Vladimír Franz (An interview for the National Theatre in Prague)

20.10.2013 19:10

You had a passionate relationship with music, theatre and the visual arts when you were a child. Yet later on you studied law. Why?

I "composed” my first tiny pieces at the age of six and since that time I have never stopped writing music. When I was at the grammar school, one of my teachers directed my attention to the composers Miroslav Rajchl and Vladimir Sommer, which was undoubtedly a good move. So I studied music a lot too.

I have also been interested in painting since I was very young. I painted my first pictures when I was 1 2 years old - at the time, I adored Adolf Kosárek and František Kaván. I took private painting lessons from Karel Souček, professor at the Academy of Fine Arts, and Andrej Belocvetov, a great and still underestimated artist.

These were the starting points from which my relationship to music and painting developed in parallel. In a way, I co-existed with both disciplines for years. I asked myself which of them would prevail. When it comes to theatre, the initiation process was my encounter with Josef Henke, a great Czech radio producer and theatre director. Such encounters really do have a crucial significance.

As for law, I decided to study it for several reasons. One of them was that at the time nothing else worth studying was open at the university, another being the fact that when studying law you have enough time to form yourself as a person, as a creative personality. And during my law studies I really was afforded time to mature. People say that art and law have nothing in common, but that’s not the case at all. Art rests is defining this world and seeking your own means. Yet creating your own system of law, legal rules, is just as difficult as composing your own piece of music or painting a picture, since you seek precise, specific means to do so. As a system and structure, juridical thinking was of great importance to me, since it was drummed into me that everything must be clearly structured.


You first music-related job was the post of rehearsal accompanist at the Workers' Theatre in Most. What exactly did you do?

My official position really was rehearsal accompanist, since there was no such job as “theatre composer". In 1985 I gave my graduation theatre performance, Král jelenem (The King Stag) at DISK, on the basis of which the stage director Zbyněk Srba and five actors were offered an engagement in Most. Srba insisted on the composer joining the group, and thus began in Most a period during which we jointly prepared such productions as Filosofská historie (Philosophical History) and Cirkus Humberto. I worked with Josef Henke on Nová komedyje o Libuši (A New Comedy about Libuše), Pavel Pecháček on Lucerna (The Lantern)... These performances are still remembered, and at the time coach trips to Most were even organised in Prague.

When I was a rehearsal accompanist I also prepared a few things: for instance, Jaroslav Ježek’s music to Adolf Hoffmeister’s Zpívající Benátky (Singing Venice), which naturally entailed various tasks. Ježek composed music for a specific performance that had specific stage requirements, which, however, were not there at all in the Most production. Hence, it was necessary to compose various additional matters, yet in such a manner that no one would notice.

And to conclude about my job as a rehearsal accompanist, a personal note: as a result of it, I totally destroyed my vocal cords.

Stage music and theatre in general have thus accompanied you throughout your professional life. As a composer you are best known for music for theatre performances. Have you got any idea of how many stage scores you have written?

About 150 or so, and I don’t mean just accompanying mood music! They are compositions lasting one and a half hours, orchestral and choral music, which can also stand their ground independently, be performed in the form of a suite. For example, I have adapted the music to Markéta Lazarová for the National Theatre into a suite-cantata entitled Kruhy do ledu (Rings in the Ice).


Which stage music of yours do you consider the best?

Along my path, there have been milestones that have meant something to me. I must, of course, count my first piece, from back in 1981, which was not made for a professional theatre but for the theatre we established as students at the Faculty of Law. At the time, it was said that opera is dead.

My first stage piece, called Opera ještě nezemřela (Opera Isn’t Dead), is actually a small neo-classicist opera in which amateurs can sing too. Decisive for my fate was the production of Gozzi’s The King Stag at Prague’s DISK, while A New Comedy about Libuše was important in terms of the purity of work and the insight into what music on stage can be. Another milestone, one really crucial for me, was the music to Hodina mezi psem a vlkem (The Hour Between Dog and Wolf) at Prague’s Kašpar Society. At the time, Václav Havel, who had just got out of prison, wrote a review of it in the (still illegal) Lidové noviny newspaper. Noteworthy too were the productions of Osm a půl (a půl) (Eight and a Half (and a Half), directed by J. A. Pitŕnský at the Zlín Theatre, and the subsequent Jenufa. Another substantial production for me was that of Durych’s Bloudění (Wandering) for the National Theatre. In that period, I was going through a tough time, and it served as a certain catharsis for me. And, of course, the aforementioned production of Markéta Lazarová. I can’t overlook either the music to Znamení kříže (The Sign of the Cross) at the Municipal Theatre in Brno, which lives an independent life as a cycle of madrigals Zářící noc (The Radiant Night) to texts by Juan de la Cruz. Another milestone was Amphitryon, in which I tried out the quartet texture, followed by Smrt Pavla I (The Death of Paul I), in which I immersed myself in the Russian world (which I really like), the world of Andrei Bely’s St. Petersburg, with an incandescent copper rider galloping in a yellow-green mist. The choruses, the orchestra, it is simply a picture of ruin and power. Another interesting work for me was the music for the production of The Master Builder in Olomouc, a portrait of the inner workings of the head.


