Paul Curran: making magic

Rusalka has just premiered at the Norwegian Opera. Dvorák’s romantic opera is Paul Curran’s first major production as opera director in the magnificent new building in Oslo. Five weeks of hard work –with a cast of Norwegian and international stars– have culminated in a grand and magical spectacle, a fairytale with psychoanalytical dimensions. Paul Curran is a believer in magic. In his interpretation magic, music and opera are about hope and humanity; something larger and more important than mere pleasurable escape.

Paul Curran 2009 (foto: Tomas Lauvland Pettersen)

-I don’t want my life to be hyggelig, exclaims Paul Curran, using the Norwegian word for pleasant, thereby outlining his view that opera should be everything but merely agreeable, and at the same time displaying an insight into both Norwegian language –his command of which is already very impressive– and the Norwegian national psyche.

Norwegians’ extensive use of the word hyggelig, Curran rightfully and humorously points out, reveals that we are indeed a nation set on the agreeable; shy of conflict and with a tendency to rate the undemanding serenity of nature higher than anything else.
With the new opera however, and the appointment of its energetic Scottish director, magic has been given a new strong mandate in Norway; magic of the intense human kind.

-Norway has always been a nation of storytellers, says Curran; the narrative vein is very strong here. So in a way the art of opera is tailor-made for this place. Opera is the most complete of the plastic arts, because it presses all our emotional buttons and manipulates us in many ways simultaneously. Opera conveys the magic experience with the same double-aspect of manipulation as film. But with film the use of music, which is instrumental for the emotional impact, is a device, whilst in opera music is the basic narrative. When the stage is dark or empty the music is what sustains the enchantment and brings us on to the next scene of the gesamtkustwerk; when all the senses are again activated.

For Paul Curran it is emotions that make the world go around. They are the trigger without which nothing else human would even come into being.

-Rationality does not really exist in its own right, he says. Without emotional triggers and responses there would be no thinking at all. Emotion is the click inside you, the most basic mechanism of our being. And that is why music has such an immense impact on us; it transports us directly to a place where thinking cannot take us.

But emotions should not necessarily be understood as a something big, thinks Curran. In his mind emotions can be all kinds of things, the point is that they are the trigger and starting point of our experiences.

-Emotions are not mysterious. On the contrary, manipulating our emotions is a matter of logic. Music is a strict mathematical process, and therein lays the magic, because it is through logic and mathematical insight that composers can create the sequences of responses that makes music an emotional narrative.

One of the responses is shock and Paul Curran thinks opera can and should be shocking, in the way of bringing about changes in our perspectives.

-We are always shocked into changes, and conversely changes often manifest as shocking experiences. But this is the nature of life, and opera should emphasise this and not try to smooth things out, which would only make it temperate and dull. Politics have always been a part of opera: the notion of bringing about change and causing consternation. People don’t realise how controversial the content of many operas really is: The Marriage of Figaro e.g., was initially banned as a play, only as a musical narrative was the story allowed to be told.

Politics brings us back to the actual opera building in Bjørvika; the most expensive and extravagant piece of «equipment» erected on Norwegian soil, –for the sake of an art form that has been somewhat neglected in Norway one might muse? Is the Norwegian musical environment perhaps under-strength compared to the mandate and possibilities of the new building we wonder?

-Under-strength? You must be joking, jolts Curran. I have never seen such a strong musical community. And I am talking about both quantity and quality. Compared to the population what you have here is quite unique. I don’t think Norwegians realise how privileged you are; how much quality culture your state coffers are buying you.
If there is a problem here, it’s self-confidence. But that is changing too. I have a line of composers at my door, and I am going to put them to work. I can’t reveal details of course, but making use of the Norwegian musical community is a natural part of my job and in the future more Norwegian composers will make their way to the repertoire.

Paul Curran is used to hard work, and high speed. He was not really prepared for the Norwegian union-based work ethic and admits that they have been forced to bend the rules a little. But the opera staff really wanted a certain change of mentality he says, and he soon became very impressed with their enthusiasm and commitment.

-Opera is a very complex and time-consuming thing, so it takes a real effort from everyone involved, especially during the process of settling into a new house. There are always a lot of teething problems, simply because the entire apparatus is so big and complex. But this also brings us together as a true team. That is how I look at my job and myself: I’m a member of a team. We need to work together, hard, and that is what we are doing.

Curran says he loves the building, despite the unavoidable teething problems. He loves its design and its functionality.

-This building is just so self-explanatory and user friendly. It is not a fortress, and does not feel like some 19th century bank. Here people can explore and learn to use and love the building in a very intuitive way, which is a great strength of the design. However, I cannot stand in awe of the building because it is the opera institution that is my concern; the artistic company and its repertoire. The architecture is fantastic, and the best thing is that it works as bait: it lures people to us, which means that the building itself becomes a kind of composite entity where architectural attraction brings people to discover the operatic content.

What about the multi-purpose use of the building?

-Of course I support multi-purpose use, exclaims Curran. Using the building for varied musical events is unequivocally positive, as long as the common denominator is music of the highest standard. Multi-purpose use of the building works the same way as the architecture, it draws people to the house that would not otherwise go, and introduces them to the opera institution simply by their physical being there. The result is bigger audiences and more young people. My interest is not tokenism: I have a firm belief in commitment to opera for the future. It is an art form for all ages; the one form of plastic arts that involves all the expressions. It is a celebration of who we are. When young people overcome their misapprehensions about opera and understand that it is about them and their feelings, they are awed. Realising that Monteverdi was the Johnny Rotten of his day makes them think very differently of opera.

Paul Curran made it a precondition for his taking up the post as opera director that an equal chief of music was also appointed. Under the corporate leadership of Tom Remlov the institution now has three equal directors: Curran, musical director John Fiore and head of the ballet Espen Giljane .

-A house of music must have a musical direction, says Curran. It is the only way I can do my job the way I want to do it. The orchestra is the beating heart of the opera, and the music is the basic narrative of this art form. So a designated musical director was and is an absolute condition.

Curran has already told us that his plan is to build a repertoire that is balanced: true to the romantic soul of opera and yet also focused on new music and the future. Norwegian composers will play a part in this, as they already are a part of this season’s repertoire with Christian Eggen and Gisle Kverndokk, whose cancelled work Around the world in 80 days (which was supposed to open the Opera last year) Curran has brought back into the program of the 2009/10 season.

-Five years from now I hope people will be travelling to Oslo for the sake of opera, says Curran. That is my goal; that they will come her for opera alone, like they do in London and New York.

The magnificent building –already established as one of the finest new pieces of architecture in the world– and the success of Rusalka, Curran’s first major effort in his new job, are good indications that Curran and the team are in every position to achieve this goal.

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