Oscar-winning film composer Alexandre Desplat writes his first opera, and it’s personal
The subject matter hit home. For his first opera, Alexandre Desplat chose to adapt “Silence” — a short story by the late Yasunari Kawabata about an aged writer who can no longer communicate because of a stroke — soon after Desplat’s wife faced a career-altering crisis and as Desplat himself started to lose his voice, literally.
The two-time Oscar-winning composer has earned 10 nominations for the likes of “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” “Philomena,” and, up for an Academy Award this weekend, his Japanese-fusion score for taiko drums and saxophones in “Isle of Dogs.” But just as he ventured into opera and began composing “Silence” last summer, he suffered vocal cord problems that eventually required surgery.
Speaking last month via FaceTime from his studio in Paris, his raspy voice expected to recover fully from the operation, Desplat described the source material for his opera as “a very beautiful short story about the impossibility of being a writer again, and the questioning of that. How do you get away with not being able to be an artist anymore?”
It’s a question that resonated deeply for Desplat, who has been scoring films since 1986. After about 50 European movies, he caught the attention of American ears with “Girl With a Pearl Earring” in 2003 and quickly became the go-to composer for filmmakers such as Stephen Frears, George Clooney and “Isle of Dogs” director Wes Anderson. He has written songs and a few works for the concert hall, including a concerto for his own instrument, the flute — and he cut his teeth composing for theater. But never for opera.
“I never wanted to write an opera,” he said. “I didn’t think I was ready for that, or even tempted. So I was a bit worried, or questioning myself about my ability to do it. But when I read this little story, I thought there was something — aside from the personal point of view.”
How do you get away with not being able to be an artist anymore?
He was referring to Dominique “Solrey” Lemonnier, the director of the opera, which premieres Tuesday at Les Theatres de la Ville de Luxembourg. Lemonnier is a master violinist and has been the concertmaster and frequent soloist on most of Desplat’s film scores. She most recently performed electric violin on his score for the Jacques Audiard western “The Sisters Brothers.” She’s also married to Desplat.
Lemonnier had a brain aneurysm in 2010, and during surgery the oxygen flow to her left side was temporarily cut off. When she woke up, her left arm was paralyzed. Through years of intense physical therapy, she regained the use of her left hand but does not have full mobility. Her career as a concert violinist is over.
“When you play violin, your left-hand fingers are like five Ferraris — and she has two Renaults here,” Desplat said. “Unfortunately they can’t move any more as they should. She can’t play repertoire. It’s been tragic. She’s played violin since she was 6.
“So this short story came as an obvious territory we could explore: How do you get over that, and how can you communicate, and how can you evolve, and who can be transmitting your thoughts or your desires?”
I never wanted to write an opera. I didn’t think I was ready for that, or even tempted.
“Silence” is a chamber opera for three singers and 10 musicians. Desplat took inspiration from gagaku, traditional Japanese court music, which groups instruments in threes. His trio of protagonists is accompanied by three flutes, three clarinets, a string trio and a percussionist. The composition uses some Japanese modality, but Desplat said it’s unmistakably his Gallic voice. He cited Debussy’s “Pelléas et Mélisande” as a reference point.
“It’s not simple, but the way that the singing is organized is not with huge movements, like in Strauss or even the Italian opera,” he said. “I’m not trying to have the singers show off their abilities and use the voice as a virtuoso instrument. The prosody is very horizontal, not vertical.”
Desplat co-wrote the libretto with Lemonnier. Since her injury, the first-time opera director has turned to video art, which she incorporates in the work. As a musician, she’s staged it in a way that prominently features the instrumentalists. Dressed in a rainbow of colors — in costumes by Valentino fashion designer Pierpaolo Piccioli — the musicians share the minimalist stage with the cast and are meant to represent nature.
“The musicians are very visual in this mise en scène, and it’s very good for Alexandre’s music,” Lemonnier said, turning to her husband. “I see lot of image in your music, all the time.”
The film composer laughed. “I did try to do something else,” he said, “but I messed up.”
The music had to be more ambitious and precise for such a small, exposed ensemble, with no dialogue or moving images to accompany or hide under — but even Desplat’s 100-piece-orchestra film scores are notable for their elegant, transparent orchestration.
“Maybe because I dreamed of writing for symphonic scores,” he said, “but for many, many years there was no way I could do it in French cinema, because the movies didn’t offer that, or the producer didn’t offer that. I had to learn how to sound big with very little amount of musicians.”
After Luxembourg, the opera will move to the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris in early March. Desplat is also talking to ensembles in Japan and China, and he hopes to record “Silence.”
The composer met Lemonnier when recording his first film score in the late ’80s. He had only a string quintet for the low-budget movie — “Le Souffleur,” unreleased — which included two out-of-tune violinists. Other musicians came to his aid and brought new violinists the next day.
One was Lemonnier, and it was love at first sound.
“Exactly,” he said, “because her sound made my approach of writing for strings different.”
They say the marriage of two musicians has been wonderful. Not only do they understand the demands and crazy schedules of a professional life in music, but they think and work in harmony.
“Alexandre can ask me a lot of things about strings, technical and everything,” Lemonnier said. “And me, I can approach his music deeply. It’s absolutely fantastic to have this kind of artistic complicity.”
And now, after 25 years, an opera.
Perhaps if they weren’t together, “we wouldn’t have had the guts to do it,” they concurred in a graceful duet of French and English.
“We have a force to be together in the music,” Lemonnier said. “And when we work together, we are like ...” She searched for the English word.
Desplat jumped in: “Killers.”
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