Sebastián Errázuriz, composer: «I accept opera as a genre that lives in the theater and not in the museum»
The first time Chilean composer Sebastián Errázuriz saw an opera at the Municipal de Santiago, he felt that “everything that really interests me” was happening there: the idea of a total work of art. The opera Patagonia, staged by Marcelo Lombardero and co-produced by the Teatro Biobío and the Teatro del Lago, is Errázuriz’s most recent composition; An Americanist look at the journey of Hernando de Magallanes and the encounter with the Aonikenk or Tehuelche culture. In this interview for Ópera Latinoamérica, Sebastián Errázuriz delves, among other topics, into his earliest musical memories, the process of creating Patagonia, and the scope of sustainability in opera production.
by Álvaro Molina R.
In the opera Patagonia, the most recent musical work by the Chilean composer Sebastián Errázuriz (1975), the story is told in two stages, a dramatic exercise that brings together pieces of oral memory and events that 500 years ago marked the course of humanity. It is an opera that visits history.
According to Errázuriz, the opera, which recounts in part Ferdinand Magellan’s journey to the East Indies and his encounter with the Aonikenk culture, narrates an ancient epic, but one that poses a current problem. “How do we recognize the territory that we inhabit in the south of the world? About us? How have we related to the original inhabitants and to nature?”, are the questions that, according to the composer, go through the story of the opera.
Patagonia is the result of the artistic collaboration between Errázuriz and the Argentinian stage director Marcelo Lombardero and of a co-production between the Biobío Theater and the Lago Theater -together with the collaboration of the Valdivia Chamber Orchestra-, all located in the southern zone From Chile. The opera was also born under the concept of post-pandemic opera, with a creation and writing process that was faced with the restrictions of the coronavirus crisis.
“While we were advancing in the writing of the project, the pandemic began. Suddenly we realized that opera, as a genre of great proportions (and very expensive), was going to take a long time to return to normality. Both for health and budget issues, it will be difficult for the opera to return to the stage. This is how the idea of post-pandemic opera arose”, explains Sebastián Errázuriz. The Patagonia project also had the support of an Iberescena Fund and a National Fondart.
The Chilean composer, who before starting to study composition had the idea of training as a jazz guitarist, admits that today he is more interested in ethical problems than aesthetic ones: “Who do I work for? Why I do what I do? How can I say this or that as honestly as possible? In a world that tries to move towards the fulfillment of sustainable development objectives, opera, according to Errázuriz, has to reinvent itself within the framework of today’s problems.
In this exclusive interview for Ópera Latinoamérica, the Chilean composer recounts what he felt when he saw an opera for the first time at the Municipal de Santiago and how he was captivated by the idea of the total work of art. From there, he tells us his different visions regarding opera as a genre that can speak to today’s world, the desires of Latin American composers and why figures such as Stravinsky, singer-songwriter Luis Alberto Spinetta and guitarist coexist within his aesthetics. jazz band Pat Metheny, among others.
“The idea of the total work of art is possible”
What is your first memory with music? How did you approach her? Was there a special person who showed you this world?
Participating in the school choir. Growing up I realized that I always looked for a way to approach music. From a very young age I looked for instances to be close to her. Copying cassettes of my big brothers, looking for instruments, with my musician neighbors. In short, despite not coming from a family of musicians, I was always looking for a way to be close, to learn, listen, play, sing. My first relevant mentor was my music teacher since 5th grade. Claudio de la Melena, a very enlightened being who transmitted to me the selfless passion for music and its environment. I dedicated Funeral Music to him, one of my first works for string orchestra after his tragic death.
Do you remember the first time you went to a theater? Can you describe the atmosphere or what you felt at that moment?
The first marker memory was going out of school to see Fiddler on the Roof at the National Theater. It was a very stimulating experience. When I was quite old I went to see the opera at the Municipal de Santiago. It blew my mind and I thought “everything that really interests me happens here”: theater, music, design, dramaturgy, poetry, orchestra. The idea of the total work of art is possible.
How was your debut in composition? Where was? Can you describe that moment?
When I decided to dedicate myself professionally to music, I came with the idea of being a jazz guitarist. When choosing the career, I decided to enter composition because of the idea of having a broader training. When I started classes with the teacher Guillermo Rifo at the Modern School I began to realize how fluid it was for me. The tasks made sense and little by little he was defining his own path.
In 1997, while working in a Latin orchestra in Monaco, I decided to try some ideas with the instrumentalists who accompanied me. In the dressing room I organized a rehearsal and I found myself with that fascination of feeling that the ideas put on paper came to life. I didn’t stop there anymore. Always writing for groups that were willing to give me a moment of their rehearsals.
What is your aesthetic approach to musical composition? What influences do you recognize in your music? Where do they come from?
My aesthetic approach is profoundly eclectic. I am interested in both Stravinsky and Bill Evans, Pat Metheny, Shostakovich and Luis Alberto Spinetta. In recent years I have come to the conviction that I am much more interested in ethical problems than aesthetic problems. Who do I work for? Why I do what I do? How can I say this or that as honestly as possible?
Your lyrical work, in general, takes quite contemporary themes, for example, White Wind or Gloria. What is behind that search? Why do you decide to address these issues from the opera?
