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Artistic encounters: entering each other’s world

a joint interview with Sabryna Pierre & Frederik Neyrinck


What were your first experiences with opera during your artistic training?


Frederik: I’ve always had a passion for classical music although my family never went to concerts or operas. I studied piano and composition in Brussels in 2003 before studying in Stuttgart and Graz then moving to Vienna. It was when I was in Brussels, at the age of 18, that I started watching performances such as 
those at la Monnaie / De Munt. I’ve always 
been fascinated by the multi-disciplinary side 
of opera, by the myriad
 people from different areas working together on the same project. Composing a piece for an orchestra is a lot of work but you do it alone, unlike the opera.


Sabryna: I had my first experience of the stage and world of performing arts through dance, which I started at an early age. I wanted to be a ballet dancer but I wasn’t good enough unfortunately. I stopped doing dance intensively shortly after I discovered theatre as a teenager. I then enrolled in a college with a theatre course and it was an absolute revelation. It was in the Paris area so we could easily see lots of shows but no teacher ever took us to a single opera. I then continued my studies in graphic arts and art history before enrolling at ENSATT (Theatre Art and Technique College) in the administration and dramatic writing department. All the trades involved with the stage were there and the energy had a huge effect on me. The teaching staff were great listeners but, again, in all that time nobody once encouraged us to explore opera. Only two groups of students went sometimes: costume designers and lighting designers. It felt like it was just for them. I went to the opera myself in 2003 to see the work of the stage director Stéphane Braunschweig in Wozzeck by Berg. I remember being spellbound from the start of the performance to the end! I gradually became an opera-goer and went to see shows with stage designers who I liked from the theatre world.


What led you to opera creation?


Sabryna: I think it’s partly because of my writing style, which is fairly lyrical and poetic. There’s a very different dynamic between writing for the theatre and writing for the opera but the idea of focusing on this form gradually grew on me. I was lucky enough to have several residences with the dramatist and librettist Catherine Verlaguet. I told her I wanted to go into the opera world and she told me about workshops for young artists that are held every summer at the Académie du Festival d’Aix as part of enoa. It’s thanks to her that I started seriously considering the possibility. But over a decade went by between the time I saw Stéphane Braunschweig’s Wozzeck, when I told myself I might have something to bring to the opera table, and the time I got the opportunity.


Frederik: Off the cuff, I’d say it’s a bit of a coincidence that I came to opera but it’s actually the logical sequence of my journey. I started writing pieces for solos, then for chamber music choirs and ensembles. When I was around 25, I composed a new version of Monteverdi’s Tancredi e Clorinda for my course. A little later, I produced an adaptation of an opera by Benoit Mernier, Frühlings Erwachen, for the Spectra Ensemble. I then composed a piece for two vocalists and an orchestra during a series of three enoa workshops hosted by the Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon and run by the composer Magnus Lindberg. The project we’ve been working on with Sabryna for the last few months is my first real opera composition. All these experiences have helped me gradually learn and understand how the ‘great machine’ that is opera works.


You met at the Festival d’Aix- en-Provence in 2015 during 
the Opera Creation workshop, which aims to bring young artists (composers, directors, stage designers, writers, lighting designers etc.) together with a renowned artist to discuss creating opera. What did you get out of it?


Sabryna: I think it’s the perfect introduction to opera. I’d never really had the chance to meet young opera artists of my age. I learnt about the relationships between different areas of the opera that I didn’t know about such as those involved in the conductor’s role. It was also an opportunity to see lots of different shows and styles in a very short time and then talk to the creative teams. The feeling 
in the workshop was also 
very important. Participants 
formed a tight group, dis
cussion was constant and 
very natural, from morning to
night. I felt like I was making
 a little bag of thoughts, like I was having an intense treatment before trying to create something myself.


Frederik: I’ve taken part in lots of composition and piano workshops. You’re usually just with young artists in your area of interest. What I found most interesting about the workshop in Aix and others in Ghent was meeting and talking to people from other backgrounds and different approaches to opera. It was also very important to be able to watch rehearsals for shows at the Festival d’Aix then talk to huge artists like Peter Sellars, Robert Carsen, Katie Mitchell and Martin Crimp.


You’re currently working on an opera project together. How did you decide to create something together?


Sabryna: All the participants could present their work during the workshop in Aix. There were projects by young composers who I could picture writing with and some I couldn’t. I instantly felt a connection with Frederik’s musical style.


Frederik: We can picture ourselves in each other’s worlds. When Sabryna presented her texts in Aix, I found them very poetic. They had a very musical direction, which made me want to compose.


Sabryna: We then met in Ghent in September 2015 for a new enoa workshop hosted by LOD muziektheater. The workshop brought composers and writers together with Martin Crimp and Nicholas McNair to work on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. We were interested in how the story is constantly reinvented over the centuries, what it means to us today and how to use it to create something. At the end of the workshop, we decided to create an opera project together, which will be explored during new work sessions as part of enoa.


Practically speaking, how have you worked together on the project?


Sabryna: We started out with lots of discussions and communication. I soon wrote the first draft of the text. We needed to start off with a clear structure so we could be freer within the framework and potentially try things we hadn’t thought of. We worked on the dramaturgy together a lot using the musical techniques that Frederik wanted to experiment with and their relevance to the spirit of the text. Naturally, the text can also be adapted to musical ideas. It’s a real dialogue.


Frederik: I’m currently writing the music based on all the groundwork but we’re always in touch – discussing how to use the text and voices together musically. Sabryna writes the text, I write the music, but we have a similar way of thinking which is vital with this type of collaboration.


What struck you most during your enoa journey?


Frederik: So many things! If I had to pick one, it would be the continuity between all the workshops that I took part in. It’s a rather unique opportunity to be able to develop projects during several workshops that are staggered over time and grow with them.


Sabryna: We also have to mention the great kindness that the artists who ran all the workshops showed us. They showed us what makes them renowned artists yet were mindful of what we, as young artists, were trying to become and build in respect of the work and everyone’s differences. Their generosity was precious, especially at the start when you’re lacking confidence. It really encourages you to progress. I’ll never forget meeting Katie Mitchell in Aix in 2013. She ended her training session with the phrase “Keep the game better and better! Be demanding with yourselves!” So after, I said to myself: “Yes, let’s go! Let’s do things now!”


Interviewed by Louis Geisler, 2016