Òpera de Butxaca: the challenge of new Catalan creation

Interviews 05.05.2022

The adventure began in the humble and beloved Malic Theatre, with only sixty people, in 1993. It was there that the seed began to blossom in the form of a festival, Festival Òpera de Butxaca, whose aim was to bring small productions closer to the public in an atmosphere of proximity. But after more than 25 years of activity and many "beautiful creatures" brought to the stage, after a reconversion as a cultural entity, Òpera de Butxaca i Nova Creació (OBNC) maintains its creative spirit, its artistic challenge: the dignity of the craft, the production and creation of quality contemporary opera. Building partnerships, with the conviction of strengthening the union of the performing arts and music, OBNC has promoted more than 30 new operas and 76 musical works.

We spoke to its director, Dietrich Grosse, and artistic director Marc Rosich.

Dietrich, you were born in Germany and have been a dancer and performer in many pieces. You arrived in Barcelona in 1979. Was it something premeditated?
DG: No, I arrived by chance. I had studied with Jaques Lecoq in Paris and met Angela Pasky and Pawel Rouba, who were two very well-known and renowned Polish teachers. In Rome, one summer, Angela Pasky told me that there was a new department of mime and physical theatre at the Institut del Teatre and I said to myself: I'm going to go to Barcelona, before returning to Paris, to see what it is. And when I arrived here, after two weeks, a mime friend recommended contemporary dance classes. It was a great time for physical theatre, for expression through the body. And that's how I started. I studied mime in the morning and contemporary dance in the afternoon. I didn't come with the idea of staying, but I felt welcome.

Also, it was a period of intense cultural activity in Barcelona.
DG: Yes, it was four years after the death of Franco and the cultural scene was fascinating. There was a lot of energy and everything was very authentic, nothing was channelled. Now everything seems more regulated. But at that time there was an artistic anarchy with a huge life force. I remember that in the mime department we came from ten different countries. Today, that is no longer the case.

Marc, you are a playwright, but you trained in journalism and translation.
MR: I have a bit of a "schizophrenic" profile (laughs). I didn't study theatre, but I've always been involved in it; for example, I did amateur theatre. When I came to the Sala Becket, I realised that I was a playwright. We met a generation of playwrights there who were already starting to write plays for the Malic Theatre. I say I am 'schizophrenic' because I am very curious and I like to do all kinds of theatre, from children's theatre to big musicals, text theatre, opera, adaptations of novels, etc. What happened to me was that I was not able to write the plays I wanted to write. What happened to me was that I always made the connection with music. I love theatre, but when it also includes singing on stage, I am bewitched and fascinated. In fact, when I worked with my teachers Xavier Albertí and Calixto Bieito, it was always with music, and maybe that's why I design projects with composers.

And how did the two of you meet? How did your relationship start?
MR: I joined theOBNC when it was still a festival, because I was proposing shows; for example, baroque intermezzos that interested me. Then I began to be associated with Agustí Charles, and then with other composers to create operas, which I like so much. Also, Toni Rumbau, who was the artistic director of the festival at the time, left the Festival de Òpera Butxaca, and because he saw me so enthusiastic, he suggested that we partner with Dietrich and that together we could move the project forward.

That's how it all started ....
DG: Yes, like that. I went to Berlin to train as a cultural manager and when I came back, Rumbau was leaving the Malic Theatre, but he told me that he wanted the Festival Òpera de Butxaca to continue. On the other hand, Luis Polanco, who was then the vice-director and artistic director of the Peralada Festival, offered me to collaborate on the opera.

That is to say, although you come from the world of the stage, you joined the world of music.
DG: Yes, I was a dancer, but it's a world full of music; in fact, we used to commission music. Dance is a performing art that is based on or is part of the music. Also, at that time I had a key experience.

Which one?
DG: I attended the puppet opera "Eurydice and the Puppets" by Charon, with music by Joan Albert Amargós and a libretto by Toni Rumbau. By the way, it's an opera that will be revived in Italy.
MR: This is one of the first operas with the ambition of creating a repertoire that Festival Òpera de Butxaca has produced. Until then, the Òpera de Butxaca festival had a more local dimension; but when the era of the Malic theatre came to an end, the festival opened up to stages all over the city with pieces of a slightly larger format. Also, with your presence, Dietrich, the festival opened up internationally, involving guests from abroad.
DG: I was delighted, it blew my mind.

