From Libretto #7 (2023)
Eight questions for ... Christian Spuck
Christian Spuck, choreographer and imminent Artistic Director of the Staatsballett, has choir and dancers interacting on stage in his production of MESSA DA REQIUEM
Why would audiences want to watch a requiem in Spring, a season that’s associated with renewal?
Because it’s consoling. And that’s not so much down to the Latin liturgy with its menacing God selecting who’s going to heaven and who’s going to hell, but thanks to the composition. It’s amazing, the humane way in which Verdi portrays what goes on inside us when we come face to face with our own mortality. He shows how we need a sense of finiteness if we’re going to appreciate the beauty of life. It’s not about redemption in an afterlife but about the here and now and finding solace.
What distinctions can be made between solace and redemption?
Redemption either happens or it doesn’t, whereas you have to work at obtaining solace. You have to use the one and a half hours of the requiem to access that comforted state. You’ve got to embrace the pain and emerge on the other side of it – only then will you have your consolation.
What happens when dancers interact with a choir on stage?
I’ll tell you something: when the choir begins to sing in the first rehearsal, the dancers all start welling up because of the sheer joy of being in immediate proximity to people who are creating such an amazing atmosphere with their vocal chords. And it’s an emotion that is felt by the dancers – and by me – over and over again. The way it inspires them is a joy to behold. The singers tend to linger after their session and watch the dancers, and the dancers sit on the floor and listen while the choir is working. I get inspired by this sharing of the artistic process.
Is it you, as choreographer, removing the religious element from the requiem? Or was it Verdi?
There’s not much religiosity in Verdi’s music, and he himself wasn’t a particularly fervent Catholic. That said, the text stems from the original liturgy. Unlike other requiems, such as Mozart’s famous work, the MESSA was conceived as a work to be performed not in a church setting for liturgical purposes but in a concert hall as a piece for an audience rather than a congregation – and for that reason is often referred to ironically as Verdi’s best opera. I’ve tried to avoid any hint of religiosity. The mortality that we have to confront and which Verdi portrays is a fact. No religion necessary.
What do you derive from this music personally?
I’m really affected by it. I was 16 years old when I heard it for the first time, on the radio, at night, awesome. I recorded it onto cassette and played it endlessly. It was years before I realised it was Verdi’s Requiem, a famous recording of Toscanini. I never planned to make a ballet out of it; that came about by chance: I was talking a few years ago to a dramaturg about how I adored that requiem and an hour later the artistic director came into my office: “Christian, a little bird tells me you’d like to stage Verdi’s Requiem. Let’s do it!” So that was it. That was when the headaches began.
So, what were the challenges?
I spent about a year wondering how I was going to present the masterpiece. The Verdi Requiem is so drop-dead brilliant that it makes any visual rendition all but superfluous. What was I going to pitch up with? The conductor, Fabio Luisi, was a big help. We agreed that the staged work had to grow out of the music. We came up with the idea of staging sixteen large-scale abstract tableaux, which are designed to enhance the auditory experience and help audiences plumb the depths of the music.
How does one go about choreographing a choir?
Like any group of people, basically, except that I’m coming up with a choreography that non-dancers can deliver, one that doesn’t require a grounding in ballet. Choristers are consummate professionals in the matter of presenting material on stage. They have this insatiable thirst to bring off a great choreography – maybe because they’ve been so inspired by the dancers.
What’s your favourite moment in the requiem?
I like the whole of the “Lacrimosa”. It totally captures the pain of the “Dies Irae”, the Day of Wrath, which describes the torments of Hell. The “Lacrimosa” is when the audience tears up and they get to grieve and weep. The music kind of envelopes us in its arms, letting us forget our rage and overcome our pain. It comforts us. How do you come up with music like that? It’s a stroke of genius.