I assume opera as a genre that lives in the theater, and not in the museum. The theater has been the great school of humanity. I refer to the theater as a living manifestation that observes us, questions us and shows us the worst and the best of the society we live in, versus the museum that is something that tells us about the past. So, when searching for an opera theme, an essential requirement is that it can speak to the world today.
Now, about the opera Patagonia, which rescues Magellan’s voyage from an Americanist perspective. What role does art have in the visit to history? What did they want to provoke or communicate to the public?
We are telling this story that happened 500 years ago from today. That is why the character of Ikalemen is key, a contemporary woman who is recognizing herself as heir to the aonikenk culture. It is she who, putting together pieces of the oral memory of her people, is crossing this information with that of the history books. Therefore, despite narrating an ancient epic, we are considering a current problem. How do we recognize the territory we inhabit in the south of the world? About us? How have we related to the original inhabitants and to nature?
In Patagonia, the character of Xorenken has a script entirely in the Aonikenk language. How was the process of building that script and, in a certain sense, rescuing that language?
One of the great challenges (and ethical dilemmas) that we had in the process of constructing the libretto was how we dramatically justified the way in which the aonikenk women communicate with each other and with Juan de Cartagena. To make them sing in Spanish was to deny them culturally: an ethical problem! Our first inquiries spoke of Tehuelche as an extinct language.
I wrote some first attempts with single words found in some Tehuelche dictionaries. After several weeks browsing the web trying to find more information, I came across the work of the linguistic anthropologist Javier Domingo.
I wrote to him telling him about the project and asking for his help to get some coherent texts in aonikenk. He let me know that there was an organized group of Tehuelches who were rescuing their language inspired by Dora Manchado, the last native speaker who had died in 2019. He put us in contact and they became our interlocutors. The texts that Xorenken sings are fragments of phrases said by Dora Manchado in her conversations with the anthropologist.
Patagonia is called a post-pandemic opera. In what sense is it? What are the benefits of creating operas of this magnitude?
While we were advancing in the writing of the project, the pandemic began. Suddenly we realized that opera, as a genre of great proportions (and very expensive), was going to take a long time to return to normality. Both for health and budget issues, it will be difficult for the opera to return to the stage. This is how the idea of post-pandemic opera arose.
Just as in times of crisis small-budget works such as Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Story were born, or the Oratorio in Händel’s time was the alternative to the great expenses of opera, we were presented with an opportunity to think of a cast and a affordable scale in times of crisis. The cast and the orchestration were thought of as a synthesis that would allow the imposing sensation of the opera to be given at the same time as the intimacy of the word theater. To preserve the premise that opera is interdisciplinary, we stayed on stage with 4 singers, plus an actress, a dancer and a percussionist.
How did you define the orchestration of Patagonia, both in dramatic and musical terms? Along the same lines, how did you define the voices for the opera?
The instrumental make-up of Patagonia is a tailored suit for the Valdivia Chamber Orchestra, a group that believed in the project from its inception. It’s the grace of creation for predetermined casts. The composer adjusts to what he has available to him. Once we had clarity on the characters and their respective inner journeys, it was pretty easy to decide which voices to use.
When the dramatic arc is well defined, the decision of ranges and types of voices generally falls under its own weight. In addition, working side by side with Marcelo Lombardero, musical decisions were always triggered by his sharp reflections on dramaturgy and staging. It is a luxury to work with a stage director who was a long-standing lyrical singer as well as possessing a broad culture and reflection. One of his rehearsal phrases will remain forever in my memory: “musical problems are always dramatic problems”
How is the sound or musical aesthetic of Patagonia different from your previous compositions and/or operas?
There is much of the harmonic language that I have been developing for years, where the orchestra usually plays a very incidental and descriptive role about what happens on stage. At the same time, the melodic conception seeks to give back to the singers an expressive drawing and phrasing that comes from the operatic tradition. That line of song that during the 20th century was somewhat lost by the militant tendencies of the avant-garde.
Opera for today’s world
Today we discuss how to carry out opera productions in a sustainable and sustainable way, especially in the context of a world in crisis. What direction should productions take to meet sustainable goals?
The problem of the sustainability and sustainability of opera as a contemporary dramatic expression is something that I have been considering for several projects. Both Gloria, and Papelucho and Anticantata were chamber operas that were born from that question and with the idea of founding a company that can offer theaters high-quality shows with limited budgets.
I hope that we can bring Patagonia to many theaters around the world and thus revitalize this genre that is in danger of becoming extinct if it cannot reinvent itself. We are very proud of the expansion of audiences that we have contributed with these works that appeal to today’s citizens.
Would you like to present a play in a particular theater? Which and why?
I would like to present Patagonia in at least the places that had to do with Magellan’s expedition: Seville, Portugal, Italy, Brazil, Argentina and Chile. The staging designed by Noeia González Svoboda for Contemporary Musical Theater was designed to adjust in a very versatile way to the different realities of theaters in Latin America. We care about reaching the largest possible audience and generating that space for reflection and debate.
I hope that contemporary creators can have more spaces in our opera houses. That the programmers dare to think outside the box and commission us with new works that allow the development of a tradition of theater sung in Spanish.
Do you have other future projects in mind? Can you advance us something?
I have been coming out of 5 years of hard work to launch Patagonia. I’m in that postpartum period that you have to take it easy. I always have new ideas… What is missing are the theaters and programmers who want to commit to them.