With 'Oedipus', Wajdi Mouawad probes the fractures of the past

The New York Times translated a selection of its best articles into French. Find them here. PARIS – Shortly before the start of rehears...


The New York Times translated a selection of its best articles into French. Find them here.

PARIS – Shortly before the start of rehearsals for his staging of Enesco’s “Oedipus” at the Paris Opera, Wajdi Mouawad has an idea that turns out to be unusual. He writes up a lexicon of all the obscure references in the libretto – such as “the water of Castalie”, a sacred source at Delphi – and sends it to the choir.

Wajdi Mouawad, who is 52 years old and directs the Théâtre national de la Colline in Paris, is then amazed to learn that this is the first time that the choristers have received such a document. When he meets the technicians of the Opera to explain to them the history of this “Oedipus”, a curiosity composed in the 1930s which is inspired by the Greek myth, their reaction is the same, he recalls in an interview: directors will take the trouble to pay them a lot of attention.

“It’s strange, because I am told: ‘this is great, you say hello,” “he confirms. “I feel like arriving in a traumatized world that now finds its trauma to be normal.

Trauma: the word could sum up in recent years at the Paris Opera, the rebellious volunteers. At the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020, the strikes caused by the prospect of a pension reform widened a deficit of 45 million euros, on a budget of nearly 230 million euros. And again, that was before the pandemic forced the cancellation of more than a year of productions. (Shows were held in September and October of last year, but the company had to wait until the end of May to resume regular programming.)

The Oedipus, which begins Monday at the Opéra Bastille, the company’s largest stage, ushers in a new era. This is the first production commissioned by Alexander Neef, the new general manager of the Paris Opera appointed a year ago.

The choice of Wajdi Mouawad owes nothing to chance. Before arriving in Paris, Neef was director of the National Opera Company of Toronto where he co-produced Mouawad’s first steps in the world of opera. It was Mozart’s “Abduction from the Seraglio”, in 2016, which Alexander Neef describes as “one of the most rewarding experiences I have had with a director.

“His strength as an artist is that he really cares about working with people,” explains Alexander Neef in an interview in his office. “With ‘Oedipus’, I was hoping he could bring the company together. You almost have to ask him not to be too nice.

The return of “Oedipus” on the Parisian scene was long overdue. Unique opera by Georges Enesco, the work was premiered in 1936 at the Palais Garnier. It has never been performed at the Paris Opera since that date, while other opera companies have recently appeared there. The first North American production took place in 2005 at theUniversity of Illinois. In Europe, Achim Freyer offered a staging applauded at the Salzburg Festival two years ago, under the baton of Ingo Metzmacher who can be found in Paris.

More than the quality of the work, Alexander Neef thinks that it is the accidents of history that explain the lack of interest in this “Oedipus” despite the rave reviews at the time of its creation. In 1936, the New York Times reported the words of the French composer and critic Reynaldo Hahn evoking a work “grandiose, elevated, elaborate, always imposing and which commands admiration.

“After 1945, his music went out of fashion,” says Alexander Neef about the score of Enesco. “For many composers after the Holocaust, tonal music was no longer relevant.”

When Alexandre Neef offered him the project, Wajdi Mouawad was above all interested in the libretto. The director greatly appreciated the legend of Oedipus: in his thirty-year career, he staged Sophocles’ “Oedipus king” three times. And in 2016, he even wrote a play called “The Tears of Oedipus”, which draws on the tragedy at the current political situation in Greece.

Edmond Fleg, the librettist of “Oedipus”, drew heavily on “Oedipus king” and “Oedipus a Column”, by the same Sophocles, for the third and fourth acts of the opera. (The first and second explain the context of the play.) “It’s a bit summary, but they are the same lines”, confirms Wajdi Mouawad. “I told myself I had room to tell this story. “

Composer of stories has always been a priority for Wajdi Mouawad, who was born in Lebanon in 1968. His family fled the civil war when he was ten, settling first in France and then in Quebec.

“When I was trying to understand the war in Lebanon, I was either told that there was nothing to understand, or I was told: ‘it’s because of the others,'” he recalls. “I miss so many stories.

After training as an actor at the National Theater School of Canada in Montreal, Wajdi Mouawad stood out with an epic tetralogy entitled “The Blood of Promises”, which toured the world. Composed of four parts, “Littoral” (1999), “Incendies” (2003), “Forêts” (2006) and “Ciels” (2009), the play plays on the themes of intergenerational trauma, war and exile.

His work has introduced contemporary theater to many Francophone millennials. When he returned to Paris in 2016, as director of the Théâtre de la Colline, Wajdi Mouawad stood out from the current European taste for non-linear and highly conceptual productions. Lisa Perrio, an actress who has worked several times under his direction, confirms: “He likes the dramatic, the pathos, and it works.

“It’s the toughest pick of my life that I’ve had to play,” she adds, “because it takes so much emotion from you.”

For Wajdi Mouawad, postmodernism is a luxury incompatible with certain traumas. “I am post-modernism,” he says. “The war in Lebanon cannot be more post-modern. Deconstruction is a wealth thing. When all is well, we deconstruct. When you don’t have the means – when you yourself are completely fractured – you build.

In March, one after the start of the disturbances caused by the pandemic, the Colline was one of the first French theaters to be occupied by demonstrators. Students and cultural workers demanded government support and the withdrawal of unemployment insurance reform. Very quickly, the movement spread to more than a hundred theaters.

Contacted by phone, Sébastien Kheroufi, one of the first student-actors to settle on the Hill, said that Wajdi Mouawad is one of the rare renowned directors to have warmly welcomed the occupants. “One evening, he didn’t hesitate to stay with us for several hours after his rehearsals because we needed to talk,” he recalls.

However, the lifting of the occupation at the end of May remains a source of frustration for Wajdi Mouawad. With his team, he suggested that the students stay for the reopening and speak before the shows. Wajdi Mouawad also hoped to create a permanent troupe of young actors to whom he would offer contracts for the year.

They ended up refusing A hard blow for this man who hates hierarchy and did not hesitate to write a annoyed open letter in which he returns to the failure of all parties involved in the occupation.

Then, at the beginning of September, in the midst of rehearsals for “Oedipus”, François Ismert, a long-time playwright son, died. “He was really someone solar, atypical,” said the latter. Ismert opened it to Sophocles in the 1990s, “and not that”, he recalls. “To everything else, without ever being in a paternalistic relationship. “

As the premiere approaches, this disappearance continues to be felt. But the director tries to make sense of the chaos.

“I know everything is in ruins,” he sighs before heading to the rehearsal studio. “But something has to be done with these ruins.”

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Newsrust - US Top News: With 'Oedipus', Wajdi Mouawad probes the fractures of the past
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