Further Dimension
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Further Dimension

This month, composer Thomas Adès conducts the Met premiere of his new opera, The Exterminating Angel.
By William R. Braun
Photographs by Ball & Albanese

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Photograph by Ball & Albanese
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Although Adès's adaptation of The Exterminating Angel has two hours of formidable music, it is nonetheless, like the film, often quite funny.
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A scene from Covent Garden’s presentation of the Tom Cairns staging of The Exterminating Angel, which arrives at the Met on October 26
© Clive Barda/ROH
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Photograph by Ball & Albanese

"AS AN OPERA COMPOSER, I'M AN ODD ONE," SAYS THOMAS ADÈS, “because opera is not my first love in music. That would probably be piano music or chamber music.” But Adès, in his default mode of self-effacement to the point of comedy, is brushing aside the real point. He is a composer with a catalogue as deep and rewarding as any before the public today. But he is also a top-drawer pianist who gave a solo recital at Carnegie Hall in 2010 and has often been Ian Bostridge’s partner for performances of Schubert’s Winterreise. And his career as a conductor will soon include a traversal of the cycle of Beethoven symphonies, begun last May with the Britten Sinfonia. His most recent opera, The Exterminating Angel, comes to the Met this month after performances in Salzburg and London. It is the second Adès opera produced by the Met. As with The Tempest in 2012, Adès will conduct.

The original Buñuel film on which the opera is based is a classic of Surrealism, which already makes it an unusual choice for operatic treatment, and the script makes for an extraordinary opera in another way: there are fifteen principal roles in the movie. An aristocratic couple gives a dinner party after a performance of Lucia di Lammermoor. There are twelve guests (in the opera, cut down), and after dinner everyone, including the butler, finds himself for inexplicable reasons unable to leave the room. Adès, it turns out, comes by his love of Surrealism as a birthright. “My mother is an art historian and—I suppose I can come out and say it—the expert on Dalí and photo-montage Surrealism in general. She did the biggest exhibition on Dalí there’s ever been, in Venice. She knew him. I used to watch Buñuel films when I was thirteen, fourteen, because of my mother. Surrealism is something that was literally in the house all the time, in a huge way. It was the sort of art that I knew best, the whole world of that—Magritte, Max Ernst. So Buñuel, naturally, that sort of fantasy, played very dry, always appealed to me. It was an odd taste for a fourteen-year-old.”

ALTHOUGH THE OPERA has two hours of formidable music, it is nonetheless, like the film, often quite funny. Humor may well be the most difficult quality of art to discuss, but Adès is insightful. “As I was writing, I kept thinking there’s a fundamental fact about this that makes actually every line, after a certain point, funny, which is that there’s no reason why anyone would say anything other than ‘I’ve been here for two days, and I should be going home.’ There’s nothing else to be said. And they talk about anything else. There’s nothing stopping them leaving, nothing—that is what’s stopping them leaving, in a way. So every line they say, or they start hacking into the walls for water, it’s all completely unnecessary. That’s the elephant in the room, and if you look at it from that point of view, almost every line has a comic element.” The libretto, by Tom Cairns in collaboration with the composer, is in fact an important piece of work in its own right. Like Martin McDonagh’s play The Lieutenant of Inishmore, or Michel Houellebecq’s novel Submission, it asks what has recently become the fundamental question of our time: if a situation worsens, step by step, and you refuse to acknowledge that anything is wrong, at what point is there no turning back?

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A scene from Covent Garden’s presentation of the Tom Cairns staging of The Exterminating Angel, which arrives at the Met on October 26
© Clive Barda/ROH

THE LIBRETTO  is so succinct and fulfilling that it seems that the work of adapting the film script might have been quick and easy. Adès smiles wryly at the idea. “The libretto was started, at the latest, in 2009, and it went through, I counted, at least six complete drafts. Tom Cairns and I would sit together for months on end, day to day, long before a note of music was written.” But the libretto is not a mere condensation of the script; there are elements not in the movie. 

“The film, of course, is quite dry, quite understated—that’s part of its brilliance,” says Adès. “But there was a point when I needed to find an equivalent for the fantastical moments in the film, where I didn’t have any words, and I needed a few more words to make a poetic moment. I found I wanted to have a further dimension. Sometimes it needed this element. And it ended up being a Jewish element that comes through. I have two Jewish texts. The Ladino one is just a folk song, and I make variations on the tune. Then there’s the song that Leticia sings at the end.” 

Leticia is the opera singer whose performance of Lucia is the occasion for the dinner party, and in the work of Cairns and Adès she becomes the means of resolution for the dramatic situation. Of her solo, Adès says, “I’ve changed the words. She sings ‘my home’—it was originally ‘Zion.’ It was written in Spain in the 1100s. It’s about a yearning for Jerusalem, and there are so many images in it that are close to Buñuel—the scattered sheep, the eagles’ wings, a very powerful expression of yearning for home. I just wanted her to have that mystical vision, almost of speaking in tongues.”