For the National Theatre in Prague you have created the music for seven productions, the acclaimed children’s ballet Goldilocks, as well as the new opera War with the Newts, commissioned by the National Theatre. What is your relationship to the National Theatre? What does it mean to you?

The National Theatre is something sacred for me. I was first here when I was five and since that time every visit has been like seeing Saint Vitus Cathedral. By and large, they are sacred places which we do not perceive as merely something representing the past. We consider the National Theatre not only a theatre but also a sort of monument to the spiritual power of this country. I like coming here and looking at Aleš’s painting Homeland, Vincenc Beneš’s landscapes, etc. For me, it is a personal matter, part of my self. I have a very intimate and close relationship to the National Theatre. In the beginning, naturally, I was coming here with my parents. The first performances I saw included Der Freischutz, Dalibor and The Cunning Little Vixen, and, to tell the truth, I didn’t like them. Yet when I had grown a bit older and wiser, I started coming here on my own and made great discoveries, Bohuslav Martinů, for instance. At the time (as today) the National Theatre included the State Opera (then the Smetana Theatre). We used to get in through the backdoor, and I saw all the productions and guest performances. Unforgettable experiences were the Vienna production of Ariadne auf Naxos conducted by Karel Bohm, the Bolshoi’s Tosca featuring Galina Vishnevskaya, and Don Carlos from Sofia with Nikolai Gyaurov in the role of Philippe II. Those experiences stay with you all your life...

You have a portrait of Bohuslav Martinů tattooed on your left arm...

Martinů was for me the greatest discovery when I was finding my bearings in this world, alongside Smetana, Dvořák, Mahler, Wagner, Janáček, Brahms, Penderecki, Boulez, Bruckner and Szymanowski. For me, Martinů is still the crystal-clear, modest voice of someone who extricated himself from the post-Mahler, -Wagner, -Brahms... brown mush, possessing a self-preservation instinct that compelled him to purify the musical language and a self-preservation instinct that compelled him to leave his country, as did Josef Šíma and Jan Zrzavý. He realised that Czech emotionalism must be quantified so as not to drown in itself. I also like, for example, Shostakovich, for his persistent endeavour to find the communication code among people, especially when we bear in mind that he lived in a country where formulating anything in writing could have cost one’s life. Although he sacrificed a lot to music, he succeeded in keeping it pure.


Your stage music has earned you six Alfréd Radok Awards. Does this motivate you for further work? What significance has this accolade for you?

Following the Velvet Revolution, the titles of "national” and “merited” artist were abolished, and it seemed that people missed them. Therefore, other awards soon began mushrooming. Today, anyone can award a prize and thus the significance of prizes has been devalued. I am afraid that it would be more difficult to find someone who hasn’t received any award in this country. Unfortunately, they do not provide motivation, not even the prestigious ones. When I was receiving the sixth Radok, it gave rise to indignation, and subsequently theatres didn’t afford me any opportunity to do something.

And the journalists, who should rather have paid attention to that which I have brought to musical drama over twenty years of continuous work, merely concentrated on the fact that I had won yet again. So, such an award is more of a curse than a blessing.


When working on music for drama productions you have perhaps less freedom than in the case of other types of compositions. Does this bother you?

That may be the case, yet if the stage director is artistic, he/she knows that music is non-verbal dramaturgy, and I don’t make music so as to destroy the production and trample on the director's ego. If the director understands this, another energy originates which can be integrated into the whole, and then it’s fabulous.

To what extent do you and the stage director influence each other?

The ideal state of affairs is when the stage director and I don’t have to say anything to each other, when we think along the same lines. For instance, when I was working on Jenufa with the director Jiří Pokorný, something struck me late one night. I picked up the phone and Pokorný told me that he’d had the very same idea.


