An Inconvenient Truth – The Opera

[It’s not just the consensus scientists, the committed environmentalists, the journalists in search of the catastrophic headline, the government in search of tax receipts, and the businessmen hoping to make a quick government-subsidised buck. Global warming hysteria is an ideology which pervades the whole of the higher reaches of western society. In a sense, the further you get from its environmental epicentre, the more interesting it gets]

In May 2008 the Italian press reported [1] that La Scala Milan had commissioned the composer Giorgio Battistelli to write a new opera to be performed in 2011 as part of the festivities celebrating 150 years of Italian independence.

In an interview with la Repubblica, [2] Battistelli explained:

“When Lissner [Artistic Director of La Scala] made me this proposition, I told him I didn’t feel like creating an opera starring Garibaldi or Cavour. I was more interested in doing something contemporary, which would launch Italy on the international scene. I’d read Al Gore’s book, “An Inconvenient Truth”,  and I was fascinated by the idea of creating a musical drama based on this essay about melting ice, deforestation and air pollution. And that’s what I’m doing. Al Gore laid down just two conditions: the choice of the librettist – the American poet J.D. McClatchy, and the director, William Friedkin, director of “the Exorcist”, as well as many operas. Naturally, I had no objections. At last, a great project, born in Italy but which, hopefully, will spread round the world.”

[A Frenchman commissions an Italian composer to write a work celebrating the birth of the Italian nation. He asks the permission of an American author to use his work. The American agrees, on condition that he uses a American librettist and an American director. The Italian “naturally, had no objections”]

Not everyone was convinced. Elena Percivaldi, writing in July, 2008 in classicaonline: [3]

“La Scala, 2011: The Italian National Anthem; the curtain rises. And, instead of the melodies of Verdi which inspired the movement for the unification of Italy; instead of Garibaldi, or Count Cavour, or the resistance against the Austro-Hungarian invaders and the struggle for independence – an adaptation of the voice of Al Gore, declaiming “Una scomoda verità”  – An Inconvenient Truth, the account of  the danger of the approaching environmental catastrophe for which the ex-vice-president of the United States was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.”

Stéphane Lissner, artistic director of La Scala Milan, explained to Elena Percivaldi:

“Two years ago, the then Minister Rutelli asked me to come up with a project to put on at La Scala  to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Italian Unification in 2011.

[Rutelli was then Minister of Culture. He was one of the founders of the centre-left Daisy Party, and had previously been Minister of the Environment, but had resigned after one day in office]

In May 2006 I met Giorgio Battistelli in Rome, and spoke to him about this idea. When we next met, he offered to compose specially for the occasion an opera based on Nobel Peace Prize winner Al Gore’s book “An Inconvenient Truth”. I was expecting something, shall we say, more traditional. But two hours later, I was convinced that this was the right choice.”

Ms Percivaldi explains:

“Al Gore’s book and film, which won two Oscars, for best film and best song, deals with the predictions of scientists concerning the climate change arising from current government policies: the wasteful exploitation of the planet’s energy resources, with the consequences which are visible to us all: rising levels of CO2 in the atmosphere; increasing greenhouse gases; overheating of the planet; increasing ice melt, floods and hurricanes. An impending catastrophe, in other words, which is inevitable if we don’t take action straight away, not only by means of a vast worldwide co-operative effort, but also in terms of a whole series or individual actions, little things that each one of us can do to reduce our energy consumption and our polluting emissions.”

Ms Percivaldi interviews Giorgio Battistelli:

“Maestro, why have you chosen a text like this, which has no obvious historical links to Italy, to celebrate Italian Unification, and not something about our national heroes? 

Battistelli: Because I didn’t want to deal with a subject which has been done to death. The theme of Italian Unification, treated in the traditonal way, centred on the same old political myths seems to me to offer an extremely limited perspective on the current state of the country. I preferred to thrust Italy onto the centre of the world stage, with all the problems that that implies. One of these is the environment, the pollution which is suffocating us, and which, if we don’t do something about it, will certainly have tragic consequences. Al Gore’s work seemed tailor-made for me, so I suggested it.

Percivaldi: So no Garibaldi, then. But, coming back to the question of current events, there are problems facing Italy today like immigration, or the scandal of Naples waste disposal, which, after all, are making headlines around the world..

Battistelli: “No, I wanted a subject which would decouple Italy from current politics. I didn’t want to cover the same old ideological confrontations, fascism versus communism, but rather do something which would be relevant from Sydney to Mumbai, from Singapore to New York. In other words, a work which would have a universal significance.”

