Symposium/Luigi NONO and Prometeo

The Significance of "A Tragedy of Listening"

Andre RICHARD (from the floor)--Personally, I think it's a mistake just to say [[Prometeo]] is a non-opera. The work is sub-titled "A Tragedy of Listening" after all. The role played by text in the work is extremely important. Not that the music is added to follow along with the text, of course, but we cannot speak of the work without the text.
In the original premiere program CACCIARI wrote that through [[Prometeo]] NONO wanted to liberate music from the governing circumstances of dynamics and sight. So as to offer up space to music alone.

Of course, in [[Prometeo]] we do see performers on stage. And in that sense, it is not entirely devoid of any visual element, but the movements on stage do not affect the auditory complexities. Taking only the harmonies, for example, the movement of sound--first one group with one sound connecting next which group and what sound--is incredibly complex. To give an example, I previously conducted chorus, and NONO asked me to bring together more voices with the exact same tonal qualities as the first soprano. And so a female chorus was formed, all with the same tonal quality as the first soprano. This chorus had two roles: to recite ancient myths, and to recite BENJAMIN texts as arranged by CACCIARI. The soloist only sings BENJAMIN texts. And the same goes for the alto voices. There is an alto chorus all with the vocal qualities as the alto soloist. And with the tenors, too, except for the role of Prometheus, there is again the soloist and chorus with the same vocal qualities, the soloist singing BENJAMIN texts only and the chorus reciting both ancient mythology and BENJAMIN texts at the same time. Just listening by ear you gradually lose track where's the soloist and where the chorus. That is, although there are two sound sources, because those sound sources have the same qualities they start to sound alike. It's an extremely curious experiment. For example, at the very beginning where a chorus sings the words, "Gaeia gave birth to the land," the "mythology" section that follows is sung in many different harmonics. An internal continuity of sound winds its way around between the various soloists and the various choruses and the orchestra group.

Because it is all so musically complex, the work is rescued from visual elements and constraints, indeed freed from them. In that sense, as to why I do not agree with the proposition that the work is a non-opera, while granted the work has no visual dramaturgy, it does have a dramaturgy of sound. And within that sound, text is extremely significant. Because there exists this auditory dramaturgy, I think it's problematic to call it a non-opera.

ISOZAKI--Well then, I wonder if I might pose a question? Prior to the performance here, [[Prometeo]] was performed in Brussels [*28], I believe it was staged by Robert WILSON [*29].
After which I happened to meet WILSON, and when I asked him how it went, he hardly said a word. He just went on drinking until finally when it seemed he'd reached his limit, he said something to the effect that it should never have been put on stage. (Laughs) So I wanted to hear about it from someone who was involved. Now Robert WILSON is someone whose own expression is in the visual, so having him stage a work that so rejects the visual should have made for, it seems to me, a very interesting production. What was the result?

RICHARD--A very delicate question. There are some things in life you have to take on, like it or not. (Laughs) In this case, we were just lucky to be able to stage [[Prometeo]] eight times in Brussels, the condition being that we had to do it at the Opera House, not a concert hall.
Actually, NONO himself once tried to stage the piece together with Jurgen FLIMM [*30], but as talks went on, they came to see the impossibility of the endeavor, and eventually the project was shelved. I told WILSON this any number of times, but ultimately the decision was not mine. In the end we put on [[Prometeo]] and it was a flop. We just have to be on our toes from now on never to let flop like that happen again.
Though, honestly speaking, neither the performances nor the production was any good. The whole show was a failure. The visual direction interfered with the performances; for a fact, the performers told me it ruined their performances.

LACHENMANN--I'd like to say that [[Prometeo]] is a non-opera, not an anti-opera. As a non-opera, we can see a positive point of departure--just now Andre spoke of a "dramaturgy of sound"--and this exists not only in NONO, but also in MAHLER and BEETHOVEN. In that sense, this dramaturgy of sound is not something specific to [[Prometeo]] proper. That and, we've spoken of the importance of the text, well I've seen [[Prometeo]] already seven or eight times, and frankly speaking, the text is unintelligible just listening to the sound alone. Given the difficulty of the core text, indications are there will be major problems for those who come to hear [[Prometeo]] for the first time to make sense of it. Short of which, as Mr. ASADA has said, I suppose it's only natural that the audience make the most of a kind of sound-tripping. It would be unreasonable to expect someone listening to this music for the first time to grasp the extremely complicated concepts behind the texts.

ASADA--The question of opera or non-opera depends on the definition of opera, which gets to be all very academic. But at least I believe we can say this. Regarding the possibility or impossibility of visual staging, we are reminded via the issue of the forbidding the worship of idolatry of SCHONBERG's opera [[Moses und Aron]] [*31].
From that perspective, might not NONO's [[Prometeo]] offer an answer to the question, is opera possible after the incomplete end of [[Moses und Aron]] at Act II? In [[Moses und Aron]], Moses is trying faithfully to obey commandments from God, particularly the forbidding of idolatry.
Accordingly, he does not sing, but expresses himself in Sprachgesang, that is, in speech. Whereas Aaron fashions a golden calf-like idol, saying he must appeal to the visual in order for the masses to understand, which he expresses quite brilliantly in song. The conflict between these two continues for two acts until Moses happens upon an orgy around the golden calf that Aaron has bestowed upon the masses, and he breaks down saying, "Words, o words, what I lack art thou." So ends Act II; Act III and after remained unscored, SCHONBERG's taking asylum in America notwithstanding. Accordingly, while plenty of operas were written after that, in the larger sense the history of opera can be said to have been left hanging at the abrupt ending of Act II of [[Moses und Aron]].
Which poses the question, is opera possible any more? Here NONO, in very radical form, provides an answer how, while banning idolatry, that is, while utterly rejecting the visual, we might still be made to experience profound drama through sound.

But perhaps this is making too much of Jewish subtexts. Of course, NONO--especially in his later years--showed great interest in Judica, though I think it was unrelated to what is called Jewish mysticism. In other words, whereas the essence of the Catholic experience ultimately reduces to the word "credo" [I believe], the Jewish experience is in essence "Listen, o Israel!" Did he not, then, take this commandment concentrated in the word "ascolta" [listen] and universalize it? By this commandment "listen," people are exposed to a diversity of "other voices," to the multifarious differences born of frequent contradictions and hostilities distributed archipelago-like through space. That is nothing less than tragedy. In spite of which, it is that tragedy that makes possible our first profound experience.
In this sense, the "Tragedy of Listening" emerges as the fundamental concept of [[Prometeo]]. Actually, even without hearing the whole of the text, the commandment ascolta is repeated here and there impressionistically. Through the course of this we ourselves open up toward sometimes cruel, yet simultaneously subtle distinctions. That, I believe is the essence of this work.

[This symposium took place on 27 August 1998, Akiyoshidai Kokusai Geijutu-mura (International Art Village).]

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