Your first opera was Ludus Danielis. You rewrote the work from the original oratorio, yet the opera was ultimately never staged. How do you feel when after putting a lot of effort into a work it ends up in a drawer?

For a composer, it is a “song on the death of children" I like letting children flee the nest and live lives of their own. When they are locked in a drawer it’s a pity. It is also bad for me personally, because I can’t then say to myself that I did something well, something wrong, and draw further conclusions from it.

Somewhat similar was the situation of your second opera - War with the Newts. You composed it seven years ago. How do you look upon the work with the distance of time?

I was writing the War with the Newts from 5 January 2005 until approximately the end of May of that year. Since then, I have composed a great deal of stage music, madrigals, the opera-oratorio Údolí suchých kostí (The Valley of Dry Bones), the musical poem Radobýl and other pieces, when working within my development. I agree with Shostakovich’s opinion that preferable to revising a symphony 1 5 times is expending energy to create other new symphonies. At the time, that was what I was able to do, and I did my best. Whenever I do something, I always do it to the full. Naturally, then you gain more experience and in retrospect can see that you would do something differently, better. I only left open the introduction to the opera until such time as it would actually be staged; hence, the introduction has necessitated working on the finale too.

So it took you about five months to compose the War with the Newts. Do you normally spend so short a time on so large a score?

For me, work is an escalation of the inner tension felt towards the theme, to which I must form a relationship. I have to be above it, not beneath it. That is the first moment of significance. Subsequently, things ripen, when you are walking in the forest and slowly refining your ideas. It is rather a question of finding the right moment to plunge into the actual implementation process, since then it is in full swing. You must be so pressurised, have so much bottled up within, that you are able to find the formulation, since art isa manifestation of quantified organised energy. It’s true that a person who has got used to working under pressure all his life leaves the pressure till the last minute. This, however, doesn’t mean that you don’t write, for instance, sketches and reflect upon various crossroads and solutions. But even at the moment when the actual process of composing is taking place there are still, constantly, many crossroads.

How did you compose the War with the Newts? Did you have variants, revise any sections, or did you produce a virtually clean copy?

It’s always good to get out to the open sea, yet the worst problem is steering the ship through a rocky strait. For me, it’s crucial to know from where it comes and where it will lead. Subsequently, it’s important to identify nodal gradation points, which are linked to a specific solution. I have to find the shortest and most efficient route from point A to point B. Of course, there are various solutions; the worst situation for me is when I have four solutions, of which one can be bad, two good, and one the best. The trick is to identify the best solution, because I know that it will also reflect in the continuation on the work’s structure, not necessarily immediately in the very next bar but, say, 20 minutes later. And this is really stressful, having to make the right decision. It is a decision-making activity.

Did you have the theme of the War with the Newts in your heard previously or did you only begin dealing with it after receiving the commission from the National Theatre?

Just like the sailors on the Kursk submarine, Exupéry’s Night Flight or the sung ballet The Master and Margarita, the War with the Newts is one of the themes I have had in my head. You only seek a way of fleshing the idea out, giving it a tangible body, meaning the dramaturgy and libretto, which is really important.


When, almost a year and a half ago, it was decided that the present production of the War with the Newts would be staged, you additionally composed the overture and made several other modifications. What was the scope of these changes and why did you make them?

I always leave the overture to the last minute, unless it is supposed to be an independent showy piece. It should be the preparation for the work in terms of mood, the preparation for the musicians in order to warm up, for the audience to finally put aside their packets of toffees and focus on the opera.

And it’s of crucial importance that the overture doesn't disrupt the structure as a whole, that it doesn’t draw too much attention to itself. Therefore, it is good to gauge the degree of the overture's intensity at the very end.

When it comes to the modifications, I have, among other things, extended the scene in which the Newts offer what’s left of humankind the opportunity to flee somewhere. At this juncture, it was necessary to have a larger standstill and extend the finale. For the sake of proportion alone, since after the overture was added (I would rather term it the “introduction”) the conclusion would come across as too abrupt. These are actually the only essential changes; then I just did, for example, instrumentation retouches. And, understandably, I counted with the fact that when it began settling down, when I could see particular people, then I could accommodate to them a few things, which is a logical process. It is good when the composer tries to tailor things to the performers.


You’d previously worked with the librettist Rostislav Křivánek on the opera Ludus Danielis, and he also wrote the texts for the War with the Newts and The Valley of Dry Bones. What is your collaboration like?

I met Rostislav Křivánek at the DISK theatre, when we were working together on The King Stag. Rostislav is a very capable poet and lyricist.

