the audience.
The crucial element of dance in The Picture of Dorian Gray also has allusions to Anthroposophy – more specifically the so-called Sprachgestaltung: a narrator may for example recite a poem and at the same time clarify the individual words with gestures. Movements in Sprachgestaltung thus have relatively specific meanings. They are not only there to be beautiful; they also tell a more or less translatable story.
Dance in the music drama context has on the whole had a rather neglected but long history. The Picture of Dorian Gray is part of a proud tradition!
Historically, the chorus in the ancient Greek tragedies probably performed dances. We know of similar practices from the Japanese tradition and from the ancient Sanskrit drama of the Indians.
We also find the phenomenon in several of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s works: Inori from 1974 is for a large orchestra and two gesticulating soloists. And all the main figures in the seven-evening long Licht can appear in three ways – as singers, as musicians and as dancers. Similarly, several of Per Nørgård’s works from the latter half of the 1970’s can be performed with dancing – so for instance Twilight (1976-77; rev. 1979).
The dance steps in The Picture of Dorian Gray were conceived by the Danish-Swedish choreographer Marie Brolin-Tani. She calls the drama a choreographic opera and sees the dance as an extension of the voice of the singer. The individual dancer must not only play the role he or she represents – but must also know very thoroughly the way the specific singer sings the same role. The result is a kind of ‘Dogma dance’: each performer has had his or her freedom restricted and can thus come closer to the special nature of the role. The dance steps of the opera can in that sense be seen as a directly sensual interpretation of the action and conflicts of the opera.
Professionally, Thomas Agerfeldt Olesen has a background as a musician on the bowed instrument the cello. His works are relatively few in number, but seem very expertly put together – and surprisingly varied. Although he has created music with singing before, The Picture of Dorian Gray is so far his only opera.
Nor does it resemble his other works much. The style quite consciously inclines towards a principle one could call eclectic: the listener can sense impulses from Richard Strauss at one moment and from the popular musical the next.
But not because Agerfeldt Olesen cannot make up anything himself! The echoes of the music of others build on a carefully calculated wish for clarity in the emotional. The work consistently balances between reality with a frightening character and the imaginary with a more dreaming tone. And the dreaming world thus has sounds from the world of yesterday: “The dream draws sustenance from the past, because it contains the only images we know,” he has said.
Søren Schauser is classical music editor on the Danish national daily Berlingske
by Thomas Agerfeldt Olesen
Scene 1 – In a studio in London Basil Hallward is painting the most successful portrait of his career. As a viewer of the creative process, his friend, the bon viveur and hedonist Lord Henry Wotton (Harry) walks around the room, until the subject of the portrait, the handsome young Dorian Gray, enters and immediately falls for Lord Henry’s magical attraction. The meeting between the two does not happen with the good will of the enamoured Basil, and from the first moment Henry fills Dorian’s soul with his ideas, to the great chagrin of Basil. Henry preaches that youth and beauty are everything, and that Dorian, at any cost, must pursue the dreams that his beauty permits him to live out.
Dorian is dismayed at the thought of growing old and expresses a wish that the portrait could take his aging and sins upon it. Basil is shocked by how willingly Dorian is enmeshed by Lord Henry’s words. The fateful meeting makes Basil threaten to destroy the portrait, but after a dramatic scene he is persuaded not to and finally presents Dorian with the picture.
Scene 2 – In a theatre in the East End a mother lectures her young daughter, the actress Sybil Vane, on the lessons she has learned from life: that one cannot trust men and should actually only get involved with them if they have money. But Sybil does not care and loves a beautiful young man whom – not knowing his name, Dorian Gray – she calls “Prince Charming”. Despairing that the girl is taking no heed of her words, Mrs. Vane asks James, Sybil’s brother, to talk some sense into her. The brother talks to his sister out of a profound mistrust of human beings and swears to kill anyone who harms a hair of his sister’s head. Sybil tries – too late – to instil some trust in his and her own future in her brother, for James is about to go off to seek his fortune in Australia.
Scene 3 – Dorian confides in Harry and Basil about his love of Sybil. The men listen, Harry with some detachment. The three agree to meet at the theatre the same evening.
Scene 4 – At the theatre Dorian’s two friends see Sybil for the first time. As if a spell has been cast on her, Sybil’s acting just does not work – all the magic has left her, and Dorian is ashamed in front of his friends, who are seeing Sybil for the first time. After the performance, alone with Sybil in her dressing-room, Dorian gives her short shrift and breaks up with her: he loved her as Ophelia, Juliet and Portia, not as an untalented loser. Sybil is serene and believes her love of Dorian has released her from living her life through her roles. Now she can live as herself, and the magic of acting has been lost to her. In reply Dorian announces that he will forget her name and her face. He leaves Sybil alone, and she implies a fatal decision with a quotation from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
Scene 5 – Back home, Dorian compares his reflection with the portrait. Small changes have appeared.
Scene 1 – Sybil has committed suicide, and Dorian’s conscience struggles with a dawning detachment from the consequences of his actions. Harry finds this detachment fascinating, recognizing it from his own ideas and gives it theoretical sustenance that pushes Dorian out on the last stretch of the road towards cynicism.
Scene 2 – Symbolic sequence: Dorian’s Credo and images from his Dionysian lifestyle. The scene changes to:
Scene 3 – Symbolic sequences in brothels and ballrooms: uninhibited sexual activity which at Dorian’s incitement turns into rape and murder.
