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We are launching the new season of La Monnaie with a striking slogan about the apparent inevitability of fate. Is it legitimate to suggest that the paths of our lives are predetermined? Are we as human beings governed by invisible forces? What powers set the course of our lives?
These are reflections we wish to highlight in the 2023-24 season and on which we will continue to ponder in 2024-25. A direct thematic line to the epic production of Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle that will span the next two years incites us to shatter the framework of the traditional season and look at the bigger picture.
At the same time, with There will be fate we wish to provoke a counter-reaction. For are we as human beings really doomed to be the playthings of fate? Can we not rise against this predetermination and write our own story? Do we as individuals have the potential to react against our destiny? In that sense, I also interpret our seasonal motto as a plea for possibilism. Like yin and yang, these two ideas – ‘divine’ fate and ‘human’ free will – balance each other out in no more than four words: There will be fate.
This dual idea runs like a guiding thread through our programme. We are among the first houses of culture to integrate Artificial Intelligence (AI) software into the design of our brochure and our season presentation. This type of software can generate text or create images on its own, based on a human request. Part of our season’s iconography has been produced by such a tool and in this introduction, I myself react to scribblings by ChatGPT (Generative Pre-trained Transformer). It will introduce itself:
‘I am an AI language model whose primary function is to assist users by generating human-like text based on the prompts given to me. I am trained on a large dataset of text from the internet and other sources, so I have a broad knowledge base that I can draw upon to generate responses to users’ queries.’
This type of software application raises questions. For who is doing the thinking in this process? Who is being creative? Who imagines and who determines? It is at once fascinating and terrifying to realize how we are being driven to think a certain way. Notwithstanding the endless possibilities offered by this system, it must push us to reflect on the intrusive character of this technology. These AI-related questions are a near-perfect translation of our philosophy this season.
There will be fate thus becomes an adage that also incites us to think about how a house of creation like La Monnaie works. For, as a theatre, it remains our duty to interpret that motto creatively. We hope to prove that we have in no way given up on that mission with a new production of Der Ring des Nibelungen, spread over two seasons.
‘The Ring is a cycle of four epic music dramas by the German composer Richard Wagner. It is based on Norse mythology and the German epic poem Nibelungenlied. The four operas that make up the cycle are Das Rheingold (The Rhine Gold), Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods). The operas tell the story of the struggle for a magic ring that confers upon its owner immense power and wealth, and the tragic consequences of the quest for the ring.’
This rather superficial description conceals a far more elaborate plot. Wagner’s Ring questioned a world view. It still does today. It tells of the complex interaction between gods and humans. A duel between interfering rulers clinging to fossilized principles and (semi-)mortals who challenge that system out of instinctive rebellion or ambition. Der Ring des Nibelungen is thus the ideal production of this (dual) seasonal theme. Together with music director Alain Altinoglu and visionary artist Romeo Castellucci, we take up the challenge to give this masterly cycle a relevant interpretation.
La Monnaie commissioned its former director Bernard Foccroulle to compose Cassandra, a work that also clearly embodies this theme.
‘In Greek mythology, Cassandra was a Trojan princess who was gifted with the ability to see the future and prophesize events. However, she was cursed by the god Apollo, who made it so that no one would believe her predictions. Despite her efforts to warn others, her prophecies were always dismissed.’
This opera, with a libretto by Matthew Jocelyn, confronts the mythological, ‘predestined’ Cassandra with her modern-day alter ego, Sandra, who is ‘free’. A climate activist who is not listened to either, but who refuses to resign herself. Who will make her voice heard again and again, until her message gets through. With Cassandra, we wish to make room for a lyrical voice in the ecological debate and to express our own green ambitions. Conducted by Kazushi Ono and directed by Marie-Eve Signeyrole, this show was conceived in consultation with members of the Youth for Climate movement and is the next artistic step in our search for a more climate-friendly way of producing opera.
In the 2023-24 season, we will also continue our innovative series of ‘remix’ projects. After the earlier assemblages of works by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Gaetano Donizetti, this year it is the turn of another maestro, Giuseppe Verdi. Nostalgia e Rivoluzione draws on the operas he wrote during his anni di galera.
‘Verdi faced many challenges and obstacles in his career as an opera composer, and his early years were marked by a series of setbacks and difficulties. He faced financial struggles, negative critical reception, and censorship from the authorities, all of which made it difficult for him to get his works
performed and recognized.’
Today we know better, of course. Verdi’s early work are absolutely worth (re)discovering. Spread over two evenings, this ‘best-of’ show includes grandiose choirs, brilliant arias and masterly finales. It tells the story of a group of friends, revolutionaries who championed progressive ideals in their youth but who, without realizing it, turned reactionary – like Verdi, who initially was quite rebellious but who by the end of his life became a far more conservative figure. It will be a reflection on the oh-so-human dichotomy between ‘progressive’ and ‘reactionary’. This concert, elaborated by dramaturg and director Krystian Lada, explores the human tendency to give up on youthful ideals and to hang on to what has been established.
