Several times during the San Francisco Opera’s (SFO) remarkable production of Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking (which I discussed in Part I of this essay last month), Sister Helen is asked if she is afraid. With striking similarity, “J’ai peur sur la route!” (I am afraid on the road!) are the first words, sung by the young friar Leo, of Olivier Messiaen’s opera Saint François d’Assise, which had its first American performance at the SFO in the fall of 2002. Francis comforts Leo with a description of the greatest happiness, of pure joy. Such happiness, he instructs him, lies neither in the most sublime knowledge nor even in the accomplishment of great and pious tasks. Instead it lies in the renunciation of one’s self and the cheerful endurance of suffering for the sake of Christ. The road of life, even the painful and frightful road of life, is not to be feared. It is also the radiant path of the cross, blazed by Christ, which leads to joy, to ecstasy eternal.
The ecstasy that twists like a DNA code through every bar of Messiaen’s Saint François d’Assise is a startling repudiation of the angst that lies at the heart of modernism—a high irony since Messiaen was one of the modern era’s most singular and innovative musicians. Increasingly, the opera is being recognized as the most important work of the late twentieth century. Certainly not since Bach completed the St. Matthew Passion has an artist combined substantive theology with magisterial composition into such a titanic example of artistry. As New York Times critic Paul Griffiths wrote, “If music could make us good, this music would.”
The Paris Opera commissioned the work in 1975. Messiaen worked on the music and the libretto at the same time, completing the sketched opera in 1979. It took three more years to orchestrate, and the opera premiered in Paris in November 1983. Three years later Seiji Ozawa (who conducted the Paris performances) performed three of the opera’s scenes with the Boston Symphony and Tanglewood Festival Chorus in New York and Boston. In 1992 and again in 1998 the complete opera was staged as part of the Salzburg Festival. Berlin presented the opera in the summer of 2000. San Francisco’s production in the fall of 2002 was the first staging of the complete work outside of Europe.
The opera is huge (even the score is big; it’s in three volumes, each roughly three by two feet). The work demands a greatly expanded orchestra (for instance, Messiaen calls for seven flutes, while Mozart gets along with a mere two), and a huge chorus. The baritone role of St. Francis is comparable in its Herculean demands only to Hans Sachs in Wagner’s Meistersinger (which is considered the most difficult role in the repertory), and the role of the angel, the opera’s only female role, is almost cruelly punishing in its extended high soft passages. The music is at times extraordinary complex, and it demands three to four times the number of rehearsals required for almost any other opera. (When Ozawa first saw the score, he told Messiaen that he thought parts of it were impossible to conduct.)
So it was with considerable daring that general director Pamela Rosenberg chose to begin her first year of leadership of the SFO with this production, and she apparently spared nothing on it. The chorus was tripled in size and extra musicians were added to the orchestra. Platforms were built out into the audience to accommodate the extended percussionists and the players of the three electronic ondes martenots (two of which, instruments and performers both, had to be imported from Canada and Europe). Such care was taken with the production and lighting that a full scale mock–up of the set was built to make sure that it would fulfill the SFO’s vision of the opera. The production was supported by seminars on Messiaen’s music and concerts of his organ and chamber works throughout the Bay Area. The production even included lavish press packets (complete with a CD–ROM) and a program that contained substantial essays on the composer and the opera. This was not a cheap show to mount.
Messiaen’s eight scenes (divided between three acts) show Francis’ progress toward a “state of supreme grace” (Messiaen’s words). The first three scenes broadly deal with earthly themes and encounters (the fear of death, man’s relationship with the created order, and the need to love others more than ourselves), while the three scenes of the second act involve man’s relationship with the supernatural (the angel appears at the monastery, Francis is given a vision of the “music of the invisible,” and he preaches to the birds). The two scenes of the third act—the gift of the stigmata and the saint’s death and resurrection—summarize the themes of the first two acts and complete their arguments. Borrowing a device from Debussy’s Pelleas et Mélisande, most of Messiaen’s scenes contain little, if any, real action. Messiaen’s purpose here is not to present a piece of symbolist psychological theater, but instead to present what are almost animated meditations upon points of theology.