Percivaldi: One of the main problems of basing a dramatic work on a factual essay is how to render it theatrical. How, in other words, do you treat a theoretical tract which has absolutely no dramatic qualities?

Battistelli: The relation between fact and fiction is something which interests me enormously. Looking around me, I realised that today, the non-fictional essay stimulates the collective imagination much more than does poetry or fiction. It seems as though literature is slower to come to terms with current problems […] what I want to put forward is not a message of protest, but a vision of a possible chemical apocalypse.

Percivaldi: How does one translate into music this feeling of impending tragedy?

Battistelli: I’d like to experiment with new technology. I envisage an orchestra, with soloists and a chorus […] Musically, there’ll be a lot of electronic sound effects. I’ve arranged to collect a lot of acoustic material in various parts of Milan which will record the noises of the city, sounds which will be remixed and which will provide in certain parts of the opera the “audio landscape” which sets the tone for the orchestra. There’ll also be tv cameras filming what’s going on. Pictures will then be selected to eliminate everything that’s motionless and inert. So movement, translated into sound, will merge like coloured shadows with the voices – a completely new technique. I intend to spend a couple of years getting this together and experimenting with it.

Percivaldi: The libretto will be written by J.D. McClatchy, poet, translator, and writer […] He told me, in English, “Al Gore’s text is a splendid polemical essay. But I’m a librettist, so what matters to me are the characters, the dialogue, and the action. When we started to work on the project, one thing immediately became clear. We had no intention of creating an oratorio with a chorus declaiming the end of the world, or a static situation with the characters reduced to simple tableaux  vivants”.

Percivaldi: So what inspired you about the book?

J.D. McClatchy: What inspired us about this book was the description of a world in profound crisis. We met the challenge of translating it into a theatrical form with as our guiding principle the fact that it would never be, and could never be, a “traditional” melodrama. But we’ve only just started work, so it’s a ‘work in progress’ and will inevitably change in the course of our work and adapt itself to the demands of the music. All we know for the moment is that we have a dramatic beginning, and perhaps an even more dramatic end. But one thing is certain. There’ll be no “blueprint for survival”. Our aim is to propose a reflection on the crucial themes of our existence and of our future as individuals and as inhabitants of the planet, and to encourage people to think about what’s going to happen. But it will be up to them to decide what to do about it in concrete terms,  and to make, we would hope, a moral choice.

The director will be William Friedkin, universally renowned for having directed the Exorcist (1973), who since 1998 has been turning his talent to directing opera: Wozzeck with Mehta, Bluebeard, Gianni Schicchi, and Ariadne on Naxos with Nagano, and now (September 2008) Tabarro and Sister Angelica at the Los Angeles Opera.

Friedkin: Working for the most prestigious theatre in the world, and with two such talented artists as Battistelli and McClatchy is a challenge I couldn’t turn down. We started faced with the classic blank sheet of paper. Our starting point is and will be the book, and not the film, so the opera won’t be simply a dramatic transposition of a documentary, but will have a life of its own. […] Though I’m a film director, for years I’ve been testing myself in opera, because I’m convinced that theatre is a much better than film for delivering a message. I know and adore Italian cinema, but the only films which achieve worldwide success these days are ones with superheroes battling against the villain of the day in order to save the world. It’s nothing but technology. Who’ll remember them in a hundred years’ time? While an opera composed centuries ago is still listened to today, because it’s universal.

Percivaldi: Have you already got some names in mind of people you want to work with on this opera?

Friedkin: So far we’ve chosen a top flight team. The set designer will be Mark Fisher, the genius of le Cirque du Soleil. The lighting will be by Mark Jonathan of the London Royal Ballet, and finally there’s Michael Curry, who designed the wonderful characters for “the Lion King”. It’s a team I’ve worked with many times before, and I’m convinced they’ll contribute a fantastic amount to this work.

Percivaldi: And the singers?

Battistelli: They’ll be chosen later, when we’ve finished the work.

But alas, just six months later, Operachic was reporting: [4]

January 20, 2009

Corriere della Sera is reporting today that director William Friedkin pulled out of his commitment to direct that Scala production of the opera inspired by Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” […] Apparently, Friedkin has had problems with the libretto:

“I withdrew for artistic reasons, irreconcilable differences with McClatchy’s libretto. This past September I received the libretto and I immediately called la Scala’s Gaston Fournier to state my negative reaction. I also did that with McClatchy and, via email, with Battistelli. Battistelli hoped to ‘fix’ somehow the libretto but I told him no, I couldn’t work on [J.D. McClatchy] Sandy’s libretto”.

