Playing the game?
Interview with Pinar Karabulut and Yi-Chen Lin
Greek / Open-Air on the parking deck
An opera in two acts by Mark-Anthony Turnage; Libretto by Mark-Anthony Turnage and Jonathan Moore after Steven Berkoff’s 1980 verse tragedy of the same name based on “Oedipus Rex” by Sophocles
Conductor: Yi-Chen Lin
Stage director: Pınar Karabulut
With Dean Murphy, Irene Roberts, Seth Carico, Heidi Stober
Premiere on 27 August 2021
Dorothea Hartmann: Oedipus, one of the most famous ancient characters, is brought to the present day in GREEK. The basic premise remains the same: destiny fulfils itself even when you do everything to prevent it. But what does “fate” mean in this case? It no longer comes down to the almighty, mythological gods who determine the lot of powerless humans.
Pınar Karabulut: That which is most sacred – the gods and their mouthpiece, the Oracle of Delphi – is replaced by a fortune teller at a fair. Down to Earth and no longer atop Mount Olympus. The prophecy thus becomes somewhat banal and comical. It’s the sort of thing you could laugh about. Because we enlightened humans believe that everybody makes their own luck. We are not guided by some transcendent prevision from the gods, but rather have the power in our own hands. But in GREEK this encounter with the fortune teller triggers a self-fulling prophecy, a type of vicious cycle. It happens just as it was predicted at the fair. What’s that about? Is there something like fate after all? I fully believe in that, myself. I think there are paths that one has to walk down.
Dorothea Hartmann: Are you speaking from your own experience?
Pınar Karabulut: Of course. You read a horoscope or put crystals in water during the full moon and see what happens. It was in vogue some years ago, when everyone was placing crystals in water. I think that people need supernatural explanations, there’s a great yearning for it.
Dorothea Hartmann: I don’t place crystals in water.
Pınar Karabulut: It certainly has to do with the culture I was raised in. There is a lot of superstition in Turkish culture, and everything has a rule. Take the “evil eye”, for example: you’re envious of something somebody else has and make an insincere comment about it. Like a beautiful bag. An hour later, the strap on the bag tears or it gets stolen. This means the “evil eye” has struck you. You have to fend it off with a “blue eye”, called a nazar, on an amulet. This protects you. And if the amulet breaks, it means that it kept the “evil eye” at bay in that moment. My mother can mix herbs that keep the “evil eye” from getting you. I believe in these things.
Yi-Chen Lin: I’m familiar with it from my own family. We have a lot of superstitious ceremonies, especially in relation to death. You have to grant the souls of the deceased a peaceful rest. The dead have to agree to the death ceremony.
Dorothea Hartmann: What does the fulfilment of a prophecy mean for human freedom? Free will was an important question in ancient times as well. How free is Eddy?
Pınar Karabulut: Eddy has long walked his own path. He wants to move away from home. All this talk from his parents about the prophecy is a good excuse. Eddy then achieves a lot: he gets married, becomes a manager, has a car. He’s proud of the fact that other people envy him. He considers himself upper class. In short, he’s happy. And he has a sense of freedom.
Yi-Chen Lin: But ultimately he ends up back at square one. He can’t get out of London. He’s still in the milieu he wanted to get away from. You can hear it in the score, as the opera begins with a rhythmic motif, a sort of football song that everyone recognises immediately. I call it the “motif of fate”. It follows Eddy from beginning to end, and permeates the story. So fate is always present in the music. Only in the end, when Eddy does not take the route in the Greek myth and does not blind himself, but rather stays with his mother contrary to the moral and the story – at this “entrance to Heaven” as it is stated in the score – does the “motif of fate” end. All that’s left are love and the harp and the celesta, the instruments of the gods ...
Dorothea Hartmann: With its many hard cuts, GREEK is set up like a comic strip. Eddy is placed in a wide variety of situations and works his way through society, similar to a road trip movie. The authors vividly presented the ‘80s. How topical is the piece now?
Pınar Karabulut: These are all political and critical social topics that are still relevant today: poverty, social injustice, the difficult question of social mobility – will I be able to get out of my surroundings? Topics like domestic violence, drinking binges, racism, sexism, street violence – we may distance ourselves from them or look away, but this “plague” as it is referred to in the piece is just as present now as it was in the age of Thatcherism 40 years ago.
