Interview with Malcolm Angelucci
We were delighted to interview Malcolm Angelucci, the Librettist of Galileo.
Galileo will premiere on 20 December, at St Kilda’s Palais Theatre.
A complex life which came into conflict with the political and religious powers of the day, Galileo is a searching meditation amidst questions of faith in a violent, hostile and uncertain world.
Is this a biographical opera about Galileo?
It is definitely an opera on the life of Galileo, but I would not call it a biography. I learned from Richard (Mills) that opera implies a degree of marvel, and that the referential, biographical elements are a starting point for addressing something that goes beyond the life of the character. In biographies, the protagonist may become an exemplar, a point of reference to think about humans in general, our life, etc. In this opera, this does not come from an accurate depiction of ‘what happened’: the musical, lyrical and dramatic material is immediately translated into something that transcends history and the story. Our Galileo is a biography as much as La bohème is a documentary on poor artists, so to speak.
That said, we are trying to present to the public a work that goes beyond Galileo’s infamous trial or his scientific discoveries; the material we work on is the life of a human being, with its hopes, questions, contradictions and desires. The springboard, in this sense, is the biographical.
What is the purpose of repetition in this libretto?
If you mean repetition at the level of the lyrics, this has to do with the work with Richard, and his incredible experience and insight into the workings of opera. I tend to dramatise in a more theatrical way, but Richard is well aware of the need to anchor a scene or an aria using specific devices that he can develop musically to both clarify for the audience and further the poetic meaning of specific passages.
In terms of structural repetitions, the main issue for us was to keep the story tight. Abandoning the unity of time, place and action to cover the entire life of Galileo implies dealing with the problem of maintaining a coherent structure that is understandable for an audience. In this sense, references to past scenes, recurrent minor characters and structural repetition are some devices to address the potential problem.
What insights can you give about the narrative device of the Angel and Devil choruses?
I can assure you that they are not realistic biographical elements… Richard wanted to have a clear and identifiable space to express the spirituality of the opera, of Galileo and of Richard himself. The Angels both signify and perform this aspect; we quoted from the Christian liturgy and from other sources, to try and punctuate the drama with ‘vertical’ moments in which the characters face important, universal questions.
The Devils, on the contrary, are our way to clearly identify the chaos, the mess, the mixture of greed, desire and havoc that provides the context in which the characters operate. There are oblique references to ‘Commedia dell’Arte’ and the Italian theatrical tradition, and from the outset, the Devils quote the Sonetti Lussuriosi by Pietro Aretino (1492-1556), somehow transporting us back in time. In a way, Angels and Devils force us to go beyond the biography of Galileo; they are clear-cut elements that remind us that we are at the opera.
Do you follow a specific process when writing a libretto for opera?
This was my first full libretto. I approached it with a strong focus on dramaturgy. It was thanks to the ongoing dialogue with Richard and through a process of elimination (painful at times), that the scenes reached the level of stylisation that we were aiming for. The scenes are in fact vignettes that introduce, contextualise and foreground the finale of each act; this requires a lot of constraint. In hindsight, I would suggest to others to begin from the lyrical aspect of the scenes and move backwards to the story. But we were facing the complicated task to present an entire life on stage, uncharted territory for us, so to speak. Narrative elements had to be made explicit.
In terms of research (my background is academic), the motto is: study a lot, but be ready to forget it when needed. We are writing an opera after all, not an essay. The grounding, both in historical and stylistic terms (e.g. the use of lines of eleven syllables, the structure of the rhymes etc) needs to be present, but only enough to allow the magic of music and singing to happen: the real story is told by these elements.
Given your academic work on ‘poemproducing’* and the ‘voice apparatus’, what is it like having your libretto brought to life through the human voice/song and technologies outside of the human body such as instruments and staging elements?
Poemproducing is a term proposed by an incredibly talented electronic musician, AGF, AKA Antye Greie Ripatti. She writes poetry through the technologies of voice recording and manipulation, without making hierarchical distinctions between sound and meaning, human and digital, etc. It may be banal, but it is often forgotten that the human voice is always contextual. It is also a vehicle of language, which is something that precedes us and at the same time determines us. In other words: good luck finding your ‘true voice’, or your ‘true inner self’, for what counts.
Opera is the perfect example in this sense. It is the result of words, rhythm, music, bodies, air, language, architecture, setting, costumes, sound engineering, and it is dialogic in nature. When writing a libretto, the lines are determined by a foreshadowing of all these elements (who will sing it, where, what instrumentation, which audience, etc.), and at the same time will have their role in determining others. For Galileo, I felt that Richard was looking for something lyrical, singable, so to speak, something that allows the construction of set arias, perceived by the audience inside the context of traditional opera and not forcing its boundaries. A code that could be recognised, also in light of the fact that the story is indeed very complex. We thought about the singers and an ideal setting, and I worked from there. In the end, I hope that what we will hear is not my libretto, but the result of a creative dialogue.
* “Poemproducing’ implies a voice that is radically immanent, a voice which ultimate truth lies in its contingency” – Angelucci, M., (2017), Contemplating the Voice Apparatus,SoundEffects, vol. 7, no. 2, p. 6
Galileo is in part the story of someone who thought and lived ‘outside the box’ and the epilogue is a beautiful summation of a person who dared to question. There are parallels to Galileo’s story and the treatment of other people who worked and lived outside of the Church’s belief systems, like the burning of witches and even more recently the persecution Malala Yousafzai faced from her own faith community. Having written Galileo, what ruminations have you had and where have you arrived, when it comes to the role of people who challenge ‘the system’?
Our Galileo tries to thematise the difficulties faced by a person who has ambitions inside a social, cultural and political system, and yet finds himself challenging it to its core. This is a very difficult position, as it is not an attempt at overthrowing society, so to speak, but rather a quest for recognition. While writing, I really learned to appreciate the difficult moral dilemma of a person who knows he is right and needs to navigate a world unwilling to acknowledge it. This made me reflect on my own life, and that of many other friends, colleagues, artists of more or less ‘radical’ persuasions, all nevertheless defining themselves inside the horizon of an institutionalised career. It is a comfortable position, I must admit, until a line is crossed, until we cannot avoid seeing the contradiction, the hypocrisy, etc. That line, I guess, is different for everybody – at least history teaches us so. I admire the people who recognised that moment and stood firm. As much as the world needs community and movement of people with a moral compass, with age I have come to appreciate these exemplary figures, their strength and maybe their tragic nature, and the iconography that accompanies them, inspiring others. Unfortunately, I am not one of those.
What can the story of Galileo teach us in a world still debating, even at times violently, the role and relationship of politics, science and religion?
In a sentence: that change is difficult and painful. I am not an optimist and jotting out a view in a few lines would sound rhetorical. During the writing of the libretto, Richard often stressed the view that any result, be it artistic, scientific, spiritual, ephemeral as it may be, is achieved inside a complex entanglement of power and greed, knowledge and ignorance, morality and immorality in which we are asked to situate ourselves. It is crushing, it is ruthless, it is often unbearably ideological and rhetorical. We see it every day.