In October, Friedkin’s agent, let it be known to la Scala that “under no condition whatsoever the director will accept to work on that libretto”.

Variety (Jan. 30, 2009) added: [5]

William Friedkin has inconveniently pulled out of directing “An Inconvenient Truth” at Milan’s La Scala opera house. Friedkin cited “irreconcilable creative differences” with poet and librettist J.D. McClatchy. La Scala is now looking for another director to work with composer Giorgio Battistelli and McClatchy, […] The production, backed by Participant Media, which financed the Oscar-winning Al Gore doc, is still aiming to debut May 11, 2011. Battistelli charged in Milan’s Corriere Della Sera that Friedkin bailed “for personal, not artistic reasons.” The miffed maestro also claimed Friedkin intended to spotlight flashy special effects over the green message in “Truth.”

“Opera isn’t Hollywood,” he opined.

Then in November, 2009 operachic interviewed librettist McClatchy [6]

Operachic: How is it working with the Italian composer Giorgio Battistelli for the Al Gore opera “An Inconvenient Truth” that you’ve written for la Scala for 2011?

JD MClatchy: I don’t know how Giorgio’s music will sound because he hasn’t written any of it yet – or none that I’ve heard. That’s because, when we took on a new director for the project, the supernaturally talented Robert Lepage, he had new and provocative ideas and we all decided to take the libretto, which was then finished, in an entirely new direction. We’ve had strategy sessions in London and New York, and I’m just now finishing up the new version. Since the curtain doesn’t come up until October 2013, there’s plenty of time, though I know Giorgio is itching to start composing.

Operachic: How difficult is it to make something that’s beautiful and not simply, so to speak, “educational” when writing an opera about the environment ? The Gore book can be dry at times. Is it paradoxically liberating for you as a writer to have such an unconventional source? How do you make a nonfiction work sound poetic? How much harder is it than turning, say, Orwell’s “1984” into an opera for Maazel?

JD MClatchy: “1984” was, more or less, a straight adaptation, and the material was a well-known novel, with a plot and characters, a villain and a denouement. “An Inconvenient Truth” is another kettle of fish, but that’s what makes the whole project so intriguing. What we’re doing is interlacing the story of Gore’s coming-to-his-decisions with a grand technological panorama of the world and its environmental problems. That’s essentially Lepage’s portfolio. What I’m doing now is crafting Gore’s story – and it leads up to the time the first shaky slide goes into his projector – as the development of an environmental conscience. It’s less a personal story than a moral fable.

So, conceived in 2006 to be performed in 2011, back in November 2009, the curtain was due to go up in October 2013. But then, in February 2012, il Sole reports: [7]

La Scala is ready for Expo 2015 with a programme which relaunches the tradition of Italian musical excellence. On May 2nd the world premier of “An Inconvenient Truth” Giorgio Battistelli’s opera based on the book by Al Gore…

Like the End of the World itself, the Opera of the Book of the Film of the End of the World keeps getting put off until tomorrow…

*       *      *

Time to play Fantasy Opera. I imagine Dame Kiri Te Kanawa in the role of the Multi Decadal Pacific Oscillation, Grace Bumbry as the Lower Tropical Troposphere, and Pavarotti as the obligatory polar bear. La Callas woud have to be La Nina and Caruso el Nino, of course. Any more suggestions welcome.

[I’ve long been pondering a strip cartoon here, a super hero comic tale of climate change. I’ve got my cast of characters – CO2MAN the Contrarian versus the wicked necromancer Phil the Beige, Wizard of CRUT. (Co-starring Donna the Good Witch of the North, and Joanna the Even Better Witch of the South). And so on. 

But “Una Scomoda Verità” has given me a better idea. I’m working on the storyboard for a modern ballet interpretation of the Climategate emails. This would give me the excuse to draw Professor Mann in the kind of frilly tights only seen on the kind of websites you, dear readers, wouldn’t know about. With a bit of luck, I might  manage to anger both Michael Mann and the transvestite community at the same time. That should push up my WordPress rating.]

[Translation from the Italian is my own. I really don’t like translating. I’m not good at it. Any constructive criticism would be welcome. Pointing out that my translation is nothing like the automatic translations available on-line, however, is not constructive.]