To conclude the season, we will present a new production of Puccini’s Turandot. According to ChatGPT, the opera is known for:
‘its grand and dramatic score, which includes some of Puccini’s most famous and memorable melodies, such as ‘“Nessun Dorma” and ‘“In questa reggia”. One of the things that makes Turandot special is its exotic setting, which is inspired by Chinese legend and folklore. The opera features a variety of colourful characters and exciting plot twists. Overall, Turandot is a classic example of Italian opera at its grandest and most dramatic, and it remains a popular and enduring work in the operatic repertoire’.
Again, there is nothing wrong with this summary... if you adhere to a traditional reading of the work. In line with this season’s philosophy, we wish to challenge this partiality. Should we blindly follow tradition? I think not. As human beings, we should look ahead, be creative and defy tradition. In that respect, it is ironic that precisely this hypermodern software programme should produce a blatantly traditional reading. This new staging by Christophe Coppens conducted by Kazushi Ono inverts a number of sine qua nons. Turandot is not only a fairy-tale ice princess, but above all a deeply human character. A woman who has been conditioned by her own past never to love, but who nevertheless tries to connect, though it remains an open question whether she can manage to do so ...
Clearly, the There will be fate idea manifests itself in many of our shows. A motto should not become a dogma, however. Sometimes it suffices to let an opera shine in all its own enchanting glory. That is why we are restaging The Tale of Tsar Saltan in the 2023-24 season. Dmitri Tcherniakov had set to work on Rimsky-Korsakov’s magical tale in 2019 and the result was an overwhelming success. From beneath the cartoonish animations and the colourful costumes and sets there emerged the story of a young man with autism who cannot come to terms with the divorce of his parents and who fails to find his place in the real world. We played to a packed house every night. An International Opera Award for ‘Best New Production’ was the well-deserved crowning achievement of all those efforts. The work is returning to the stage ‘by popular demand’, after a series of performances at the Opéra national du Rhin in Strasbourg and before it heads to the Teatro Real in Madrid.
Andrea Breth’s production of The Turn of the Screw is the opposite of The Tale of Tsar Saltan in many respects. Stripped of colour, the scenography is sombre and subdued. Benjamin Britten’s music, far from exuberant, has been masterfully pared down. The Covid pandemic in 2021 forced us to present this work online only. Today we have the opportunity to see it on stage at last.
The Turn of the Screw and The Tale of Tsar Saltan are both works that use these fantasy stories to philosophize about life. They employ a dream – or nightmare – world to reach the psychological core of our being. They make clear the importance of the imagination, and thus the relevance of opera.
The journey of young Ali Abdi Omar was also a nightmare. He is the main character in the world creation of Ali. This young Somali escaped the terror in his homeland via the deadly migration route from the Horn of Africa to the heart of Europe, Brussels. Director Ricard Soler Mallol, known for his intercultural and interdisciplinary approach, and multimedia artist Grey Filastine reworked Ali’s journey into a relevant opera project that will have its world premiere at La Monnaie in the context of the European network of opera academies (enoa).
Undeniably, another varied opera programme awaits you. We will of course continue to highlight the other pillars of our house next season. In particular, we want to extend the There will be fate slogan to our Vocalissimo series. We have chosen to question the traditional recital genre, and we stepped away from the customary ‘singer & pianist’ formula: there will be recitals in the strict sense, and others will be staged.
Together with music director Alain Altinoglu we devised a series of concerts comprising essential works alongside thrilling discoveries. And with our federal cultural partners Bozar and the Belgian National Orchestra, we will present, in parallel to Wagner’s Ring and spread over the following two seasons, a series centred on Mahler’s symphonic works. During our weekly Concertini, chamber music will echo the opera and concert programme.
Our dance programme will continue to build on the Troika collaboration with our community partners, the Théâtre National Wallonie-Bruxelles and the Koninklijke Vlaamse Schouwburg. For the fourth consecutive year, we are joining forces for a kaleidoscopic dance and theatre offering, maintaining our regular artists and adding new and young talents.
We are facing a special season – special seasons even. Taking There will be fate as our guide and motive, we are doing things our way: breaking out of the traditional cultural calendar that runs from September to June, we are not afraid to confront tradition, preconceptions and predetermination.
‘As we move into a new season, it is important to remember the enduring power of fate and the ways in which it continues to shape and influence our lives. But it is clear that the arts have the power to challenge and question traditional notions of fate and destiny. From the thought-provoking storylines that made us consider the role of free will in shaping our lives, to the emotive performances that touched our very souls, the arts have the ability to inspire and move us in ways that defy explanation.’
So yes, There will be fate, but above all, Let’s promote possibilism!
Peter de Caluwe
(General & Artistic Director)