This month, the New York Philharmonic presents the world premiere of Adriana Songs, Kaija Saariaho’s song cycle adapted from her highly praised opera, Adriana Mater.
By ARLO McKINNON - December 2006
Adriana Mater, Kaija Saariaho's second opera, is set in a war zone in an unspecified country at an unspecified time (although at the work's premiere, most reviewers indicated that the production brought to mind the Bosnian war of the 1990s). Adriana becomes pregnant after being raped by Tsargo — a soldier from her own community, not someone from the opposing army. Despite opposition from her sister, Refka, Adriana decides to bear and raise the child. Years later, Adriana and her son, Yonas, come across Tsargo, now a blind and broken man. Yonas is determined to exact revenge for his mother by slaying Tsargo, despite the fact that he would be committing patricide. Adriana does not approve of this plan but determines that Yonas must do as he sees fit. Ultimately, after an encounter with his father Yonas leaves without killing him. Upon his report of this, Adriana embraces him and states, "We are not revenged, but we are redeemed," closing the opera on a note of hopefulness for struggling humanity.
On December 14, 15 and 16 of this year, the New York Philharmonic will present the world premiere of Adriana Songs, a song cycle derived from the opera. Adriana Songs will feature Irish mezzo-soprano Patricia Bardon, who created the role of Adriana in the opera. In July, OPERA NEWS reached Saariaho at her Paris home. At the time of our conversation, the Israeli bombardment of Lebanon (librettist Amin Maalouf's homeland) had been in effect for a fortnight, and Paris was in the midst of an oppressive heat wave.
OPERA NEWS: Adriana Songs will be conducted by David Robertson. Have you worked with him before?
KAIJA SAARIAHO: Yes, we did when he was working with the Ensemble InterContemporain, so that was a really long time ago. And I'm very happy about this encounter again.
ON: When you created an orchestral song cycle from L'Amour de Loin, you made some significant changes. You took an aria from the alto and transposed it to the baritone and the like. Will there be any changes of that type, or changes of orchestration, for Adriana Songs?
KS: Well, there are several changes in the orchestration, because there is no choir in this song cycle, but not as many changes. Adriana Songs is for mezzo voice, and all the sung material comes from the part of Adriana. There are altogether four pieces, one of which is purely orchestral. And that's there for several musical reasons. I wanted to bring in this material, and I have completely reworked it again.
ON: I have not had the chance to hear the new opera. At least in its setting, Adriana Mater seems very topical, given the troubled state of our world right now. And from one of the interviews I read it sounded as if it was by chance that Amin Maalouf set it in a war zone. Were you intending to speak on any level to the war conditions of the current world?
KS: Well, you know that we work very closely together, and as maternity was one of the subjects that I wanted to deal with, for him something as intimate and important was the subject of war. It was quite well balanced: I brought my important subject, and he brought his. The violence in relations and the violence in wartime, this all is touching us so much today that it was quite natural to speak about it. And also we really, deliberately, wanted to do something very different from L'Amour de Loin. So, that all came together quite naturally.
ON: Do you regard yourself on any level as a political artist?
KS: Until now I felt that I have nothing to say, and I'm not political person. I don't think one needs to be a political person to treat these subjects. But today it is so urgent.
ON: Absolutely. These must be very, very painful times for Mr. Maalouf, with what's going on in Lebanon.
KS: Yes. Think about it. The war [in the 1980s] had already left him so deeply marked that he had never ever touched it in his writing before Adriana Mater.
ON: Will the full opera of Adriana Mater be performed in the U.S. any time soon?
KS: There is a plan for Santa Fe Opera for the U.S. premiere for 2008.
ON: You write extremely well for the voice. I find it interesting that on the one hand, with this, the most basic and organic of musical instruments, you have such strength as a composer, yet I understand that you do your writing on the computer.
KS: Well, it's like my typewriter — nothing more mysterious than that.