Scene 4 – Basil visits Dorian, whom he has not seen for several years, to tell him what is being said about him around town. Basil insists on doing so despite Dorian’s unwillingness – he wants to hear Dorian deny the rumours, and Dorian’s smouldering hatred of Basil, whom he now blames for the state of his own soul, gives him the sudden whim to show him the picture. They go up to the loft, where Dorian has hidden the picture away, and Basil now gets to see his greatly transformed picture. Basil cannot believe what he sees, but when the truth sinks in, he pathetically invokes Dorian’s conscience and God. Now that all is revealed, Dorian goes all the way and murders Basil.
Scene 5 – James returns after 18 years in Australia. Grief over his sister’s death and over his shattered Australian dreams drives James into an opium den to forget. The only thing he has not forgotten is his vow to kill the man who drove his sister to suicide. When one of the hostesses calls a new guest “Prince Charming”, James remembers the name and attacks the guest, who is Dorian. Dorian illuminates his face and James believes he is mistaken, since the face does not look older than Sybil was when she took her own life. Dorian escapes, but the hostess can tell James that she saw Dorian for the first time 18 years before. Prince Charming still looks just as he did then.
Scene 6A – Dorian feels trapped by the curse of the picture and weighed down by the burden of his actions.
Scene 6B – At a subsequent masked ball (with Harry and Dorian present), James sneaks in, takes off his mask, draws a pistol which, through the intervention of some unknown power, he points at himself and fires. The guests see it as a suicide, and only Dorian realizes the true facts of the matter.
Scene 7 – Dorian longs to escape the curse of the picture and tells Harry that he will be good. Harry thinks he is already good, and that he should move to the countryside if he wants to resist the temptations of life. He thinks that Dorian has a fantastic life, in which he has drunk the cup to the full. Dorian is furious to see how little Harry understands and how ignorant Harry is of his own guilt. Dorian sends Harry away and is left alone. He goes to his horrific portrait. In Wilde’s novel he stabs the picture and dies, but the opera chooses a more open ending.
Dance as the extension of the voice
Marie Brolin-Tani interviewed by Lars Wallenberg
The internationally acclaimed Swedish/Danish choreographer Marie Brolin-Tani is well known for her expressive modern dance idiom, which often leaves it up the audience themselves to draw the final conclusions. But why and how does this formal idiom work in her staging of the opera The Picture of Dorian Gray?
You call the production a choreographic opera. What kind of formal expression is it that you want to convey to the audience?
The phrase ‘choreographic opera’ refers to the way the dance functions here as an extension of the singer’s voice – as a kind of communicator of the inner emotions and thoughts that result in the actions and choices of the various characters in the opera. The text, the singers and the music are the focus, and the dancers then take their cue from these physical impulses. This should be seen in connection with the fact that we live in an age when we are used to relating to body language. The choreographic language that I have chosen simply intensifies the characters and the dramaturgy they follow.
You go a step further with the story by making The Picture of Dorian Gray about the fear of old age. You also make this production about the fear of death itself and of not being remembered. Why is that?
Age, decay and death are closely connected. Dancers in particular know all about that. I have therefore worked a lot with the libretto, in which is inscribed a great fear of disappearing from the earth, a fear of not being remembered. Dorian Gray’s inability to love and feel means that his actions become a mix of aggression and coldness, for he will do anything to be noticed and remembered.
In your view, what kind of atmospheric and formal expression do the 18 dancers bring to the story that the libretto or the narrative do not directly give it?
The dancers can create a universe on the stage that is artificial and far from the realism that you get an impression of when you read the original book, see the film of read the libretto. In that connection Thomas Agerfeldt Olesen and I spoke, right from the first time we met, about incorporating ideas from puppet theatre and cartoon films in the actual opera. This also means that the characters are intensified and elaborated from scene to scene – something I also take my cue from in terms of costumes, lighting and set design.
In your staging you use elements from the ancient Greek tragedy, where the chorus has a commentatory role.
In this context the chorus is a dancing chorus, consisting of the dancers who in the scene in question do not have a defined role. It’s quite right that the inspiration comes from the Greek chorus tragedies where the chorus played a commentatory role. In short, the presence of many people who at the same time speak about or comment on the same action reinforces and intensifies the situation. The chorus, in this case the dancing chorus, can predict or comment on what will happen or has just happened.
In your staging you work with the unspoken in the plot itself. In that connection you have added non-speaking roles like the figure ‘The Inner’ – just to mention one example. What did you want to achieve with this?
The concept of “The Inner” gives me the opportunity to work with each character’s inner conflicts. People – including the characters in the opera – do not always act as they feel, or vice versa. And this brings nuances and shades to the opera so that, in our efforts to be clear and tell the story, we hopefully do not end up with clichés. With the concept “choreographic opera” I have tried to find a formal expression that can communicate this work – a kind of expression that probably would not fit in any other artistic context. The dancers have had special restrictions imposed on their various ways of moving, and their work has consisted of among other things standing facing ‘their’ singers in the rehearsal hall, in order to read off and learn the individual singer’s attack, pauses, breathing and way of singing. But the choreography alone cannot create this universe. In reality it is the whole scenic picture that bears the story of The Picture of Dorian Gray. Stage design, lighting, costume and video design are in a constant interplay with the physical expression. It has been a highly collective process that has led to what we see on the stage today – in many ways a raw-nerved story of frailty and vulnerability in our short life. The 18 dancers (12 adults and 6 children) each with their own artistic qualities, have been chosen precisely to convey this formal expression – or statement, you could say.
© Lars Wallenberg is a theatre and ballet critic for the newspaper Børsen