The scene that begins Act II is typical. A disguised angel visits the brothers’ monastery. He knocks repeatedly on the gate (represented by huge dark and irregular chords in the orchestra). His raps are answered by a young brother who lectures the divine messenger on the etiquette of knocking (“three times, not too loud, wait—as long as it takes to say an ‘Our Father’—then you can knock once more”). The angel says that he has come to see Francis. Told that Francis is at his prayers, and not wishing to disturb him, the angel asks to present a question to one of the brothers. Brother Elie, something of the order’s chief bookkeeper, appears. “What do you think of predestination?” the angel asks. “Have you put off the old man, to put on the new? Have you found your true face as foreseen by God in His justice, holiness, and truth?” Elie is a busy man, and has no time for such grandiloquent nonsense. He refuses to answer and orders the gate slammed in the strange visitor’s face.
Undeterred, the angel knocks again (again loudly—but how else is the messenger of God to announce his advent?) and again is lectured on his bad manners. He asks for Brother Benard to hear his question. The aged friar is brought out, and the angel presents the same question to him. Benard answers, “I have often thought that after my death, our Lord Jesus Christ will look at me as he looked at the tribute–money, saying ‘Whose is this image and this inscription?’ And, by God and His Grace, I would like to be able to answer him: ‘Yours, Yours.’” The angel tells the friar that he has answered well (indeed, it’s a response that would probably satisfy both John Calvin and Ignatius Loyola), and encourages him to “persevere in that road.”
It is one of the most stunning moments in opera. There is a little comedy, and a bit of action, but the real drama is not on stage. Instead Messiaen places it beyond the orchestra pit, in the heart of each person in the auditorium, the dramatic struggle of that second, unasked question that we almost involuntarily find ourselves asking, “Ah, whose image is on my coin?” No matter what our religious beliefs, in a flash we find before us that inevitable moment of our death, and of our fear, and of our desperate hope that there is a meaning to it all, that there is a God, and that somehow we might be seen as His own. Might we all be able to say “de Vous, de Vous.” Yours, Yours.
Messiaen often said that the purpose of his art was to demonstrate the truth of the Catholic faith (although no bigot, neither was Messiaen an ecumenist). For him, an important part of that faith is the recognition of the extravagance of God’s love proclaimed by creation. Although John Cage is the composer most closely identified with “natural sounds,” Messiaen was actually more deeply influenced by nature—his music more inextricably bound up with nature’s actual sounds. This is seen above all in his attitude toward melody and counterpoint.
The greatest problem facing composers in the twentieth century was melody. The innovations of modernism—atonality, serialism, composed forms, aleotoric practices, electronic music, and heightened rhythmic complexity—all generally distracted composers from melodic considerations. But recently, as some composers have shown new interest in the harmonies and forms of nineteenth–century music, interest in melody has also been renewed. Yet almost always these new melodies simply appear as stale imitations of Puccini, Tchaikovsky, and even Rachmaninoff. Certainly melodies must be a significant part of music, but how to write them? How to make them sound fresh?
Messiaen’s answer was to invent a new kind of melody based upon bird song. He spent long hours out of doors, voraciously notating and then cataloguing the songs of individual birds (in mock complaint he once said, “You have to get up at four in the morning, walk long distances, and travel in search of new artists!”). The flourishes, leaps, coloratura, and irregular rhythms of these songs became in Messiaen’s art ecstatic melodies, emblematic of the pure joy characteristic of redeemed nature.
These melodies permeate Messiaen’s score, making Saint François perhaps the most purely lyric opera since Bellini. Many times, and particularly when combined with texts, the melodies are presented as extended monodies, carefully controlled so that Messiaen’s words can be clearly heard. Some bird songs are paired with specific characters, and appear with their characters as identifying motifs. At other times, dozens of them are laid on top of each other, creating not a rational counterpoint but instead the heady glossolalia of nature. Messiaen’s almost pentecostal polyphony not only makes us hear traditional melodies with new ears, it also makes us return to nature and listen to those sounds with a deeper spiritual understanding.
