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Die Realistin - Deutsche Oper Berlin

The Realist

Marie-Ève Signeyrole is the shooting star of European musical theatre. She’s now turning her attention to Verdi’s MACBETH

Setting an interview date with Marie-Ève Signeyrole, one of the most sought-after directors of European opera, is like trying to pin down a butterfly in full flight. She is forever fluttering from pillar to post, juggling projects, productions and options. Last autumn she was wowing audiences with her version of TURANDOT in Dresden, she is currently rehearsing ROMÉO ET JULIETTE in Vienna and in November she is set to stage Verdi’s MACBETH at the Deutsche Oper Berlin. This high-speed multitasking is what she loves about opera, she says, as we catch up with her on a Sunday morning in the Austrian capital. Time was also a factor in her decision over 15 years ago to withdraw from filmmaking and switch to opera. »With filmmaking you’re constantly waiting around. It’s a hugely drawn-out process. The odds of a project ever getting made are very low, and if it does get off the ground, then by the time it wraps your thoughts have long since moved on to other subjects.« Opera on the other hand lets her feel closer to the action and more able to influence it directly. »Now, when I’m doing a CARMEN or, as I’m about to, a MACBETH, it all happens in line with the way I’m currently perceiving and responding to the world around me. In three years’ time I’d be doing it quite differently, because the context would be different. This immediacy is very me.«

And it’s true that Signeyrole’s productions are intensely topical. So keenly do they explore the complexity of life, love and actions in a world riven by war, displacement and climate change that true life and staged reality can end up mirroring each other. This is no truer than in the projects for which she composes the music herself – as was the case with NEGAR, which premiered in autumn 2022 in the Tischlerei of the Deutsche Oper Berlin. While her work on the subject of young people in Iran was having its opening night, thousands of people had been demonstrating in Teheran for a month against the hardline regime of the mullahs.

It was no accident, of course, that the fictional work was so nicely superimposed over actual events. Signeyrole states that she was already sensing the people’s yearning for freedom as she researched for the project. As a way of appreciating what it meant to be a young person in Iran she took a journalistic approach to her groundwork. She interviewed men and women from many walks of society, questioning them on their hopes, dreams, daily lives and their relationship to their country. She listened, took notes and drew all the threads together into an integral picture. The recurring theme of exile and questions of homeland and personal roots are linked to her own biography. Born in France to an Algerian mother, Signeyrole learned early on what it was like to feel at home everywhere and nowhere. Although she is considered to be »the French director Marie-Ève Signeyrole« when people write articles about her, she doesn’t feel she is so thoroughly French – another reason for renouncing film in favour of opera. »French cinema likes to tell intimate little stories,« she says. »A lot of psychologising goes on, and I can’t relate to it at all. My way of telling a story is totally different.« One thing about opera that has always fascinated her, and continues to fascinate her, is the chance it affords to really let rip with the music and the set design. »Opera is a gigantic cauldron of fantastical machinery. Every night a hundred people are working in concert to ensure that the audience sees what we have planned for it to see. It’s incredible. I never get tired of standing backstage during performances and watching how this entire, ginormous organism assembles itself afresh, minute by minute, and stirs into life. And with a live event, you’re living on the edge. It’s the magic of opera that everything comes together in the end.«

Signeyrole’s outsider status – due to her eye having been trained through a camera’s viewfinder and her ear attuned to non-classical music – has not detracted from the entrance that the director has made on the opera scene. She is no respecter of genre boundaries, uses video intros on occasion, and incorporates electronic and klezmer music and traditional Iranian instruments into her opera productions – all to the delight of critics and audiences alike. Is this, then, the secret of her success: the way she rejects convention and ploughs her own furrow? No question about it, in her view: people are quick to underestimate opera audiences, which are much more open and adventurous than they are often given credit for. »People want to see new approaches and they like being nudged and pinched and given a fresh angle on a work they’ve already seen fifty times.« She recounts how, after the performance of TURANDOT in Dresden, she was accosted by some experienced operagoers, all energised and grateful because her version had filled in the blanks in their appreciation of the opera. By her account, that was not an isolated case. And she considers her use of live video material to be instrumental in helping audiences to new insights into old chestnuts from the repertoire. »Audiences have got used to hearing their singers but not really seeing them – which is a pity, because there’s a lot to take in visually. When I was still an assistant, I picked up on that at once. The emotions that I was sensing at close range in rehearsals tended to vanish during the actual performance. Because you hardly ever see the singers’ faces properly from the audience, which breaks the emotional tie.« That’s why it’s important to her to use cameras to convey the intensity achieved in rehearsals to the audience on the night. Many singers resist the process at first, she says, but most get used to it quite quickly – partly because they see the audience identifying and empathising much more intensely with the character.

For at the end of the day understanding people better is what opera is all about – including people whose weltanschauung is poles apart from our own. The director describes her approach thus: »We present the worst creeps and monsters imaginable and get them to sing the loveliest arias. There has to be something about them that audiences can relate to. At least, it’s important to me.«

She even has a minor soft spot for Macbeth, who progresses from field marshal to regicide and finally to King of Scotland himself. And she chuckles at how easy it was for her to be somewhat taken by him. »In my version the three witches are not supernatural figures but real people. They are members of a secretive world order that’s manipulating events from the shadows. They predict at the outset that Macbeth will become king and spur him with ambiguous prophecies to bring this about, bending him to their will and making him crazed and murderous.« Not that this absolves him of guilt when he does the deed, but it does explain his actions to an extent. Signeyrole is also touched by Macbeth’s relationship to his wife, detecting a tragic quality to it: »They are in love but the marriage is childless, a fact that weighs heavily on them. I see this pain as the thing that drives them to kill.« The work is not much different to a modern TV series depicting political machinations. In her view the interplay of politics and personal intimacy are deftly depicted and a surprisingly exact reflection of the problems of our own age. To the extent that reality and fiction are as blurred as in NEGAR? »I hope not,« says Signeyrole, »but neither will what happens on stage seem totally beyond our ken. It’s fiction, a projection into a dark, not-too-distant future. A dystopia, though, that is not quite as unrealistic as we would like.«

Annabelle Hirsch works as a freelance journalist for FAS/FAZ, taz and ZeitOnline, among other publications. She also writes non-fiction and is a translator of French literary texts.

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