PARIS – Before his rehearsals for Oedipus by George Enescu at the Paris Opera, playwright and director Wajdi Mouawad did something unusual. He gathered a glossary of all the obscure references in the libretto – such as “the water of Castalia,” a sacred spring in Delphi – and sent it to the choir.
Mouawad, 52, who directs the Théâtre National de la Colline in Paris, was surprised to find that the choristers had never received anything like it. When he approached the company’s tech team to explain the story of “Odipe,” a 1930s rarity based on Greek myth, their reaction was similar, he said in an interview. – few directors have ever bothered to pay attention to them.
“It’s strange, because I hear: ‘It’s wonderful, you say hello” “, added Mouawad. “I feel like stepping into a traumatized world that now believes its trauma is the norm.”
Trauma isn’t a bad way to describe the last few years at the turbulent Paris Opera. At the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020, strikes linked to an overhaul of the pension policy resulted in a deficit of 45 million euros on a budget that is around 230 million euros. And that was before the pandemic forced the cancellation of more than a year of performances. (Although some performances took place in September and October of last year, the company did not resume its regular schedule until the end of May.)
Thus, “Oedipus”, which opens at the Opéra Bastille, the company’s largest theater, on Monday, could well inaugurate a new era. This is the first production commissioned by Alexander Neef, who took over as general manager of the Opera last year.
It is no coincidence that he turned to Mouawad. In his last job, head of the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto, Neef co-produced Mouawad’s first stab at opera, a 2016 production of Mozart’s “Abduction from the Seraglio”, which Neef calls ” one of the most satisfying experiences I have had. never had with a director.
“His strength as an artist is that he really wants to work with humans,” added Neef in an interview in his office. “With ‘Oedipus’, I hoped he would bring the whole company together. Sometimes you almost have to encourage her not to be too nice.
The return of “Oedipus” on the Parisian scene was long overdue. Enescu’s only opera, it premiered in 1936 in the company’s smallest and most ornate Palais Garnier, but has never been repeated there, although other operas have taken an interest in it late. The North American premiere took place at the University of Illinois in 2005, when Achim Freyer staged a remarkable production at the Salzburg Festival two years ago, under the direction of Ingo Metzmacher, who will return to the score in Paris.
Neef believes that the course of history, rather than the quality, explains the long lack of appetite for “Oedipus,” which received positive reviews when it premiered. The New York Times reported in 1936 that the French composer and critic Reynaldo Hahn had described it as “imposing, noble, meticulously crafted” and “an ever convincing admiration”.
“After 1945, I think music was out of fashion,” Neef said of Enescu’s lush score. “For many composers writing after the Holocaust, it couldn’t be tonal music for a long time. “
When Neef first approached him, Mouawad was less concerned with the score than with the libretto. The legend of Odipus was familiar to him: in his 30-year career, Mouawad has directed Sophocles’ “Odipe Roi” on three occasions. In 2016, he also wrote a play, “The Tears of Odipe,” which linked the character’s fate to modern Greek politics.
The librettist of “Odipe”, Edmond Fleg, closely based the third and fourth acts on “Odipus the King” and another piece by Sophocles, “Odipe à Colone”. (The first and second acts flesh out the background of the play.) “It’s a bit summary, but the dialogue is essentially the same,” Mouawad said. “I thought I would have space to tell this story.”
The tale has long animated Mouawad, born in Lebanon in 1968. When he was 10 years old, his family fled the civil war, settling first in France, then in French-speaking Quebec.
“When I tried to understand the Lebanese civil war, I was told either that there was nothing to understand or that it was the fault of others,” said Mouawad. “There was a yawning lack of stories in my life.”
After training as an actor at the National Theater School in Montreal, Mouawad rose to prominence with an epic tetralogy, “The Blood of Promises”, which was produced all over the world. Composed of “Littoral” (1999), “Scorched” (2003), “Forests” (2006) and “Skies” (2009), it explores intergenerational trauma, war and displacement.
His work has served as an introduction to contemporary theater for many Francophone millennials. Even after returning to Paris in 2016 to direct the Théâtre de la Colline, Mouawad avoided the dominant European taste for non-linear and highly conceptual productions. Lisa Perrio, an actress who has worked with Mouawad several times in recent years, said “he likes drama, pathos and it works.”
“Her job is the most difficult thing I have ever had to do,” she added, “because it takes so much emotion.”
For Mouawad, postmodernism is a luxury beyond the means of those who have experienced deep trauma. “I myself am postmodernism,” he said. “There is nothing more postmodern than the war in Lebanon. Deconstruction is a rich man’s thing. When all is well, you deconstruct. When you can’t afford it, when you’re completely fractured yourself, you build.
In March, a year after the disruption caused by the pandemic, the Théâtre de la Colline was one of the first French theaters to be occupied by protesters. Students and arts workers demanded government support and the withdrawal of changes to unemployment benefits. The movement quickly spread to more than 100 theaters.
Sébastien Kheroufi, one of the drama students who first entered La Colline, said in a telephone interview that Mouawad was one of the few prominent directors to give the occupants a warm welcome. “One night he even stayed with us for several hours after his rehearsals because we needed to talk,” Kheroufi said.
However, the end of the occupation at the end of May left Mouawad frustrated. He and his team offered the students the option of staying for the reopening and speaking before the shows; Mouawad also hoped to create a permanent youth company, offering year-round contracts to young actors.
They finally said no, Mouawad now speculates, “because the idea came from us, and they didn’t want to owe us anything.” It was a hard blow for Mouawad, opposed to the hierarchy, who reflected on the “failure” of all parties of the occupation movement in a discouraged open letter.
Then, in early September, with rehearsals for “Oedipus” in full swing, Mouawad’s longtime playwright François Ismert passed away. “She was such a bright and atypical person,” said Mouawad. Ismert introduced him to Sophocles in the 1990s – “and not just that,” he said. “To everything else, without ever being paternalistic. “
The loss weighed on the first who approached. Days earlier, however, Mouawad remained determined to sift through the chaos.
“I know everything is in ruins,” he said, before returning to the rehearsal room. “But we have to do something with these ruins.”