Kasper Holten was inspired by the idea of memory in his new staging for Eugene Onegin, coming to Sydney and Melbourne this year.
Eugene Onegin is essentially about growing up and looking back. It’s about how you go through life and add layers onto yourself – layers of decisions, experiences, hurts – layers to protect yourself and to cope.
This story is told in two parts: the first half of the opera is about Tatyana growing up. In the second part, Onegin grows up. They grow up because of things that happen, the hard way. But they don’t become cynical – they become melancholic. In my new staging, I wanted to build on this melancholic feeling at the core of the piece.
In Pushkin’s novel (a brilliant book, which I would thoroughly recommend) the story is told through a third person narrator in the past tense. We do not have that third person narrator in the opera, nor do we need him, but Tchaikovsky’s music offers us that exact function. The music doesn’t just live with the characters in their emotional waves of the moment. It also somehow filters those moments through a sense of sadness, of loss and knowledge of the impending disaster.
As the opera unfolds, what we experience is not necessarily how it was, or how it is. We experience what Tatyana and Onegin remember, understand and think. They go on a journey to shape their identity and understand who they have become by retelling their (common) lives.
Perhaps the most famous example of how a memory can be evoked is the moment Swan tastes a Madeleine cookie in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. The taste immediately transports him back to his childhood. But we all know the feeling of suddenly being brought back to the emotions or situations that shaped us into who we are.
In memory, summers were more green and Christmases more white [Ed’s note: perhaps in Denmark and London!]. In the same way, I hope to take Tchaikovsky literally when he describes Eugene Onegin not as an opera, but as seven scenes. Each scene takes on a distinct character, clean and strong, and is always experienced through the filter of looking back.
Does this complicate matters? How do you show a person entering into a dialogue with his or her younger self on the stage? Can a person split into two and re-merge without it becoming confusing? And finally, can we create all this on stage without the need for explanations, which the audience desperately has to try to figure out?
These are all questions we asked in the rehearsal room. We tried to find ways to make the audience experience an immediate emotional identification with the characters, which I think is what Tchaikovsky’s music offers us – rather than seduction, or glamour. We wanted to boil it down, clean away distractions and bring out the emotion.
We haven’t sought to achieve this through a strict realism. Real life – and not least our inner lives – is not rational, or realistic.
Isn’t it strange that we often demand art should “make sense”, when real life so often doesn’t? We always want to see causality, when in real life, there so often isn’t. We want psychology and characters reduced to templates, when in real life things are complex.
Opera gives us the opportunity to have a language for that, not only through words, but through music and movement and visuals, to express that inner world.
Kasper Holten’s Eugene Onegin opens at the Sydney Opera House in February and Arts Centre Melbourne in April. For more info and tickets, click here.