He possesses a big advantage - he is able to express himself in both constrained and loose speech, he is able to write in a language that has the given metre too. I know a lot of poets who pursue their own line and when you want something different from them they aren’t capable of or don’t feel like doing it. Rostislav is able to respond promptly and create that which is required. Moreover, he has the gift of being able to gather material around the theme, and then it is up to me and him to sort it out and dramaturgically choose and create from the threefold larger material the resulting shape. The librettist is for me an extremely important person who should know that opera is governed by different principles to those employed in drama and film.

Do you make changes in the libretto?

Yes, I do, in terms of the metre, for instance. I’ll send the librettist my conception in the form of another poem or rhyme, especially when it comes to the number of syllables, so that he can also respond to it as to how much of it should be set to music. Or the ideas, the other meanings that it would be dramaturgically good to put in the structure. Yet this doesn't mean that I want to limit the librettist’s right, which I try to respect as fully as possible. Moreover, sometimes I observe the shape so that analogies between individual places originate, bridges that interlink the work, since then we have free rein for working with various style-forming ideas and symbols.


Do you work on the libretto from the very beginning with a specific vision of its setting to music or do you wait for the libretto’s complete shape, in which you retroactively make changes?

Of course, we talk about it from the very beginning, yet Rostislav comes up with a very complete libretto and I then begin treating it. And it goes without saying that when modifications are required we further discuss it, yet we draw upon the shape we agreed upon previously

I am able to write texts myself, but I don’t have the gift of being capable of setting to music my own texts since I think that I would merely add myself up, when you should multiply yourself in this sense. I find dialogue and interaction much more compelling. When I express it my way in the text,

I don’t have to illustrate it by means of music.

To what extent have you and the librettist stuck to Čapek’s text?

Our intention wasn’t to transpose Čapek’s novel mechanically into the opera libretto and then into music. The aim was to find a different form, in which the themes would be accentuated. The first theme is the imperilment of a civilisation by another civilisation, whereby the first makes use of and exploits the other, and the second finally realises what’s been going on and all hell breaks loose. This is what the opera has in common with Čapek.

Yet the opera also encompasses another theme, which is not so palpable in Čapek’s novel: the manipulation of society in various manners so as to turn the citizens into unthinking and malleable creatures, with their only goal being consumption and mindless entertainment. The action is not set in Prague, where in the novel Mr. Povondra keeps meditating about what will happen when it happens. We draw instead upon Čapek’s report in the book that a certain Fred is looking for Minnie in Florida, where large pieces of the mainland have sunk. That is, unlike Čapek, who rather anticipates, forebodes the war with the newts, the opera takes place directly during the war. The opera is loosely based on Karel Čapek’s novel. But the relation between the original and the opera is about the same as that between the Strugatsky brothers’ Roadside Picnic and Tarkovsky's film Stalker.


The libretto for the War with the Newts uses three sets of song lyrics by Jiří Suchý. At which junctures do they appear and what role do they play?

At some point in the 1960s, Václav Kašlik wanted to create the War with the Newts and the inspired lyricist and poet Jiří Suchý wrote for him about ten sets of lyrics. Unfortunately, for unknown reasons, the lyrics were as far as the project got. I read through Suchý’s lyrics and, just like all his other texts, they are beautiful. The question was whether taken together it wouldn’t be a formation different to a musical drama, which we had decided on.

So I sought a way of making the songs sound in the manner that someone sings them as a pretext for dramatic behaviour. The first two are sung by Billy Bingo amidst the merry-making on the square. One of them is easy-going, the other is a rousing "cheerleading”’ march. On the other hand, the third song is used to undercut the march by Jensen, one of the lead characters, who will pay dearly for it, since the crowd will kill him for spoiling their entertainment.


You have also composed symphonic variations on Jiŕí Šlitr’s song Co jsem měl dnes k obědu (What I Had For Lunch Today). Are Suchý and Šlitr’s poetics close to you?

When I was three years of age, my favourite piece was Zdá se mi, že jsem motýl (It Seems To Me That I'm A Butterfly), while there were other Suchý and Šlitr songs that I really loathed, one such being Babeta šla do světa (Babeta Went Out Into The World). But Suchý and Šlitr’s works are classics, one of the roots of Czech theatre art. They influenced the aesthetics of a whole era. When in 1981 we founded the Kytka theatre, there had to be certain connectivity to the Suchý - Šlitr duo. I like distinct melodic characteristics relating to the poetic text. Hence, at the time I was already involved in serious drama and when I received an offer from Suchý to make The Temptation of St. Anthony together as an opera I jumped for joy! It was a nice collaboration.


