To Take on Shakespeare is Almost Crazy: An Interview with Keith Warner
As the UK tour of Andrzej Czajowski’s Merchant of Venice comes to a magnificent close, Culture.pl’s Filip Lech speaks to the opera’s director Keith Warner. The opera veteran, who has produced over 100 operas in 20 countries, talks about interpreting Shakespeare’s work using musical language, how Czajkowski’s life influenced his opera, and whether Wagner would hold the same controversial views today.
Filip Lech: Do you remember your first experience with Andrzej Czajkowski’s music and his Merchant of Venice?
Keith Warner: I was sent a tape of a piano version of the Merchant of Venice, from the Welsh National Opera just playing through it, with people singing some pieces of the libretto over it. It was a very strange approach in that you felt that you weren’t hearing so much of the score. But you know, what was immediately apparent, even then, was that it had its own incredibly unique musical language. This shot out from even this very poor rendition of what was actually there. Very soon after that, I had the vocal score and I could see that what I felt at first, listening to the tape, was absolutely and apparently true: the musical language was, to me, quite incredibly theatrical.
For somebody who we know loved Shakespeare, but had never written opera before – I found this absolutely remarkable. You could see on the page that each scene had its own separate atmosphere. And I've said many times that I think that the atmosphere created by music is the key to all opera lighting, it’s what the music does to a scene to create an impression through the orchestral sound, through the vocal line, that actually makes a convincing opera. It was absolutely clear that each scene had its own atmosphere, each character has their own careful drawing of their personality. The whole piece had something binding, a musical language – Czajkowski’s musical signature was very strong. It was completely his music from the first bar to the end. It had every possible element that you could wish for in an opera!
Do you know of any operas that could be compared to The Merchant of Venice?
Let's focus on Shakespeare adaptations. I can think of a couple of relatively contemporary operas: Benjamin Britten and A Midsummer Night's Dream; Thomas Adès and The Tempest; Aribert Reimann and Lear and Hamlet by Brett Dean, which was just performed in Glyndebourne. Each one of them has taken on the great giant of theatre.
Are Poles as passionate about Shakespeare as the British? To take on Shakespeare is almost crazy, because it’s so complete and so good. And yet, each of these operas has done the intelligent thing which is to make its own musical world, to have a way into the play that is different or an interpretation of the play in the music. I think that they are all successful adaptations of Shakespeare.
One thing I would say about Andrzej Czajkowski is that they use Shakespeare’s original text pretty well – approximately 80-90%, which is wonderful, because you end up having the best possible libretto in the world! The music makes certain decisions about the play – and then I think it’s successful. You could say the same about Verdi's Othello, which I just put on in Covent Garden, how it’s an interpretation of the play in the nature of the music. It's actually not the Shakespeare play, but it's a certain slice into the world of those plays. And that is what you have to do to make it work – that is what leads to the success of the composer, finding the right music to make a certain journey into the play.
Are you familiar with Czajkowski's work as a performer, as a pianist?
I became familiar during the post rehearsal period in Bregenz, 4 years ago. I have listened to other compositions by Czajkowski, and a couple recordings of him playing. I'm very interested in him.
I think he is amazingly flamboyant, an amazingly lively. It has such vitality, a kind of freshness. I think that is something interesting with composers when they perform. Because, I think, composer instinct in men like Czajkowski, Adès, Britten, is even stronger than the performer, so they somehow have the ability to make even other people’s music seem as though they are creating in that moment. They sort of understand the structure, not just the music, but the structure of creativity behind the music. It’s like walking in someone else’s shoes, but actually being able to walk well within them. I think his playing, what I've heard, absolutely has that. It's like improvising the music, which just happens to be somebody else's, but he makes it sound so fresh, real and lively.
How did your relationship to the Merchant of Venice change after four years of performances?
I like it more and more, it's simple. Every time we comeback to this piece I think: this is one of the great operas in English written since the Second World War. Every time I find more in it, it grows richer. I admire it more and more. Both in its construction, but also how I notice in Bregenz, in Warsaw, in Cardiff, in Birmingham, and now in Covent Garden – the audience is absolutely carried into this piece. Whoever is there is absolutely compelled by this piece, you can feel it within the first half hour – people are carried along on an incredible journey.
I would say this is to do with one, very important element of this business of interpreting the piece, interpreting the play by the composer. You can look at the play, and there is much debate about the antisemitism. If you do the play, if you think about the play, it's unavoidable. I personally have an opinion on that, which may not be Andrzej Czajkowski’s – I feel the play is about prejudice, everybody in the play is guilty of some sort of ridiculous prejudice. Therefore I think, Andrzej Czajkowski, being both Jewish and gay, took a particular line into this prejudice. He felt it, he knew what it was like. He knew the stupidity of it, the ugliness of it in his gut. I think, for modern audiences, they sense that.
We live in an incredibly precarious world, we live in a world where nationalism keeps growing, surprisingly… I feel it now in my 50s and 60s, when I thought all of that, we're getting some kind of hold-off in our countries, and changing that for our future. Now, it seems to be swelling back up again, a prejudice that is absolutely by nature beyond reason, beyond sense. I think what Andrzej Czajkowski has done is turn that into visceral gut-feeling music. You cannot look at the Shylock character in the opera, you cannot hear the music and not feel what he feels. You cannot feel for what I think is a homosexual relationship, of Antonio depicted in this, without feeling what it is to be that repressed in society. I think that's why audiences get absolutely gripped by this piece. They realise that's something authentic in the experience of the composer set to music being presented to a modern world.