I imagine that the collaboration with the Peralada festival has been fruitful.
DG: Yes, because it allowed me to participate in the touring of large-scale works, and to better understand the mechanism of large-scale shows. In addition, I met some important people in the opera world who helped me to establish myself. Without complicity, you can't work.
MR: Exactly, we have forged a network that has allowed many local productions that might have been limited to Barcelona to reach a wider audience and to find foreign partners who are committed to artists who, unfortunately, do not receive enough support.

Marc, you are also a translator. It must be complex to adapt a novel to the theatre.
MR: Yes, it's about transforming a given material to bring out its theatrical essence. With Calixto Bieito, we have adapted "Plateforme" by Michel Houellebecq or "Tirant Lo Blanc" by Joanot Martorell. Imagine what it must be like to turn these novels into a play! In fact, one of our latest works is an adaptation of 'Tirant Lo Blanc' as a chamber opera, which was performed at the Liceu and in Peralada and which we are now going to create at the Teatro Real.

And with Òpera de Butxaca, did you set yourself any challenges?
MR: Yes, I demanded that the works should not only be music, but music and theatre at the same time, to study how the two arts live and to be able to marry the dramatists and directors with the composers, inviting them to mix; shows that work with musical power, but designed for the stage. In other words, true multi-dis-ci-pli-ary creations; that opera is not just a composer's invention, but that it relies on performing arts professionals to bring out the full potential of music on stage. This is one of our challenges.
DG: Marc is a performing animal. From the very beginning he has created fantastic stagings, such as a production with Mahler songs, another with Alma Mahler pieces or a dissection of Don Giovanni's corpse with puppets at the Royal Academy of Medicine. Marc has this team spirit and it was wonderful to meet him.  

I'm intrigued. So what happened?
DG: Catalan culture was a guest at the Frankfurt Fair in 2007. I spoke to Xavier Albertí, who was the director of the Institut Ramón Llull, and I suggested that we put on an opera, with a text, which was justified because it was part of the literary works of the Frankfurt Fair. And he replied that if I could find a theatre, we could do it. I spoke to John Dew, the artistic director of the Staatstheater in Darmstadt, and he thought it was a great idea to collaborate with the Book Fair. We brought four operas, one of which they co-produced with us.
MR: That's right. It was the first collaboration between Agustí Charles and me, with the opera La Cuzzoni.
DG: And that was the founding experience: suddenly there was opera in Catalan abroad. That gave us hope, because before that there was practically no opera in Catalan outside Barcelona. That's when we decided to believe in it, because the reception was excellent. And we believed in it!

And then, in 2008, the crisis hit.
MR: Yes, and the Òpera de Butxaca festival, which had grown and found international allies, suddenly had to be dismantled.
DG: The rules of the game changed.
MR: We had reached a ceiling and we couldn't grow any more. We had to close down. However, the international links we had built began to bear fruit.

Was it time for a change of direction?
MR: Yes, we sacrificed the Festival and converted, devoting ourselves to new creation, with the intention of promoting one or two productions a year that would include the new voices of the country. This has led us to work with Agustí Charles, Joan Magrané and Raquel García-Tomas, among others.

Agustí Charles is one of the great names of the OBNC. How did this relationship start?
MR: It was in 2007, when we were looking for composers interested in opera. He was one of the first to want to create an opera. Through him, we also met several of his students from the Escola Superior de Música de Catalunya. In fact, it was a time when, so to speak, there was a desert in this sector.
DG: What happened was that more and more people believed in it and, of course, we acquired more and more quality. It was difficult for the country to recognise the strength of these creators, this hidden treasure of artists; however, it came to believe in it.

Yes, it is true. OBNC has won several awards that confirm this. I am thinking of Raquel García-Tomás ' opera 'I am a narcissist' , which won the 2019 Premio Alicia and was nominated for the 2020 International Opera Awards; I am also thinking of the attention given to Joan Magrané, who received the Reina Sofia Prize for composition ten years ago and is currently the composer in residence at the Auditori. However, why has it taken so long to recognise these hidden talents to which, Dietrich, you alluded earlier? And you, Marc: how do you see it from your side?
DG: It's just that we are in a country that doesn't believe in it very much.
MR: Yes, with little regard for local creators. And on top of that, there's the usual distrust of contemporary music.
DG: Only with the sporadic large-scale opera commissions that the Liceu can make, a composer cannot trace a path, a journey in this musical genre. Writing an opera is an extremely complex undertaking. Before making a large-scale opera, it is healthy for composers to have the opportunity to get their feet wet, to test themselves, in more controllable pieces, in small and medium format.

