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Detlev Glanert discusses his opera Solaris, premiered  at the Bregenz Festival in July and travelling to the Komische Oper in Berlin next season.

How did you first discover Solaris? Was it the original novel by Stanislaw Lem or the film by Andrei Tarkovsky?

First I saw the Tarkovsky movie, if I remember correctly, in 1979. I was completely fascinated by it and this prompted me to read the novel. The book itself seemed to be a completely other Solaris story by Lem, even stronger than the film! So the novel started to overlay the impressions from the movie, which I progressively forgot, except for three or four key scenes.

Solaris is a many-layered book, embracing science fiction, mystery, broken romance, philosophy... What is the centre of the novel for you and your librettist Reinhard Palm?

For me and Reinhard the central point of focus for our opera is that the non-communication between the human characters is counterpointed with the non-communication with the planet Solaris, which obviously betrays a certain intelligence. At the very end of the story the scientist Kelvin speaks about the senselessness of searching for other intelligences, because the main reason is always that we look for our ‘older brother’ who will protect us from evil, or put another way that we look for God who will protect us from being so alone in space.

As the scientists probe the planet’s ‘thinking ocean’, it retaliates by recreating a figure from each of their anguished memories. How do you view these doubles?

The planet always chooses apparitions from the past, connected to a guilty action by the characters on the spaceship: Kelvin’s ex-wife committed suicide because they could no longer communicate with each other; Sartorius has a little dwarf behind him - an anti-intellectual idiot; Snaut always sees his mother in a very humiliating and complicated relationship; Gibarian, who killed himself before Kelvin’s arrival, had been shadowed by a large African woman and we are led to understand that he carried out chemical experiments upon her.

Much of the novel is philosophical in tone. How have you transformed this for the dramatic stage?

We condensed the novel to the key scenes first to establish a pure dramatic line, and then added the philosophical and historical reflections at certain suitable points – but of course not at such length as in the novel. Opera enjoys the wonderful invention of the ‘aria’, where times stands still and we can look into the thoughts and reflections of a character, so we naturally utilised this model. And then there is the remarkable ending, when Kelvin is flying to the planet and reality is vanishing – here we used a lot from the last two pages of the novel to create a dreamlike finale.

Many of your operas trap humans in a sealed world to explore their psychology – the court of Caligula, The Wooden Ship, and here an orbiting spaceship. Is this close to the expressionist tradition?

I grew up with certain German traditions, one of which is expressionism, but I don’t think that I’m a complete product of this. Musically I embrace different influences, for example impressionism and the 1980s idea of ‘new velocity’, which give me a much wider palette of colours. The only thing which interests me on stage is the human being, and to learn more about the person’s character, often in extreme moments, so as to inform our view of the world. Maybe this is seen as something typically German but I find the same fascination in creative artists from many other nations, ever since the first development of psychology 120 years ago.

The sound of Solaris is described by Lem as a “low-pitched murmuring, which seemed to me the very voice of the planet itself”. How have you created this in music?

I decided that Solaris will be represented by the opera chorus – hidden or only vaguely seen during the main drama, but perhaps glimpsed at the very end, when Kelvin takes his flight to the planet. And I decided to add something to Lem’s description: the planet slowly learns to speak, starting with unimportant vocalising, like a baby, then more sounds, names, syllables, little phrases. Nobody on stage reacts to these sounds, it is something only perceived by the audience. At the very end the qualities of Kelvin’s text and the planet’s text become equal – but they don’t recognize each other.

Lem writes of how “man has gone out to explore other worlds without having explored his own labyrinth of dark passages and secret chambers.” Do you see parallels with modern opera in general?

Opera and music should never stop their experimentation to discover new forms, new gestures, new inventions to present the singers, musicians and dancers in fresh stories and situations. But here is the critical point: where, how and for whom are we making these experiments? We must be aware that it is for us – the people, and first we have to know ourselves. Lem is pointing out one of the central issues of our time: that the human being is no longer the centre of the universe. Instead, strange dreams, the past, and vague theories about our surroundings are ruling our existence, and we have to understand ourselves so as to protect our very survival. Only then can we try to comprehend endless space and eternity.

Interviewed by David Allenby

(2010-12) 135’
Opera in two parts after the novel by Stanislaw Lem
Libretto by Reinhard Palm

Markus Stenz Conductor
Moshe Leiser & Patrice Caurier Directors

18/22/25 July 2012 (world premiere)
Bregenz Festival
Vienna Symphony Orchestra/Prague Philharmonic Choir

>  Further information on Work: Solaris

Image: Bregenz Festival

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