La Monnaie / De Munt LA MONNAIE / DE MUNT

Benoît Mernier

Finishing the score of 'On purge bébé !'

Interviewed by Katrine Simonart
Reading time
7 min.

When Philippe Boesmans suddenly fell ill, he asked me to finish composing his opera. When I went to see him in the hospital to talk to him about it, I would never have imagined that just hours later, he would be gone.

I had already worked with Philippe in a completely different context on his opera Au monde. He had to stop for a while due to health problems and was running behind schedule. We were one month from the start of rehearsals and he had two scenes left to write, the last two, each around five minutes long. He asked for my help, but the circumstances were completely different. He enjoyed our collaboration - it was like a game we were playing together. I composed scene 19 and, at the same time, he composed scene 20, the final scene. We had to work very fast and I didn’t have the time to study the opera, but I could see what direction I needed to go in because further I got, the more he advanced too. The situation was a bit like in the studios of great artists, where they had their students work on their own pieces. In the end, the work was finished in time.

“merde” (shit)...
It’s not often that you have to put that to music!

This was a completely different scenario. He passed away in April and I had a lot of work ongoing at that time. I started actually writing at the end of June, but I took advantage of the intervening time to study the score carefully.In the case of On purge Bébé !, the biggest difficulty for me was striking the right balance between one extreme, which would be trying to do a kind of pastiche - a kind of faux Boesmans - and the other extreme of making my own music. I had to make decisions on a number of factors to try to make sure I respected the tone and remained faithful to the project, the style, the orchestration and the prosody.

So that’s what I thought about for a number of weeks. When I started the writing properly speaking, I was constantly asking myself if it was true to his dramaturgical and musical intentions. This attempt to achieve a kind of stylistic loyalty wasn’t simple. Richard Brunel, the librettist and director of the piece, and Sylvain Cambreling, who has many years’ worth of knowledge of Philippe’s work, provided valuable help in this regard. Sylvain, who had been reading this opera throughout its composition, brought my attention to matters of prosody that were so important for good understanding of the text. Bernard Foccroulle also gave me much encouragement, as writing the end of an opera is always a crucial stage, and even more so in a situation like this.

I had the libretto and the score and I was able to obtain some of the manuscripts and a few drafts. The first thing I did was to try to decipher the few measures that there was no neat copy of. That was how Philippe worked: he wrote a rough draft in pencil first, illegible to anyone but him, then he wrote it out again in pencil a bit more clearly, he sent his score to the copyist, almost one page at a time, and the copyist did the engraving. Then, the neat copy came back and he proofread it.

Philippe Boesmans making notes on the score of 'On purge bébé'
Philippe Boesmans making notes on the score of 'On purge bébé' © Simon Van Rompay

On a very practical level, the big difference between Philippe and myself is that he never used a computer; he always worked in pencil. I do a draft in pencil and then write it up on the computer bit by bit. So I engraved the music directly on the electronic copies of the score, following on from what he had written. Later, the copyist would do all the reduction work to produce the piano-vocal score, the orchestral parts, etc., but for now the full orchestral score was in my hands, and I was correcting the 300 pages Philippe had written and had engraved. In terms of pages, I must have written about 10% of the opera. I proofread it all, from the start of his composition, page by page. There were some errors because he simply hadn’t had the time to check it all. But it has to be said that Philippe’s work is extremely precise. He knew exactly what he wanted to hear. Another part of my work was to make sure I understood and rendered as faithfully as possible this reality in the corrections I made.

The Structure

It’s an opera where everything happens in one continuous sequence and you don’t notice where one scene ends and another begins. There are ten scenes in total, determined by when the characters enter and exit the stage. Philippe had stopped in the middle of the ninth scene, on a demisemiquaver... I had to decide how to pick it up again, taking inspiration to a certain extent from his drafts. Fortunately, the whole libretto was ready - Philippe and Richard had already discussed the ending.

You could almost say that this opera was his Falstaff, because it’s a very funny opera with extraordinary verve and virtuosity. It will be short; the piece will last 1 hour 30 and it moves at an incredible pace; the tempo is extremely fast, mirroring the conversation, which is a real quick-fire back-and-forth. We’re talking a real piece of theatre here.

I read the play first, then I read the libretto. The text remains what Feydeau wrote, with some parts cut and rearranged. In doing this, Philippe and Richard reinforced the comic side. It should be mentioned though that when he wrote the play, Feydeau was separated from his wife and living in a hotel; he wrote three plays that were really him getting back at her. But in the libretto, Philippe and Richard have reduced the misogynistic aspect that can appear in the piece.

At times, the characters of On purge bébé ! may seem like caricatures. But it’s the situations they find themselves in, more than anything else, that are ridiculous. Philippe said that he liked all characters, even the most hateful ones. This meant he was able to bring them closer to us. He also said he laughed a lot while composing this opera. And I laughed a huge amount as well when reading the libretto, and then again when composing. Think of trying to compose Follavoine’s exclamation of “Nom de Dieu!” (Goddamn it!) when he is slapped by Truchet. And then there was one of the last words in the piece: “merde” (shit)... It’s not often that you have to put that to music! (laughs)

Style and Quotations

The score is very homogeneous. It happens all in one go, like a mad dash. We’re swept into a household scene that just keeps going. There are some great quotations as well. The very start of the opera is inspired by the main theme of The Hebrides by Mendelssohn, since Feydeau’s play begins with a scene where Follavoine, at bébé's request, looks up in the dictionary where the Hebrides are but, due to the phonetic liaison 'îles (Z) Hébrides', he searches (in vain) under the letter Z...

This Mendelssohn motif comes up again at the end of the piece - something that isn’t in the Feydeau - because Philippe had the idea that it should be bébé who has the last word, after plunging his whole family into chaos - his father is leaving, his mother doesn’t know what is going on anymore. He simply says: “Mum, Dad, where are the Hebrides?” And I bring back the Mendelssohn theme. And the piece ends there; the motif goes round and round more and more wildly.

There’s also a reference Philippe wrote in, really sarcastic and really funny, which everyone will recognise because it’s so clear: when Follavoine's reveals his unbreakable (yet very breakable) chamberpot, we hear the Grail leitmotif from Wagner’s Parsifal. Here, the music itself makes the situation even more ridiculous and reinforces its comic side.

Phiphi’s Laugh

It wasn’t easy to finish Philippe’s opera. I often felt alone with the questions I was constantly asking myself. In this task he entrusted to me, there was this whole issue of presence and absence... How could I own my presence in this opera while at the same time aiming for faithfulness, while he was now absent? It was, and remains, very hard emotionally because Philippe, as well as having been a teacher to me, was a friend who I loved dearly. As a way to pay tribute to him, at the very end of the opera, I created a sort of musical metaphor for Philippe’s laugh...