Marc, what do you think?
MR: There are a lot of constraints to master, a lot of collaborative work. One of our intentions is to offer a testing ground for anyone interested in creating small-scale operas.

You try to find that closeness to the audience?
MR: Yes, because opera does not have to exist only in large halls; just as there is theatre in small formats. I'm thinking, for example, of "Sis Solos Soles", a project that we presented in unconventional spaces in the Liceu, which consisted of six monodramas, six short plays by six composers with different librettists. In this type of piece, you can test new voices and allow the composers, the musical and stage directors and the rest of the artistic team to discover for the first time the collaborative work involved in staging. For example, we worked on the collaborative pieces "Displace" or "Dido Reloaded", which served as a test bed for Joan Magrané and Raquel García-Tomás before moving on to their more important pieces: Joan's "Diàlegs de Tirant e Carmesina" or Raquel's "I am a narcissist".
DG: By the way, Raquel García-Tomás will premiere a new work next season at the Liceu, in the main auditorium, which fills us with pride.
MR: And with satisfaction.
DG: And she is the second woman to premiere at the Liceu in 175 years!

It is a success...
DG: On the other hand, while Raquel García-Tomás was creating "I am a narcissist", we organised a conference on the works of women composers and the presence of women in the world of opera, which provoked an intense debate.

I imagine that all these initiatives bear fruit and nourish the opera scene?
DG: Yes, for example, little by little, singers find it stimulating to work with us. The singers, despite their talent and the critics who follow them, are not sufficiently recognised because they perform works from the repertoire that are already well known.
MR: Yes, there are performers and instrumentalists who commit themselves to opera, with love and risk. I am thinking, for example, of "Andrómeda encadenada", and the soprano María Hinojosa. The first one was wonderful, impressive.

There is a strange creature in your productions. Tell me about "Ocaña, the Queen of the Ramblas".
MR: Yes, it's one of our strange children. The Neukollner Oper in Berlin asked us for Spanish repertoire, but we didn't see ourselves doing zarzuela, so we thought we'd write a musical around the copla. That's where it came from. After the premiere in Berlin, in German, we thought that it was logical to mount a new production in Barcelona and in Spanish.

Ocaña is an icon of transgressive Barcelona, a beloved figure.
DG: Yes, of that period we were talking about at the beginning.
MR: It's a play that gave us a lot of joy. It won the critics' prize for best musical and for the best performer, Joan Vázquez. We couldn't imagine anyone better to embody the icon of the Ramblas.
DG: I love it. We don't close ourselves off to anything. We never do.

Looking back, after all these years, with a conversion in between, what was more difficult, to start or to continue?
MR: I would say resisting. Our survival is heroic because we are rowing against the tide. Whenever we start a project, we often don't know yet how we're going to finance it, but we always end up finding a way.

DG: When I launched the project, the city council at the time believed in us and gave us a minimum of support, and in fact, at the time, the public remembered with emotion the beginnings of the project at the Malic Theatre. In 2007 we worked very hard to achieve our first excellence, and this is what finally allowed us to maintain our position, an excellence that has allowed us to dialogue with the great protagonists of the opera scene in the country, such as the Liceu, the Peralada Festival, the National Theatre of Catalonia, the Teatre Lliure and the Teatro Real.

Finally, I'd like to ask you about the basis of all this: what fascinates you about opera?
MR: Opera is a bacchanalian feast, right from its birth. And in its essence, there is something of a bacchanal, a pagan mass; in fact, operas were forbidden. It's pagan and Dionysian music and when it bites you, you can't escape it.
DG: The nice thing about opera is that suddenly you have a story, you're telling something. And also what Marc said before, the relationship of the team, which surrounds you and allows you to communicate with others. Everything has a meaning.
MR: Yes, I agree. We don't think of opera as a cold score, as a mental experience of the composer; we push our creators to unite skin, blood, flesh, body; to marry music and theatre, to want the most mental and abstract part of music to meet the most physical side of theatre. 

Interview by Txema Seglers

Upcoming: "Andrómeda encadenada" on 21 and 22 October 2022 at the Staatstheater Darmstadt as part of the Frankfurt Book Fair 

Photos © Javier del Real
Photos © Roland Olbeter
Photos © Antoni Bofill
Photos © Isaias Fanlo


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