The War with the Newts features advertising blocks, canned laughter, some of the passages are stylised as a pop musical, film inserts are envisaged, a certain role is played by flashing slot-machines, the main attraction at the festivities in Morgan Bay is a heavy metal band... What objective do these means serve?

The means refer to the manipulation with the mass, society in general, and these are sophisticated brainwashing tools. That is why I employed these elements. They are shown as instruments serving to disturb people’s concentration, human thinking, since someone else constantly thinks on your behalf and enters your life in an obtrusive manner. It concerns a picture of a rotten, affluent and lazy society, who only let themselves be entertained and enjoy their own consumerism. Back in 2005,1 hadn't the slightest inkling that it would be far more topical in 2012. In this case, history has outdone art.


The National Theatre’s commission entailed the requirement that, for practical reasons, the music for the War with the Newts had to be composed for the configuration of the standard theatre orchestra. If you hadn’t been limited in this respect, how would your score have differed?

Frankly speaking, I wouldn’t have changed the principles. When it comes to the means, I would probably have added a few more instruments. Not many though, perhaps more brass, percussion. When I know that I am writing a string quartet I have to make do with a string quartet. By and large, it is the specification, and so I worked within it. If I were required to employ five saxophones, there would be five saxophones. I don't consider it a limitation. If I did consider it a limitation, I couldn’t do it.


As a painter, did you have any specific notion of the opera’s graphic or directional conception?

Yes, I imagined it visually. I always imagine optically that which I am composing. And vice versa: I have a picture and whenever I look at a place with stones, I always recollect a passage from Boris Godunov, and I don’t know why.


Do you envisage creating another opera?

I think of it in musico-dramatic terms. In my opinion, Čapek’s Meteor is ideal for a concentrated chamber opera. It is a truly exclusive material for an opera, whereby the central character is defined from various angles, which affords the musico-dramatic adaptation an incredible scope. A classical musical drama would be one based on the Ballad of Juraj Čup from Čapek’s Stories from Another Pocket. An immense challenge for me is the sung ballet The Master and Margarita. At one time, I wanted to try my hand at it, but I found out that the titular characters should not be sung. If anyone could sing, it would be from the Devil’s entourage, and the question is whether the Devil himself. Fabulous worlds are opened up, which the composer can somehow conceive and build. I am allured by the abundance and colourfulness of the individual milieus. And Exupéry’s Night Flight would be suitable for a timbre-based radio opera. I kept giving serious thought to Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March, but the desired tenderness would be a tough nut to crack, even for a Debussy. An ungraspable dream. Even though it is a really powerful dramatic theme, I would rather imagine the monologues of the sailors trapped on the Kursk submarine as a symphony.

I find it important to bear in mind for whom I compose, who will perform it. It dictates all the specific means. Smetana's operas include wonderful baritone arias because Smetana knew that they would be sung by Josef Lev. Composing an opera or a symphony is the same as shooting a lavish film or making an equestrian statue, writing a novel. I always really look forward to the work, yet at the same time it entails an enormous inner stress and it is, naturally, extremely exhausting. That anxiety about the result being as you want, intend it to be. The idea of writing something just for the drawer is depressing, killing. I bear within me certain themes, but it is necessary for there to be a demand for it. That’s of major importance.

How do you perceive opera in general?

Opera means for me a highly stylised superlative formation. It is a luxuriant formation, sonic architecture spread over time.

How would you characterise your musical language?

The musical language is derived from one’s gestures, patience or impatience, and then it contains various residues, inputs the person has been given.

One of the impulses for me when I was young was that I explored for myself František Xaver Brixi’s organ concertos. The arrangements of Krček’s songs were another impulse. Chanson and the melody line as the main element besides rhythm. For me, it’s no problem to weld together two types of stylistic thinking without having the feeling that it will fall apart. I really had no problem combining Gregorian chant and brass-band music, since they are two limbs of a single body. That's important. I rather prefer music bordering tonality. I regard highly pure structures, even though I am not of the constructivist nature. I am a person who perceives music. And since I’m aware of the fact that a composition should have a texture and structure,

I perceive it with the heart, I seek the reason why the music is music.

I don't want to come across as an eclectic or a person who doesn’t know what he wants and nothing occurs to him, but for me music is a language of communication, and I communicate, just as I breathe and walk.

Pavel Petráněk, The National Theatre, Prague, January 2013.