Notes:

[1]

http://www.ilsole24ore.com/art/SoleOnLine4/Tempo%20libero%20e%20Cultura/2008/05/scala.shtml

[2] http://ricerca.repubblica.it/repubblica/archivio/repubblica/2008/08/26/battistelli.html

[3] http://www.classicaonline.com/interviste/10-07-08.html

[4] http://operachic.typepad.com/opera_chic/al-gore/

[5] http://www.variety.com/article/VR1117999308/

[6] http://operachic.typepad.com/opera_chic/2009/11/j-d-mcclatchy-the-opera-chic-interview.html

[7] http://www.ilsole24ore.com/art/cultura/2012-02-10/scala-pronta-lexpo-turandot-125600.shtml

 

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9 Responses to An Inconvenient Truth – The Opera

  1. Mooloo says:

    An Inconvenient Truth is a perfect story. They’re being much more traditional than they think
    — story line that makes no sense at all — check
    — ridiculous stock villains — check
    — virtuous hero that would be insufferable in real life — check
    — no practical message offered as a result of watching — check
    — words that sound beautiful, until you try to follow the meaning — check.

    I wonder if Mozart felt the same way about The Magic Flute when he wrote it?

  2. Mooloo
    Mozart and his librettist knew what they were doing, pushing enlightenment values via the rather odd Masonic movement. They didn’t think being a Freemason was odd, but then they didn’t actually believe in the existence of the witches and dragons they put in the opera. All the talented cultured people in my article are not only pro-environmentalism, but they actually believe in Al Gore’s mythology.
    (I have a soft spot for Freemasons since I learned that Duke Ellington was one. How many clubs could he join back in the 1930s?)

  3. Steveta_uk says:

    Geoff, a couple of follow up questions, if you don’t mind.

    Is there any information anywhere about why William Friedkin threw his toys out of the pram and refused to play any more?

    And given that WF was a requirement from El Gore, has permssion for the whole project lapsed?

  4. Steveta
    Friedkin’s version is that he couldn’t work with McClatchy’s libretto. Battistelli’s is that Friedkin wanted to drown the green message with special effects, according to Variety. But since they’d hired staff from le Cirque de Soleil and the Lion King, Battistelli’s accusation about special effects rings a bit hollow.
    Also, McClatchy told operachic: “when we took on a new director for the project, the supernaturally talented Robert Lepage, he had new and provocative ideas and we all decided to take the libretto, which was then finished, in an entirely new direction.”
    So if he could rewrite it for Lepage, why not for Friedkin?
    No doubt these top names have clauses in their contracts which reward them well when things break down, and in return they promise not to talk to the press.
    It’s on the programme for Milan’s international exhibition in 2015, though I haven’t found a mention more recent than February 2012, and I didn’t find anything about why it didn’t happen in 2013. They must be sure of it going ahead; they’d hardly risk a third cancellation, would they?
    Another line of enquiry I didn’t explore was the role of Rutelli, who first suggested an opera back in 2006 when he was Minister of Culture in the Prodi government; he’d been Minister of the Environment for one day, and as a founder member of the Daisy Party, was considered a rising political star at one time. Maybe Maurizio could help there.

  5. hro001 says:

    Geoff,

    I have to say that at first I thought this was another of your marvellous “creations” … As one who – prior to the invention of “surtitles” – always thought that operas would be much better without the vocals [and, as a fan of Vivaldi, mistakenly assumed that “Percivaldi” must be one of your name-puns] I couldn’t believe that this was a “true story”!

    But I do now realize the error of my ways!

    Bravo, sir🙂

  6. Hilary
    Sir? Why the sudden formality ma chère? No-one ever calls me sir (except the Chinese student who asked if he could give me a hug – (who says that the Chinese aren’t physical?) and – Anthony Watts. Someone who identified himself as conservative Catholic Texan wrote an article at WUWT which I found profoundly enlightening, and I said so, pointing out that I was a socialist atheist European, and Anthony commented “Well said, Sir”. I positively glowed with pride.
    My interest in opera is a bit eccentric. I only know it from DVDs. The combination of outrageous costumes and excessive overacting makes it a marvellous source of inspiration for illustrators. And the music’s quite nice too.

  7. dearieme says:

    The Zeffirelli Traviata is grand, isn’t it?

  8. alexjc38 says:

    If we’re playing Fantasy Opera, for a little contemporary verve I recommend a cameo role for tenor Gio Compario – non-UK readers might be somewhat puzzled! – to introduce Al Gore’s famous graph (thousand years of CO2 and temperature data) and exhort the audience to “go compare!” the blue line and the red, in order to decide for themselves which one leads the other.

  9. Lewis Deane says:

    Geoff, your blog is rather delightful. Maybe a Brittan score (of which Radio 3 is doing a reprise) a kind of Death In Venice, the old queen chasing his dreams. I don’t mean to imply anything about All Gore….!

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