Against the Grain Theatre will be staging Kopernikus, an opera by montrealais composer claude vivier, from april 4th to 13th. in an effort to learn more about the premiere cast of creatives that premiered Kopernikus almost forty years ago, i reached out to lorraine vaillancourt, who conducted the first performance, alongside vivier’s creative vision. this interview is part of a blog-series for Against the Grain Theatre in anticipation of their production of canada’s most internationally prolific (yet domestically unsung) opera.
(Q) it appears you knew vivier as early as 1978 when you conducted his Chants, how did you become introduced to him and what did you find most exciting about him as a composer at that time?
(A) It was at the University of Montreal’s Faculty of Music that I met Claude Vivier in either 1973 or 1974. I myself had arrived in 1970 after a couple years of study in Paris. As the head of the contemporary music division from 1974, I was particularly interested in voice. A lot of excellent singers were at this faculty. Claude had directed the premiere of “Chants” in Paris, I do not know under what conditions but he was obviously not satisfied with this version. I immediately wanted to work on this piece for seven women's voices that seemed particularly inspired and inspiring (to me)---and I had a team of thunder! This was when a concert project was born. The second work on the program was a work of Jose Evangelista who arrived at the Faculty the same year as me. Friendship and love for music already united Claude and I. This concert, being very well received, was the launch of the concert society “Evenements du neuf”. At the end of this program, Claude (among others) started his doctoral project (he would study with composer Serge Garant) which was an opera composed specifically for my Atelier and what was then called the “The stage play workshop” (now l’Atelier d’opera) directed by Mrs. Marthe Forget. Thus Kopernikus was conceived in 1979.
(Q) your work throughout the 80's was especially focused on promoting avant garde compositions that combined historical periods and musical styles, how much was vivier a source of inspiration for the projects you pursued?
(A) My desire for experimentation was limitless. Even though I was trained in the school of Boulez, I was very attracted by the complexity, by the jungle that represented certain partitions, by the work and the rigor that was required for the depth of some works. Despite this natural attraction, I often explored something other than ‘sheet music’. Focusing on the process rather than the performance itself, I had a lot of adventures with my students: improvisation, music-theater, open works, music and electronics; and though the results have not always been conclusive, the experience itself has definitely been worth it. By opening doors on alternate worlds, we broadened our competence and reinforced our convictions.
Vivier was an enlightened being. The emotion I often felt while directing his music (Chants, Kopernikus, Prologue for a Marco Polo, Wo bist Du Licht) is absolutely unique and I did not find this poetry, this interiority, anywhere else. His influence on me was manifested within our small team of Evenements du Neuf (1976-1988) since we were doing programming collectively. Claude, like all of us, respected his fellow composers and showed the healthiest curiosities about worlds that did not necessarily resemble his own… The most special thing about Claude is that he loved his music; as if it came from elsewhere, and that he discovered it himself! The beauty, the light, the poetry that emanated from his music touched him as much as we did!
(Q) as the premiere musical director for his Kopernikus, you and jocelyne fleury-coutu seem to be the main contributors to vivier's opera; what did you find most challenging about working with the score for an opera that is not anchored to the usual cues of plot details or a decipherable libretto?
(A) It is a great opportunity to be able to contribute to the birth of a major work of great importance ... even if we did not know the full impact from the start. The work is revealed to us little by little. The challenge was multileveled. The musicians who formed the ensemble were young and inexperienced. The singers had a very difficult score to digest into their mind, body and voice. In his opera, Claude treats the vocal part very often as an instrumental part ... with extreme values and durations and many meter changes. Knowing that we will have to memorize all this and that it will also be integrated into the staging, blocking, and movements---made the task seem colossal.
We can still say that we have worked under ideal conditions since we had taken almost the entire academic year to build this piece; Marthe Forget, stage director, was almost always present, as well as the extraordinary singing teacher that was Mrs. Louise Andrée who was completely invested in the preparation of the team of singers. Obviously Claude was always in the "first row", ready to change a line or two, if necessary and justified! And during the writing of this opera, Claude and I were in frequent communication ... often very late at night, attending to his inspiration, Claude called me to make me listen to new ideas on his old broken piano!
The most special thing about Claude is that he loved his music; as if it came from elsewhere, and that he discovered it himself! The beauty, the light, the poetry that emanated from his music touched him as much as we did! The young musicians and singers who had the chance to witness this experience have certainly not forgotten. This opera is not very "operatic" ... there’s not really a narrative, it is a ritual in an invented language, wherein the main characters, apart from Agni which is the passage, is finally the music (yes, and finally the music!). The Evenements du Neuf also offered Montrealers a concert version of Kopernikus three years in a row, hoping perhaps that Kopernikus would become as familiar as Handel's Messiah. Sweet dream!!
(Q) in recent years, this opera has been performed more outside of canada than in, what insights can you give in regards to the obstacles a canadian composer had to overcome back when vivier wrote Kopernikus and how does this translate to current canadian composers? in particular, why do you think vivier's work--his originality and profundity--have have struggled to make it into the public consciousness of the canadian operatic community, at least enough to inspire opera houses large and small to take up vivier's mantle?
(A) Claude Vivier is a star! And his terrible death contributed to his notoriety. We can only imagine everything he could have still given us. Claude was also a beloved and much appreciated person in Montreal. His network of acquaintances and friends was immense. He considered the premiere of his opera an event not to be missed, and he took charge of filling the National Monument Hall. Claude had a kind of faith in his music that was rather touching, and what might have seemed pretentious in someone else was actually a gesture of love. We must not forget that it was a workshop production made up of students and that none of the performers were paid for this premiere... which is still a big advantage [ce qui est quand même un gros avantage]?
Today there are many operas "resolutely modern" and that are still quite interesting. If we do not have more audiences this is due to the reluctance of the big boxes that are the major opera houses. Just because we program an opera that is composed in 2019 does not mean we are contributing to enriching the repertoire: we often have to deal with voiceless music, writing that is very conformist and academic, without being interesting ... just a good show. The presence of an open, curious and stated artistic direction makes all the difference. Toronto, among others, has dared to create beautiful creations and should serve as an example. There is a plethora of small-format operas (Kopernikus is one) that could be presented in smaller venues and thus open a niche of public discoveries for audiences, without necessarily gobbling up huge sums of money.
It is certain that when we look at what is happening in Europe for example, and at the number of operas that are created and played several times in very good conditions, it makes me dream; the collaboration of several opera houses (co-commissioning, co-creation, exchange of artists, sharing of all costs ...) makes these productions possible. This kind of network does not exist in Canada, and the distances are not the same.