In the San Francisco production, Messiaen’s primarily spiritual message is carried over into the set design and staging. The cross, the road, and heaven are themes throughout the opera. The road takes the form of an S–shaped ramp that cuts across an inclined cross that is laid out on the stage. The back of the set is open, the place of heaven. The ramp and the cross revolve, becoming a snowy path, the cell of a hermitage, a cloud, and even a kind of cosmic harp. In the final scene, the ramp becomes Francis’ road to heaven. Two multistoried blank facades (which frequently hold the chorus) look out from the wings, giving the set the ominous look of a De Chiricoesque cityscape. Francis and the friars are costumed in simple gray habits (the chorus is dressed similarly). The prevailing gloom of the design is relieved by the angel who appears one–winged and in a body suit the color of heaven: electric blue. Color is also added by atmospheric projections that appear on scrims and the far wall.
Even San Francisco’s staging details reflect sensitivity to Messiaen’s purposes. The third scene of the first act is a trio between a leper, Francis, and an angel. Messiaen’s leper is deeply bitter. He mocks the brothers who bring him food, and despises himself not only for the rottenness of his flesh but also for the corruption of his character. He pulls along a large glass screen that he continually places between himself and Francis. The angel appears (leaning at a 45–degree angle off the side of one of the blank facades) and sings to the leper of God’s love for him. During the course of the scene the angel descends to the leper and gracefully removes the screen.
It may sound contrived, but in the context of the opera the simple staging device of the screen is a powerful and immediately understandable pantomime of the barriers we cultivate to shut out grace. Not only is forgiveness and transformation an act of grace, but even the possibility of forgiveness and healing is itself a divine work. Later in the scene the leper and Francis stand face to face and Francis asks the leper to forgive him for not loving him enough. The saint and the leper embrace and the leper is miraculously healed, but the real miracle is the love that makes healing and transformation possible.
On every level, San Francisco presented a Saint François the artistry and thoughtfulness of which can hardly be surpassed. Willard White sang the title role in a commanding and richly nuanced baritone and soprano Laura Aikin’s angel was appropriately divine. The orchestra shimmered and sparkled, roared and thundered, while the chorus sang Messiaen’s difficult score with a confidence and unified choral tone seldom heard in any work at any opera house. Donald Runnicles, who conducted the San Francisco performances, told the press that he thought this opera was a potentially life–changing experience. It is. And it was.
But San Francisco is one of the world’s great opera companies. Great productions there—such as Dead Man Walking and Saint François—are not particularly newsworthy. What is remarkable about San Francisco’s production is the care the house took in presenting not only these new works but also their specifically Christian visions. A production of Heggie’s and McNally’s work could easily, and legitimately, stress its broadly humanistic elements (although the character of Sister Helen would probably continually pull the drama back into a specifically Christian milieu); the recent Berlin production of Saint François purposely subdued Messiaen’s overtly Christian content. That San Francisco chose not to take those routes testifies first and foremost to the high integrity of the house toward the works of art it selects to produce. Perhaps it testifies also to a more general shift in cultural sensibility. Maybe there is reason to hope that we are moving to an era where the elements of traditional Western culture will not receive quite the immediate skepticism and ridicule they have elicited since the mid–1960s.
One final word. San Francisco’s Dead Man Walking and Saint François d’Assise were both substantially underwritten by the National Endowment for the Arts. Without the agency’s help they probably would not have been mounted. Since I have argued for the termination of the Endowment in these pages (“The Blight of Cultural Rights,” June/July 2001), perhaps a measure of contrition is in order—which I gladly offer.
Michael Linton is Head of the Division of Composition and Music Theory at Middle Tennessee State University.