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Photograph by Ball & Albanese

THE SOLO IS also a sly demonstration of the power of opera (more description would spoil the surprise), and it is a primary demonstration of the difficulties in singing Adès’s music. Leticia is perhaps the highest-lying sustained role in the soprano repertory, eclipsing the previous record-holder—Ariel in Adès’s Tempest. Audrey Luna, who sang Leticia at the premiere and will also sing it at the Met, has already sung Ariel there. “Audrey and I really had to work on how to pace the thing,” says Adès, because the big solo is at the end of the opera. “It’s a considerably shorter role, laid end to end, than Ariel. But there is something about the pacing—it took me a while to understand, and Audrey was explaining, and I think I did find this out—that makes it more demanding, because it climbs and climbs. Ariel, of course, comes down—it’s built into the role. But to get this one, and get the orchestration to where it wanted to be, took a while. I had the same thing with The Tempest. The whole final scene was going to be much faster until we got into rehearsals and realized it had to be a slow dissolve. I suppose you think of it as a dance of a certain kind, and then you understand that in practice it could go a very different direction. I love that, where suddenly everybody says, ‘Do it like this.’ Everybody could just see a different possibility in something.

“These great singers we have—I’m so lucky—are hugely experienced,” Adès continues. “They’ll come up with the most surprising versions, often without asking me or anything, and they’ll be absolutely right, go absolutely to the heart of the character.” Anne Sofie von Otter sang Leonora, a hypochondriac with a serious fixation on her doctor, in Salzburg and London. (Alice Coote takes the role at the Met.) Adès used terms normally known only to string players in her vocal lines, such as “sul IV” (on the G string of the violin) or “sul ponticello” (bowed at the bridge). “She never had to ask, she absolutely understood. My favorite moment was a note that’s so low she hadn’t even considered it or looked at what it was. She said, ‘What is that note?’—it was the C-sharp below middle C—and she sort of uncoiled and threw back her head, and out came this sound that you could hear right at the back row of the theater.” John Tomlinson plays the doctor. “When he says—it’s rather a tragic moment—‘I’ll prepare a cleaning timetable,’ because he’s the man who’s trying to keep everything together, John asked, ‘Is this supposed to be funny, this line?’ And I said, ‘I’ve no idea. I think probably not.’ It’s with the Wagner tubas, it’s the whole collapse of his world at this moment. And John will articulate it in such a way that he brings out all of the pathos of the character at that moment. It was like something from Wotan’s farewell.”

There’s a more recognizable bit of Wagner as the elderly guest Señor Russell dies at the end of Act II while the orchestra offers a perverted, crippled version of Siegfried’s funeral march. But Adès calls the moment “a bit of a red herring. It’s really like a hieroglyph on the wall of this imaginary maze or this underground complex. If somebody perceives it, they might think, ‘Oh, he’s just died,’ and that would be a way of knowing that. It’s not the point.” But Wagner is more to the fore when Adès gives a hint of his compositional process. In an opera with characters who are trapped, a story with the circularity and seemingly endless paths of an Escher drawing, Adès uses a distinctive musical device. There’s a chord of three or four notes where one note at a time, but only one, continually slides downward. “I found this pattern, this sequence. I’d written it down and expanded it, and it sat pinned to the wall for a long time. Then I got to this moment in the opera where they are effectively just going around and around in a spiral, and I saw that this was the place it lent itself.” 

Adès speaks more and more quickly about the excitement of the discovery. “If these little cells reveal themselves at some point as having a reality in the piece, suddenly look useful, I often find that, indeed, rather like a real seed, they unfold in all sorts of other possible ways. And that one—when you get to Leonora’s music about the virgin of Lourdes, I realized that it starts to unfold. It’s related to a theme in the Ring, and I used Wagner’s rule that you square it and cube it and you end up with all sorts of other proliferations. Those things can happen. And if they take root, then I can’t get rid of them!” 

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A scene from Covent Garden’s presentation of the Tom Cairns staging of The Exterminating Angel, which arrives at the Met on October 26
© Clive Barda/ROH

ADÈS MUSIC  often makes its most powerful points with understatement, and he often talks about “mazes and tunnels and trapdoors” and “endless sequences” in his music. His endings tend to encapsulate all that went before. Thus it was reassuring, and a little amusing, that a long conversation with him had a similar structure. He dropped his voice for the most emotionally resonant observations. Asked if his mother liked The Exterminating Angel, he makes four feints (“Of course, it’s different from the film”) before bashfully, almost inaudibly, admitting, “She was very pleased with it.” Of his first understanding, as a boy, of what opera really is—“It’s a universe that’s being created, it’s not just a story, and you just read the story and you put music in the background”—he elaborates, in the understatement of twenty-first-century opera, “I suppose that idea stayed with me.” 

Then it’s time to go back to the apartment where he is staying, a few floors up from where our interview took place. Standing in front of the elevator bank he inquired, a bit hopefully, “I’m going down, then?” spacer 

William R. Braun is a pianist and writer. 

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