World Premiere ›A Wintery Spring‹ – Dramatic Lamento in Three Scenes

A Conversation with Saed Haddad and Corinna Tetzel

Saed Haddad‘s (*1972) dramatic lament ›A Wintery Spring‹ deals with current political and social structures and attitudes in the Middle East – without attempting to portray a concrete story about the Arab Spring, but rather searching for paths which might unite people and traditions. The lament is based on aphorisms by the Lebanese writer Khalil Gibran (1883–1931), who emigrated with his mother and siblings to the USA in 1895. Gibran’s central motifs are life and death, and love as their uniting element. ›A Wintery Spring‹, a co-production of Ensemble Modern and the Frankfurt Opera, will have its world premiere at the Bockenheimer Depot on February 22, 2018. The dramatic lamento is combined with the first staged performance of the baroque cantata ›Il serpente di bronzo‹ (The Bronze Serpent) by Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679–1745), in which God punishes the doubts of the people of Israel with a plague of snakes, making the people realize the errors of their ways. The double bill features Ensemble Modern under the baton of Franck Ollu. Christian Fausch, Artistic and General Manager of Ensemble Modern, spoke to the composer Saed Haddad and the director Corinna Tetzel.

Ensemble Modern: ›A Wintery Spring‹ is based on texts by Khalil Gibran. What fascinates you about them, Saed?
Saed Haddad: I have read a lot of Gibran’s works. He predicted an »Arab Spring« about 100 years ago – which makes his texts highly topical. I also feel a strong connection with Gibran, as his roots are similar to mine: he is Christian and Arab, and he emigrated, yet maintained an emotional tie to the Middle East. Therefore, I found it easy to arrange the three texts in a libretto.

EM: Combined, the texts do not form a concrete tale. You do not call your work an opera or a work of musical theatre, but a dramatic lamento. Was this decision determined by the texts you used? It is rather unusual to choose this abstract form for one’s first musical theatre work.
SH: I was born in Jordan and lived there for 16 years; since 2002 I have lived in Germany. However, part of me remained in the Middle East – the catastrophes there move me. I think that as an artist, as a composer, I have the responsibility to deal with events in the Arab world. I chose the form of the lament to express my connection with the Arab world. However, the specific form was also important to me: the lament lasts 50 minutes all in all, but the singers and the pre-recorded chorus are only heard in 18 of those minutes. I tried to grapple creatively with the form of opera. Many opera tales develop from the ever-same conflict: the tenor loves the soprano, and the bass-baritone objects. In the end, the couple still finds each other. Here, it is different.

EM: How do you go about staging a piece that is so strongly focused on the text, yet includes the protagonists on stage relatively little in the musical action? corinna tetzel: Approaching a piece via the text is the normal process for me, no matter whether they are narrative or dramatic texts. The text is the point of departure. It is reflected by the music, and the specific relationship between text and music may offer an idea for the implementation on stage. ›A Wintery Spring‹ has no dramatic action, but there is a dramatic figure: the Writer. The last part, ›Dead are my people‹, reveals that the figures who have appeared thus far, with their vision of a vital Arab nation on the one hand and their bitterness in the face of continuous struggles and stagnation on the other, are fantasies of the »Poet«. In this light, the epic structure of the texts goes back to a very personal and therefore very emotional experience – that of the writer living in exile. »What can an exiled son do for his starving people?« This process is very dramatic and also bridges purely musical sections, where there are no sung passages.

EM: So it is a kind of narrative situation after all?
CT: Yes, but only in retrospect. First of all, the audience is completely free in his reception, which is very important to me.

EM: Saed, you first started exploring the theme of this work in 2014. Since then, much has changed, and the sense of departure felt throughout the Arab world has given way to disenchantment. Has your view of the Arab Spring changed?
SH: I knew from the beginning that this struggle for freedom and dignity would have a high price. Unlike the European one, the cultural identity of the Arab world is not based on the individual, but on a culture of tribes. That is a consequence of the geographical location of the Arab countries: the desert is everywhere, making it impossible for the individual to live alone. This tribal tradition has lasted for almost 5,000 years, and that is why democracy does not work in these societies. The current situation in these countries is a catastrophe, but at least the Arab Spring has paved the way for free expressions of opinion outside the Arab world. After leaving the Arab region, many Arabs participate in discussions on the internet, e.g. via YouTube or social media, about religious freedom and their rights. Such discourse is still only possible abroad without being followed by the secret services and police of the authoritarian systems. However, perhaps it is a process; after the French Revolution it also took more than 100 years to establish what we know as Europe today.