Dorothea Hartmann: The toughness of London’s East End in the ‘80s is also very musically present.
Yi-Chen Lin: Yes, Turnage makes quite a lot of noise and has a lot of tools at his disposal for creating brutality. This is because of the unusual use of percussion instruments. There is a huge range of them, and all the musicians also use rubbish bins, metal rods and other objects. Turnage is very deliberate in his selection of the instruments, and makes use of the entire colour palette from dull to shrill. He also doesn’t shy away from other musical cultures and genres, from jazz, big band and rock to football chants and rap for the police. He learned from listening but at the same time never just copies the styles, but rather plays them expertly.
Dorothea Hartmann: The idea of the play is central to the opera: “Fate makes us play the roles we’re cast,” sing the parents at the end of the first act. “Like a caricature” or “comically” are frequent directorial comments. This means that the play largely takes place as a collage of role cliches. What does this mean for direction?
Pınar Karabulut: The various roles of the singers around Eddy are very archetypical men and women, like father, mother, wife or chief of police. There is no psychological sheet for these characters. It was exciting for us to elevate and escalate the costumes and scene. And it’s fun to let pop culture influence our scenery, similar to how Turnage makes references in his music. For example, there’s a moment reminiscent of voguing in a cabaret-like number by the parents at the end of the first act: the choreography is inspired by Madonna on her Blond Ambition Tour. Of course it's not real voguing, more like “white people‘s voguing”, but I think it’s good to play with elements that come from queer culture. Or a Britney Spears quote from a live appearance on MTV. That’s probably only apparent to hardcore fans. But it’s fun and I’m interested in using material that comes from the MTV generation.
Yi-Chen Lin: The singers do play many roles, but at the same time Eddy only encounters the same three ranges: soprano, mezzosoprano, bass baritone. Eddy is stuck in a girdle, surrounded by these voices no matter where he goes. It’s a nightmare.
Pınar Karabulut: That’s an interesting psychological motif: The parents shape their children, and then it's our turn to do the same. This means that you end up back in similar relationships of dependency. Circumstances repeat throughout generations. For Eddy this means that the mother becomes the lover, the spouse is the mother. This also applies to Eddy’s encounters with men: He is always trying to murder the other image of masculinity, that of the father of course, from the chief of police to the café manager – it’s always the same pattern of father and son.
Dorothea Hartmann: The libretto contains a mixture of various levels of speech, with Cockney English providing a raw, harsh tone. This sociolect has to be truly learned, its code and figures of speech must be intimately familiar to the speaker, otherwise it’s unintelligible. The pronunciation is also challenging. What does this mean for the singers?
Yi-Chen Lin: We were fortunate in that the mother of our director of studies speaks Cockney. So we had very authentic coaching for the four singers, who are native US English speakers. Taking such a precise approach to the language is a great challenge. Librettos are usually just skimmed over, but here you have to slave over every syllable – you have to understand them and pronounce them correctly. Berkoff and Turnage characterise the characters and situations very precisely through the music. When Eddy meets his future wife, he becomes a lot more selective in his choice of words. He, too, performs with language.
Dorothea Hartmann: The performance is being held on the Parkdeck of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, a sort of run-down, unknown spot behind the facade of the opera house. It seems to be perfectly suited for a story from London’s East End. Yet at the same time, the set design plays with entirely different elements as well.
Pınar Karabulut: We counter realism with mythology, but keep it in a two-dimensional, comic-like cosmos. The clouds are a print, the curtain for the mythology is fully printed on fabric, and everything is just an image. It has to be filled in by Eddy, who at first makes a decision: He wants to get away. He wants to see the world. Yet he doesn’t board the train and leave London. It’s similar to the set design: It tries to depict Olympus, but it’s merely a colourful, two-dimensional cardboard world that Eddy has to work hard on. “Fate makes us play the roles we’re cast”: This sentence also relates to the stage area. If we were to film a realistic movie about Eddy’s story, we would maybe start with his adolescence, show all the poverty he grew up in while Eddy is there putting up posters. Everything is colourful in the teenage boy’s room. He wants to get out. The costumes and set designs are also adding more colour to the Parkdeck. Eddy tries to build up a mythology, and he fails in this endeavour. But through failing he learns that he has options. To get to this point, however, he has to go on a ten-year journey.