Song for a mad director
Guy Coolen still recalls the booing in the audience the first time Muziektheater Transparant performed Peter Maxwell Davies’ Eight Songs for a Mad King. It was 1994,and he had just taken over at the company. Not long out of university at the time, Coolen wanted to make a break with Transparant’s old-fashioned operatic repertoire and create something far more contemporary and experimental.
Dismissed by local audiences 15 years ago, Muziektheater Transparant has since blown the doors of music theatre wide open
Not everyone liked his changes. “I was accused of destroying ‘our chamber opera group’. Of course I was!”Coolen tells me from the theatre’s headquarters in Antwerp.
The critics loved the performance, however, and the combination of rave reviews and the fuss it provoked in more conservative circles was exactly what Coolen needed to launch his new company.
The most visible change is perhaps the name: he got rid of Chamber Opera Transparant, with its old-fashioned associations with German chamber opera companies, and opted for the more modern Muziektheater Transparant.
The company’s long-standing relationship with Maxwell Davies is another example. Coolen turned to the British composer – “one of the iconic names” in music theatre
– in order to create a more international profile for the Flemish company. Coolen didn’t know Davies personally at the time, but knew he was just the kind of provocative composer with whom the company should be connected.
So he simply called him up. The bold move paid off: Davies came over for Transparant’s premiere, became the company’s honorary chairman, and, to this day, Transparant still stages his work.
The board members that Coolen chose 15 years ago are also still with him today. No sooner had the old board appointed him, than he was told he had to kick them all out
and make a fresh start. As Coolen explains, he basically had to go to them and say: “Thank you for the job, but now you have to leave!”
But the shake-up proved to be a success. The company secured government subsidies, which have grown from one million Belgian francs, or €25,000, to about €1 million today, and started to attract new audiences and new artists.
Transparant now has partnerships with deSingel in Antwerp, Concertgebouw in Bruges and the Flemish Opera and is often asked by other opera houses and theatres to work on co-productions with them. Youth projects have been developed since the appointment of Wouter Van Looy as artistic director a few years ago. The company also travels the world to take part in international festivals, such as Edinburgh and Sydney. In fact, Coolen estimates that he spends more than half the year abroad.
“We are no longer this weird thing in the corner somewhere,” he smiles. “We have put music theatre in the middle of the artistic world.”
Music theatre, but not musical theatre
Music theatre, as the name suggests, is a combination of words and music. The term can refer to such a wide range of art forms that it can be problematic, Coolen acknowledges. For him, though, music theatre functions at three levels: the musical dramaturgy, the dramaturgy of the text, and the staging. Many of Transparant’s works involve a contemporary rethinking of old music, as is the case with A New Requiem, which premieres on 26 November and is a response to Mozart’s Requiem.
Transparant places a lot of importance on working with its composers, musicians, actors and theatre directors, seeking their input and getting them involved as much as possible. “The artists make us who we are,” Coolen says.
As well as developing long-term relationships with composers, such as Flemish classical composer Wim Henderickx, and theatre directors, like Josse de Pauw, the company also encourages new talent. Flemish composers Annelies Van Parys and Joachim Brackx are working as composers-in-residence. Van Parys’ An Index of Memories and Brackx’s Die Entfuehrung aus dem Paradies are both part of this season’s programme.
Coolen finds it notable that the artists stay with Transparant and that there is “a sense of belonging” in the company. “I’m half-married to a lot of the artists,” he says, adding that on several occasions he has received an emotional and distressed telephone call from an artist unable to make progress with a creation. “They can’t see beyond the art. I can see the larger perspective and can take the pressure away,” he says.
For a man who has spent most of his working life so far creating and developing the company – as both an artistic and now the general director – it is perhaps unsurprising that he gets so involved and is so passionate about what he does.“I get a kick out of it,” he says. “I don’t know what I’d prefer to do more than this.”
A New Requiem
Muziektheater Transparant’s latest production, A New Requiem, is a classic example of how the company works: the piece is a contemporary response to old music and a collaboration between various artistic disciplines.
The central inspiration is Mozart’s Requiem, a mass for the dead, and Transparant’s reinterpretation was to bring together a number of artists in different disciplines: Belgian wind ensemble I Solisti del Vento, Dutch author Jeroen Brouwers, German composer Christian Köhler and Flemish artist Roger Raveel, to name a few. The work is directed by Flemish actor and director Josse De Pauw.
The text to A New Requiem is mainly in Dutch, rather than the original Latin of Mozart’s Requiem. Brouwers was chosen to write this literary response to Mozart’s piece because death has been a recurring theme throughout his work. “In my view, the whole of literature is about nothing but death,” Brouwers has said.
The new text in turn inspired Raveel, now in his late 80s, to start drawing, and the resulting set of sketches form part of the production (pictured). As for the music, Köhler rescored the original work for a “harmonie”, an ensemble of mainly wind instruments popular in Mozart’s time and for which the Requiem had never been adapted. It will be performed by I Solisti del Vento.
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