Poul Ruders talks to Bruce Hodges about Björk, Lars von Trier and ‘Selma Jezková’

Poul Ruders talks about Björk, Lars von Trier and Selma Jezková (BH)

On July 29 the 2011 Lincoln Center Festival will present the United States premiere of Poul Ruders’s latest opera, Selma Jezková, with conductor Michael Schønwandt and the Royal Danish Opera. Recently I wrote Poul, asking him to comment on the opera and other issues.

Bruce Hodges : Selma Jezková, based on Lars von Trier’s film Dancer in the Dark , is your fourth opera, and may be the most powerful one yet. Certainly the subject matter seems perfect for the genre. In the DVD , you mention that you did not want to make an opera out of von Trier’s film, but from the story itself. Could you tell us a bit about what attracted you to it?

Poul Ruders : Well, after having seen the film, I knew – deep down – that Selma´s story, the “tragedy proper,” as it were, made up the ultimate operatic material. I mean, apart from being poor and sick (virtually necessary qualities in an operatic “heroine”), Selma deliberately sacrifices her own life, i.e., holds back on the real truth behind the shooting of Bill Houston – information which would ultimately have saved her from the gallows. She refuses to spend her hard-earned money on competent legal counsel, rather wanting the money spend on the vital operation, which will save her son Gene, who´s inherited the same ocular disease, from eventually going blind. The moral dilemma is – needless to say – that Gene might have preferred blindness to having to live with the nagging suspicion that Selma gave up her life for his sake. The emotional potential in the story is so strong, leaving a trail of loose ends in our minds and souls.

My first chosen title for the opera was actually the same as it´s being launched under today, “Selma Jezková” – a real opera title, which at the same time underlines the fact, that it´s not the film, but the story which has been made into an opera. It could have been a play or a novel, even a short story (you could actually say the opera is a short-story opera) – it doesn´t matter. But the powers-that-be at the Royal Danish Opera wanted to ride on the back of the film´s success, insisting on the film title “Dancer in the Dark.”

And it backfired in about fifty percent of the reviews. Some critics could not (or would not) get their heads around the fact that what they saw wasn´t an opera version of the film.

So, eventually the opera management saw – in the wonderful clarity of hindsight – that I´d always been right. I won in the end, but at some cost.

I knew, of course, that writing an opera based on a film by a contemporary and famous compatriot, I´d be playing with fire. But, as I say at the end of the DVD-documentary: “…that´s what you´ll have to do, if you want to be an artist.”

BH : How did you become introduced to Henrik Engelbrecht’s writing, and what made you decide to work with him as a librettist?

PR : It´s actually Mr. Engelbrecht´s first attempt at writing a libretto, but in his position as dramaturg with The Royal Danish Opera (he´s now music director for the Tivoli Garden Summer Festival) he´s read and knows more librettos than anybody I know, so I “chanced it” and asked him if he´d like to have a stab at it.

He did a terrific job, not too wordy, short sentences, all to the point – “verism” at its best, I´d say. It has to be said, though, that von Trier´s original film script is almost a libretto in its own right, so basically what was needed was general “pruning.”

BH : I saw the new Dacapo DVD of Selma Jezková – with the same cast and production that will be part of this year’s Lincoln Center Festival. Ylva Kihlberg is quite affecting in the title role. In the DVD extras, I was moved when she talked about her discomfort lying in a coffin onstage – even one without a lid. How did you decide to work with her?

PR : I didn´t. I wrote the score not knowing who was going to sing what. The choice of voices is entirely my own, and then the Opera House did the casting. Needless to say, I´m thrilled with their choice for Selma´s part. Ylva Kihlberg is Selma…

BH : The score is an intriguing mix of “atonality vs. tonality,” with hymn-like chorales, and in one scene, what appears to be a variation on a traditional folk dance. Could you talk about your inspiration and what elements came to mind as you were working on the score? Were there any aspects particularly designed for Michael Schønwandt and the musicians of the Royal Danish Opera?

PR : Not really. I just scribbled away at a near-frantic pace, being completely absorbed and carried away.

All the “soft songs” are my own, so to speak, and – apart from the dancing “cowboy song” at the beginning of the opera – it’s probably true that the nature of the songs reflects my background as a church musician (organist).

BH : You mentioned that you do like Björk’s music – are there any other pop stars whose work attracts your attention?

PR : I can´t say. I´m terribly bogged down in my training as a classical musician, but what Björk did in the movie is – evidently so – very, very original.

BH : Given the international attention to Mr. von Trier recently, I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you for your thoughts on his comments at Cannes .

PR : I think we should bypass that colossal howler and leave it alone. I can only hope that that great artist Lars von Trier has learned his lesson…

BH : In the DVD ‘s “extras” we see your home, and a small shed where you do your work – like Mahler. Somehow I imagined you writing with an enormous window onto some gorgeous Danish vista. Have you always composed this way?

PR : When my wife Annette and I were married back in 1995, I “inherited” this wonderful place in the Danish countryside, where we now live permanently. I bought a used “workman´s lunch trailer,” had it done up and insulated, and that´s where I´ve been composing ever since.

I don´t need “gorgeous vistas,” which we don´t have in Denmark. (Denmark ain´t Montana. We make do with “nice views.”)

Incidentally, the tiny shed which you see on the DVD-documentary, has since been extended considerably. I´m an ardent DIY [Ed: “do it yourself”] man, so I´ve personally added a front office-cum-wardrobe, plus a living-room/guest room out the back.

BH : What is coming up in the Ruders pipeline? Any plans for a next opera? Your operas are very dark – are you intrigued to try a comedy?

PR : Well, my first opera Tycho is a period piece, a historical tale from the Renaissance. The Handmaid´s Tale is obviously a futuristic thriller, a so-called dystopy, whereas Kafka´s Trial is a “black farce” – and Selma Jezková is self-evidently a full-blooded tragedy.

So what´s next? If at all, I´d like to write a “fantasy.” I do have an idea, but it´s way too early to open the lid on that!

Bruce Hodges

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