Interview with Manfred Trojahn 

Manfred Trojahn’s music theatre work Orest will be premiered on 8 December at the Nederlandse Opera Amsterdam. A conversation with the composer about the myth and its interpretations.

[t]akte: Manfred Trojahn, in Orest you reappraise the myth of matricide in a libretto of your own. What are the central themes in the version of your music theatre work? Have you based your work on a particular literary adaptation of this famous subject? 
Trojahn: In the history of the reception and interpretation of this myth, there is a school of thought which interprets Euripides’ Orestes as a propaganda piece for the transition to a patriarchal social order. Naturally this is disputed in other interpretations, but to start with I was interested in finding a reason for the events which, over and above the sequence of action and revenge, run through all parts of the Atrides myth and which can give an insight into the conditions, always heteronomous, that is to say conceived by the gods, which trigger the plots we are faced with and which leave us speechless. 
The background of Orestes’ action is a political concept which is hidden from him. According to tradition, Orestes allows himself to be bound by this concept and accepts the commands of the god Apollo, who is behind it, as the reason for his murder, indeed he identifies so closely with the command that he regards it as an impulse coming from within. Orestes is not a likeable figure – he is completely spineless. But often these ambivalent, sometimes insecure characters have a vision – perhaps unclear and barely defined through lack of rigour – but the vision contributes to undermine influences which could otherwise easily make these characters into completely externally controlled beings.
Orestes oscillates between heteronomy, in which rewards are promised, and his vision, which could still contribute something which leads out into a new light, into a new life. He makes just one mistake: he thinks he can leave guilt behind him – and he only realizes too late that he has to live with guilt in order to overcome it. Orestes grasps this in an instant when he succeeds in looking at the maid Hermione, and not murdering her, as his sister demands. In this moment he becomes free to go, and to abandon the power of convention.

In your music theatre work, Orestes is a sufferer, a victim of persecution who attempts to emancipate himself from the power of the gods. What interests you particularly about this figure?
I think that today, we are caught in a vivid conflict between a preponderance of heteronomous thinking and ever-decreasing possibilities of escaping from its force. Orestes naturally suffers from his guilt and the anticipated consequences. But is he a victim of persecution? Or, on the contrary, is he not legitimately detained as an offender?
The essence of the matter does not lie in these procedural complications. It lies in the question of how you escape from the vicious circle without merely extending it and imagining a liberation which, in the end, is an even greater entanglement. Ultimately this is a completely contemporary problem, almost even banal, because we encounter it at all levels – but ultimately this is the sole and central question. Whether or not Orestes has found the way? I cannot answer this. Like all my operatic heroes, at the end he departs without giving us an answer to our questions.

What role do the female figures play? And what role the masculine power of the gods, the double figure of Apollo/Dionysos?
We are concerned with three very different female characters of which Elektra is the most unpredictable. She seems to be completely driven to fanaticism, and her thinking, “modern” in the sense of Apollo’s new law, is determined by the new world picture and the convention of action and revenge. But on closer examination we see a woman who seems to have come off badly in terms of womanly needs, and only reveals her innermost self when she is alone. At the same time, her loneliness is also made clear when considered in a trio with the two other women. All have a very similar musical texture and completely differing textual content. They are in hiding. 
Hermione is the female figure in the piece with the greatest perspective. She recognizes convention as such, but her feelings are not restricted by it. She sees the disaster around her in which others participate without perceiving it. 
Finally, Helena is a woman completely trapped in herself, who can only grasp the world as a mirror in which she sees herself. 
Apollo and Dionysos appear here as two sides of a figure – there are some clues for this in the interpretations of the myth. Apollo is the political cynic; he pursues his aims, and when he runs out of arguments he transforms himself into the sensual seducer Dionysos. He adopts the role which is most useful to him at the moment. Dionysos desires Helena. From afar he sees her approaching, and he wants to place her back into space again as a constellation when Orestes is under the impression of having murdered her. Dionysos’ language is characterised by idioms and quotations from Nietzsche’s Dionysos-Dithyramben.

For the first time you have written a libretto yourself. How has this affected your way of working?
I have been able to work with wonderful and exciting librettists. Unfortunately I have lost two of these, who have died all too early. As a composer I have always been involved in the fashioning of the libretti, sometimes – because of what’s happened to the librettists – extremely intensively. Nevertheless I have needed the interaction and have relished the fact that this drew out the thought processes I needed in order to be able to deal with the pieces.
This time the interaction was missing, for when I began to think about the piece, I couldn’t find anyone with whom I was prepared to engage in the intimate debate which is inherent in such a collaboration. I had to go about it myself. In this I received wonderful support from my wife Dietlind Konold, who was able to contribute constructive suggestions based on her extensive dramaturgical knowledge from decades of theatrical experience, and from Klaus Bertisch, chief dramaturg at the Nederlandse Opera, who offered me all the help and openness which I needed.
Composing certainly contains obsessive traits which I often endure with difficulty, but being responsible for both aspects doesn’t make things any easier at all.

About your composition: the cry of the Erinnyes forms the musically impressive starting point of the work. Does this vision of Orestes trapped in his torment function as a musical link?  
There are six women’s parts, at times coupled to six solo violins, which are intended to fill the whole auditorium with sound. I have avoided calling them Erinnyes, for I think more of psychological processes “in” Orestes than of mythical beings.  Naturally the women’s voices are also the multiplied voice of Clytemnestra. This music always returns, almost without changing, when Orestes is tormented by his agonies of conscience. They are absolutely not always there, but particularly at the end, when he has freed himself from obligations and goes without knowing where he will be driven to, these companions emerge again. They will be there when he begins to examine himself. And he has the love of Hermione who also doesn’t know where her journey will take her. A very fragile beginning for both, for he says that he is not the person he is, he wants to be the person he is searching for – and Hermione cannot know he who is waiting for her ...

Interview: Marie Luise Maintz
(Translation: Elizabeth Robinson)
from [t]akte 2/2011


Photo: Manfred Trojahn, Orest
De Nederlandse Opera, Amsterdam 
Hermann & Clärchen Baus