Can you say something about the symbols used in opera? I’m thinking about the psychoanalyst’s couch, the maze, the ring…
It’s very hard with symbols, because I think that the very nature of symbolism is that people must make each of those things their own. There's some sort of idea in the world that a symbol is like a mathematics equation. X=32. It's not that. A symbol is a very useful way of making us interact with what we're seeing, question what we're seeing, feel what we're seeing through it. Shakespeare, the text, the metaphors – it’s full of symbolism, metaphor, simile. So, I think in the production, I try to come up with some visual equivalent of what the Shakespeare text conveys. And, if you like they are very straightforward symbols that are more for the modern world than Shakespeare’s world.
You know, Freud’s couch begins to mean, or to show perhaps, that we're in a psychological space, which becomes more and more Shakespeare’s plays. Generally, in this opera in particular, the poetry, if you begin to act, perform the poetry, the rhyme, the rhythm, it creates a kind of psychology through it, creates some kind of psychological relationship between the audience and the actor. It's about the psychology of the character, much more than huge philosophical ideas. I mean, that's the nature of Shakespeare. So, the couch introduces the world of psychology.
The maze introduces the lostness of these people. Basically they are constantly searching authentic experience. Completely hampered by their own individual prejudices. The maze – like in British Elizabethan gardens – also had another kind of symbolism: of love being searched for, of two people trying to find one another. Lovers do find one another in the play, but I'm not sure that what they find is very convincing because they’re held back by their own prejudices from the society around them, the prejudices that they have readily accepted.
The thing is to respond to it, not intellectually so much, but emotionally.
I would like to ask about the contrast between female and male characters. They are very perceptible in the opera.
I think, of course, as is typical in Shakespeare – the female characters have to become male. They have to take on the disguise of the lawyer and his clerk in the trial scene, in order to have power in this very male-dominated world.
What I think is extraordinary is that it’s only when Portia becomes the lawyer does she in a way, as a male, does she start to adopt the antisemitic views of society. She is not blameless because in the play she also seems to be prejudiced against every foreigner of every type: Germans, Moroccans, Spanish, English… Before, it is a child-like prejudice, but come the trial scene, she becomes a man and becomes prejudiced. To really seek out a horrible solution to ‘the Jewish problem’, as it were.
The whole thing in the piece is – on a symbolic level – that the masculine and feminine are at war constantly in our lives, like compassion, goodness. And I'm not talking about sex or gender, I'm talking about the symbolic qualities of feminine and masculine. All these things, the good and wonderful, the positive light side against the masculine dark, prejudiced, angry, violent side.
And then, by the end, these things are resolved and when we get back into the epilogue, the one relationship between the Christian and the Jew, in the piece between Shylock's daughter Jessica and Lorenzo, one of Antonio's friends, where they are coming together, they seem to sort of meet. Interestingly, Lorenzo doesn’t play a part in the trial scene. There is a sort of coming together of these two sides of prejudice, almost as if they’re the antithesis of Shylock and Antonio, the other side of the wall, if you like, between them. But then when the women come back and change back into the women, Portia and Nerissa, and the men come back, of course, in their feminine guise, they shame the men for their masculine, lying, ridiculous qualities. However, Shylock has been devastated, his life is being almost taken away from him by that stage by Portia’s feminine cleverness. It's a very, very complex relationship if you think of it on a sort of metaphoric level.
In the last question. let’s leave Czajkowski for a moment and go in the direction of Wagner. Music has always been a tuneful force for political change. How does music connect to politics today? Can a new Wagner be born in today's world?
If Wagner was born in today's world, I think he would certainly find equal opportunity to indulge his antisemitism. It seems apparent, I have Jewish friends for example in London now, who are beginning to feel it. I have Polish friends as well, who are beginning to feel that this whole business of nationalism and race is making a strong comeback, more prejudice again. Maybe Wagner would never have changed those views.
I would like to think that post the Nazis, as an intelligent thinking man, he would be forced to see the ridiculousness, the childishness, and the lack of intellectual scrutiny, something which mattered to him a lot I think. Maybe we think of him as ‘pre-Nazi’, though of course he had nothing to do with the Nazi regime. I wonder whether the post-Nazi era wouldn’t change him completely?
Look, I think music is no different from the rest of the arts in this: painting or writing. I think what the arts do, is always speak with an individual voice. I begin to like this more and more and more, as I think most of us can see that most political challenges and thoughts and regimes have moved on into almost a territory where you cannot as a thinking human being sustain any of them. I mean, things like communism and religion generally are not sustainable to me in any way. Because they lead to such appalling things – you could say capitalism does, as well. Anything that is a utopian idealism, that takes the thing, the thought or the theories of the world away from man, seems to be a mistaken route on which to live your life. I think what to do all the time, is to say: we are not talking, writing this novel, writing this opera in order to represent some huge movement. I write as an individual voice, this is my view, this is my experience.
On the whole people don't take copies of War and Peace or any novel, or take a painting and say: ‘I want to kill you because of this painting.’ Because the individual voice is both at the same time small, significant and fragile, but infinitely true, because it's only ever saying: this is my view, this is my individual view, it's not a world view.
I think Wagner in the The Ring of the Nibelung, knew this. I think the whole Ring cycle is about exactly that. To me it’s unmistakable, in the Ring he’s saying that God himself decides that God must end. The idea, the concept of God. And we must hand the world to Man, and then take individual responsibility as Brunhilde finally does for her life and for the life of others. But not by following some huge utopian idea and demanding that you follow it and I’m able to kill if you don’t. This is the great thing for the arts, and it's why the arts will finally try to have a future, because the world, I think, will slowly realise that it's the only way to live.
I think history goes backwards and forwards, that's what I've learned in my life. It’s the arts for me that stand for the beautiful individual voice.
Interview conducted over the phone on 14th July 2017