2 May 2017 at 4.48pm | Comment on this article
In a way, Buñuel’s film El ángel exterminador (The Exterminating Angel) is an operatic story in a very pure form, because every opera is about getting out of a particular situation. In the film, the mechanism that gets us from A to B is switched off: the guests know that they should go home – they have children who are waiting for them, things to do, etc. – but they don’t go. Even when they are starving and in despair, they’re incapable of doing so, although the doors are open. The composer’s job is to write music that gets you from moment A to moment B to moment C – as it were from one room into another room into another, eventually arriving at a destination. Every piece of music is looking for an exit, and the fun thing in my operatic adaptation is that the characters are looking for an exit the whole time but keep coming back into the same room.
Why do we ever do anything? Buñuel’s film poses this question in a very pure form, and the answer is: because otherwise we would be at the end, with death and extermination. The exterminating angel is a kind of absence – an absence of will, of purpose, of action. You could say that extermination is what we’re fleeing from when we leave a room, when we do anything at all. The opera throws me back on how miraculous it is that we can and must act, indeed that we are alive at all.
On the one hand Buñuel conveys the impression that the force stopping the guests from leaving lies within themselves, but on the other, with this title, he takes the step of saying: let’s pretend that there is such a supernatural, destructive force, a mythical figure which makes it impossible to act. For me, once the exterminating angel has taken possession of the guests, the only possible outcome is the complete breakdown of society and the imposition of martial law – and ultimately the end of the world.
Buñuel puts his cast into a situation where their personalities as they are when they first encounter one another eventually break down or turn into something else. He plays with this façade. In the opera, the music supports the private personality behind the façade on the one hand (and lets us feel empathy with the characters), but on the other it also supports the other force which is pulling them into a kind of shared nothingness. Music can be a powerful leveller, because it tends to want to resolve everyone into the same place. The whole process is heightened in the opera. The music is a sort of destiny the characters are subject to. Sometimes it feels as if the music is responsible for keeping them in the room, and in the end it’s the music that releases them.
Music has a tendency to arrange itself either in terms of patterns or cycles. On a tiny scale, in a single bar, as well as on the huge scale of an entire opera there is always the possibility to decide not to be part of a pattern. This is part of my musical make-up, and I think it’s very much part of the action in The Exterminating Angel. We have figures trapped within cycles of thought and others who fight against the cycles and patterns. To arrive at a real musical resolution, the patterns and cycles have to be subdued, re-combined by the composer’s hand to produce a new doorway, if you like. And that’s exactly what happens at the end, when the characters are released – but of course then that music just becomes another dominant waiting for resolution… The feeling that the door is open but that we don’t go through it is with us all the time.
This article is adapted from Thomas Adès’s interview with Christian Arseni, available to read in full in The Royal Opera’s programme for The Exterminating Angel.
The Exterminating Angel runs until 8 May 2017. Tickets are still available.
The production is a co-commission and co-production with Salzburg Festival, the Metropolitan Opera, New York, and the Royal Danish Opera and is staged with generous philanthropic support from Stefan Sten Olsson, The John S. Cohen Foundation and The Boltini Trust.