A Conversation with Manos Tsangaris

The work is inextricably linked with the premises of its performance: to Manos Tsangaris, the space and conditions in which the audience perceives the work are essential elements included in his composition process. This is also reflected in his new musical theatre work, ›Pygmalia – A musical theatre work with changing audience perspectives for two voices and double-chorus ensemble‹, which was commissioned by the Alte Oper and will be given its world premiere by Ensemble Modern at the Mozart Saal of the Alte Oper Frankfurt on February 3, 2022. Raoul Mörchen spoke to Manos Tsangaris about the new work, for which the audience takes its seats on either side of the stage, then changes sides, gaining a new experience of the music, staging and video projections the second time around.

Raoul Mörchen: In the title of your new work, we encounter a person familiar so far as a man. Who is Pygmalia?

Manos Tsangaris: Pygmalia is the feminine form of Pygmalion, the mythical sculptor of Greek antiquity. A modern-day equivalent, Pygmalia is not only a sculptor, but also a video artist. Above all, she is sick and tired of men, and therefore creates her own. It is a process of projection: a figure is brought to life.

RM: The first surprise for the audience, however, comes before it even meets Pygmalia, for you divide the audience and seat each half of it on opposite sides of the central stage.

MT: On stage, the ensemble is also split in two; each half facing one of the two audience halves. This symmetry, this mirroring is also present in the content of the piece. In principle, I think of musical theatre as a forum for trying out models of reality and human existence. Here, individual viewers are enabled to experience different perspectives. And this ability to see different perspectives and synthesize events in their own way relates to real life. I have long been interested in the idea that changing viewpoints, intersubjectivity, the space between events can become the subject of musical theatre – instead of the pseudo-objectified situation of the classic picture stage, where listener reception cannot really unfold its potential.
RM: Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film ›Rashomon‹ is a famous example for this idea of viewing a story from different perspectives, and Ridley Scott does the same in his current film ›The Last Duel‹. This touches upon the question of truth.

MT: To me, it is enough to start by finding out how reality is generated. After all, we ourselves generate it. When we are born, we learn that the world is not upside down, as the retina makes us see it at first, and that our mother’s head does not grow when she leans down to us in our pram and shrinks when she moves away from us. We learn these facts by recognizing contexts. That is a creative process. And this contextualization is, to me, the mark of musical theatre in general. Yet I am grateful for the cross-reference to film, for my work feeds strongly on my own and our collective experience as viewers. The camera’s change of perspective, the cuts and the principle of montage – in my case, these all happen within the space, so to speak. Still, there is one big difference: we are not seated in front of a 2D wall, nor do we wear VR headsets, but we are present as physical beings in a real space, which enables a far greater range of perceptive references.

RM: A story of a person who creates other persons is reminiscent of the Golem myth, of Frankenstein or dark fantasies of scientists specializing in AI.

MT: The story here is quite different. Its source is Ovid’s ›Metamorphoses‹. First of all, we have a prequel: in the tenth book, Ovid recounts the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice. Orpheus wants to save her from Hades, turns around and loses her a second time. Thereafter, Orpheus becomes an artist, a poet and singer who can make the proverbial stones weep and trees dance. However, he also becomes a despiser of women. And then Ovid tells the story of Pygmalion, who can’t make head nor tail of women and therefore creates his own, ideal woman. In an earlier work, ›Abstract Pieces‹ of 2018, I turned the whole thing around: there Orpheus manages to liberate Eurydice from the underworld, and they live together as a couple. However, where love is expected to stand the test of time, it fails. Only the things that are nice and far away, that we can project, can live up to ideal standards. In ›Abstract Pieces‹, Eurydice leaves Orpheus. I give her a voice and the power to make decisions. That is why I have now also turned Pygmalia into a woman. She creates her ideal man using modern imaging and video technology. Just as millions of people do on matchmaking websites or on Tinder. Thus, the question is: how is reality generated? And how far do we keep walking into the traps our illusions set for us?

RM: Is that why we now observe the story of Pygmalia twice in a row, from two different points of view?

MT: We are not just looking at the stage; the audiences are also looking at each other. After a run-through, they change sides. During the second run-through, what was the introduction the first time now becomes a continuation. And I can see another person sitting where I just sat. This raises questions: what did I just experience, what am I experiencing now, what does my memory produce from a changed perspective? How does memory enrich itself, and how does that influence my perception? And what do foreground and background mean? For what just took place in front of something else is now behind it, and vice versa.

RM: The complexity of references resulting from that fact implies that the work is highly organized within itself. Examination of the score, however, reveals that you give the performers lots of freedom, and that the work consists of many individual pieces which can be combined freely.

MT: That is correct. However, the overall management of the piece, its diction, its direction are very accurately composed. There are certain junctions where everything comes together, again and again. In between, there are many situations in which musicians interact with one another directly, even if they are using very concretely defined material which is offered to them, like a pool of material to draw upon. This is about freedom, vividness, but also responsibility. There is also a very practical consideration behind it. Light plays a decisive role in the piece, and that is why it is impossible to read music everywhere. That is why it is advisable to work with modules and elements which are freely available, in one way or another. Incidentally, the audience sees clearly how the piece unfolds, and its progress is commented upon by the performers in announcements and instructions. There are no sets concealing the piece’s machinery. The space, the light and the technical equipment are openly visible, it’s like looking directly into the inner life of ›Pygmalia‹. In a way, you simultaneously see the piece and its making-of.

RM: In classical musical theatre and in opera, there are people playing instruments and sitting concealed in a pit, and the people we see on stage sing and act. In your case, and not only in this work, this separation does not exist.

MT: All musicians are performers. As specialists in one specific instrument, they also execute additional actions within the space, but these are also conceived instrumentally. The video projections onto their own bodies, and the various mobile light sources, all these technical means are ultimately used in a musical manner, and they relate to the human body and a certain expressive possibility. Everything is music, and musical.

RM: Thank you very much for this conversation.