EM: That sounds like a positive development. Are things not as hopeless, then, as one might think after reading our newspapers here?
SH: I am no prophet; I try to be a realist. I have a vision of what the Arab world might look like if the individual took the place of the tribe. The Arab education system has many problems; it is full of one-sided, distorted information. They try to maintain a national Arab tribe, and the subcultures (e.g. Tamazight or the Aramaic and Coptic culture) are ignored. However, it is becoming increasingly possible to find information outside of the school system, and therefore many people are rereading their history. Tat is part of the revolution: finding one’s own roots.
CT: And that is exactly the theme of the Writer. He allows us to experience the outbreak and the downfall of the »Revolution« physically: in the beginning, he formulates the utopia of a self-confident Arab people that trusts in its own strength, without fears, without violence. However, the creative process finally plunges him into an existential crisis: by coming to terms with the history of the Arab people, he regains the Arab identity he had lost during his exile – but at the same time, he is increasingly seized by the very fears he decries. Ultimately, he loses his freedom of thought as a writer and his visionary power. The »revolution« breaks down. He sinks into lethargy.
SH: Gibran had no vision of the Arab Spring in our current sense. He wanted a nation for Arabs whose country would not be occupied by the Turks. He considered everyone – regardless of nationality – his brother. It is a very positive concept, similar to that of the French Revolution: »All men shall be brothers.« Gibran was full of hope; but unfortunately reality looks different.
CT: Gibran’s texts are wonderful. They contain a philosophy of life which is compellingly simple and therefore also compellingly effective. It is about respecting and valuing life, about opening one’s eyes and questioning things, for the obscure clouds our gaze and leads us to wrong assumptions. Gibran places his full faith in the power of the creation, like the Indian mystics. Therefore, images of nature, similes with natural phenomena make up a large part of his poetry. Ultimately, he is always admonishing us to check our insights through action, to translate them into experience: that is what makes this philosophy so concrete to me.

EM: The texts were originally written in English, but you translated several passages into Arabic yourself. What is the background of this playing with two languages?
SH: There were several reasons. The second scene ›My Countrymen‹ is originally in Arabic anyway. I also felt it appropriate to write a lament about the Arab countries at least partially in Arabic. In addition, I have heard several works by European composers in Arabic, and they did not sound good. Even for me as a native speaker, it was a great challenge to make the Arabic language with all its nuances merge with the musical structure. The rhythm of Arabic controls the entire music, especially the voice-leading.

EM: Apart from the solo singers, there is also a pre-recorded chorus. What is the idea behind that?
SH: To me, it has a mystical element. The chorus is present – yet it is not present at the same time. First, it sings only fragments, then there is a long break and the listener forgets the chorus. Then it returns, and it may not be a surprise, but – in the words of Marcel Proust: »True remembrance comes from the abyss of oblivion«. ct: As a subject, this »absence« of the »present« is, of course, fascinating. Also for the Poet, who constructs references to his homeland, who bears the voices of his countrymen within him, but cannot hear them, since he is not in their presence. What exactly are these voices like? What does this group mean in relation to the individual? How does the individual behave in the absence of the group?

EM: Can you tell us anything about Stephanie Rauch’s stage sets?
CT: We have developed very concentrated stage sets, leaving space for the figures and the text. It is important to us to allow Gibran’s poetry to come across forcefully. That is why we have foregone the traditional hanging of screens for subtitles, instead transporting the texts directly onto the stage. Thus, the audience can take in all the elements – language, figures, music – as a whole. The purely musical passages allow the words to reverberate for a long time.

EM: ›A Wintery Spring‹ will be performed on a double bill, together with Jan Dismas Zelenka’s ›Il serpente di bronzo‹. Corinna, this suggestion – which I love – was yours. How did you hit upon the idea of a baroque composition, of all things? ct: Originally, my idea was to find a piece that resembles Saed’s musical idiom – perhaps an Impressionist, French work. Soon, however, I had the feeling that his composition, with its melismatic, interwoven structure, would be better served by a contrast – and thus I came to the baroque. In Zelenka’s ›Il serpente di bronzo‹, the flowing, horizontal nature of Saed’s music is juxtaposed with a vertical kind of music, with the figured bass as its point of departure. Furthermore, the oratorio is not a genuinely dramatic genre, but has a contemplative character. This presented an interesting structural analogy to ›A Wintery Spring‹ – apart from the fact that the term »lamento« or »lament« was coined largely during the baroque era. In content, there are also connecting elements, for example the motif of the desert: it is a location and a metaphor at the same time.

EM: Another connection is forged by the fact that Ensemble Modern – a New Music ensemble – consciously plays Zelenka’s music on modern instruments. What do you think about the combination of the two works, Saed?
SH: You need a contrast, and I like the thematic similarities very much. I even tried to incorporate a »lamento bass«. Instead of the falling tetrachords, the last scene ›Dead are my people‹ features an ostinato trichord (D – F-sharp – F) in the cello – that is another point of reference ... (smiles.)
CT: I consider Zelenka’s piece a »formal lament«, something strict and in accordance with the system; Saed’s composition, on the other hand, is a living lament about individual emotion and constant exploration, with the goal of discovering and learning new things. »Knowledge is a light, enriching the warmth of life, and all may partake who seek it out«, as Gibran writes.