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The world of Ingmar Bergman transposed to opera: challenges and revelations

A conversation with Gunilla Hemming, the Autumn Sonata (FNO) librettist.

The opera Autumn Sonata has been an instant success with the audiences when it was premiered in 2017 at the Finnish National Opera. It uses Ingmar Bergman's film script Hostsonaten as its source, its libretto is also in Swedish. Its story is of a successful pianist Charlotte who visits her daugher Eva after several years of estrangement.The composer Sebastian Fagerlund has written music for it. On November 15, 2019 it is revived at FNO and will run till mid-December. We met with Gunnila Hemming, its librettist, to talk about the process of unravelling the original Bergman's script and creating a new text for a modern opera.

Gunilla, could you describe how did you consider to write an opera libretto, and how your previous work was related to it.

I was asked by the head of the Finnish National Opera Lilli Paasikivi to get involved as a librettist in creation of an opera Autumn Sonata. I had previous experience of writing for theatre – I am a dramatist, so I have been writing plays for theatre, television, radio and animation. It had always to do with drama. And though I had never worked as a librettist, what is happening on opera stage is also drama, so it is all connected. I felt very strongly about the subject, and I felt that if I am to start writing librettos, this would be a very good moment. I had a feeling I knew the subject very well and I know the original Bergman’s film, too. So for me it was a perfect starting point to have new drama experience – in the opera.

You mentioned previously that when you started working on the libretto, you could not find any textbooks or resources on how to write a libretto. Could you describe your preparation?

I didn’t search for very long, I was just trying to see if something obvious and easy to find existed online on the subject – and may be it such materials exist somewhere, but my initial search did not bring any results. So I just started doing it. Writing any piece of drama is always about the material that you have on hand. It was important to study the film thoroughly, then I also read about Ingmar Bergman and his life around the time of doing Autumn Sonata, because I felt that there were a lot of things in the film connected to his life. There were also some aspects of the story that I was not sure about – what exactly he meant by them. And so I had to think about his personality and his world-view to see if he really was that cynical as things happening in the film might lead us to believe. In my opinion, in the story people use Charlotte’s youngest daughter in such a crude way that I was not sure if Bergman really meant that this could happen. When studying his life I saw that he indeed might have had such a world view where these things could happen.

Autumn Sonata. Photo credit: Sakari Viika

Was it important for making this libretto that you are a Swedish speaker and represent Swedish cultural context? Do you think this was important for the FNO when they approached you?

Yes, I am sure it was important. From the outset it was clear that the opera would be in Swedish. Its composer Sebastian Fagerlund is also Swedish-speaking. The project was also prepared for the celebration of 100th anniversary of Finland’s independence, and the FNO and Lilli Paasikivi wanted to make a statement about Finland being a country and a culture with two languages: Finnish and Swedish. Swedish is a minority language in Finland, but the FNO wanted to show that Swedish is as important as Finnish, even though it now represents a minority. Surely, a Swedish speaker was needed for this project, and also someone who is familiar with Swedish cultural context to understand the world of Ingmar Bergman. And I seemed to fit in with both.

Did you have to negotiate the rights to undertake such a project with Bergman estate?

It was done by the Opera, I didn’t do it personally, but yes, absolutely, we needed their permission, because the story is based on the script of Ingmar Bergman’s film. We needed the rights to do it, and we also had to send them the final libretto of the opera for approval.

Coming to the creative process of working on the text, did you feel that you were reworking Bergman’s script from a woman’s perspective? Were you his co-author or someone different?

There were some things that I changed on purpose in the script. In the film Eva’s husband Viktor mentions his wife having written ‘some small’ books – and I was questioning their unimportance. I also condensed everything – in the end I had a third of the text as compared to Bergman’s original. A change of perspective was the importance of the dead child and of Charlotte’s neglect of its existence. I felt that if a woman had a four-year-old son who died, that was definitely supposed to change her dramatically. Also her mother never visited them while he was alive or then dead – that fact struck me as a big thing for any woman on earth. And I thought that Bergman mentions it almost in passing, and it might have been a blind spot for him. Another thing was that in film we see that another daughter Helena might have been infatuated with the lover of her mother. And the mother allows it in a way, almost playing with a young girl’s emotions, expecting her to get infatuated with this man, seeing what will happen next and obviously manipulating her for their own enjoyment. In my view, it was a very brutal and cynical thing to do to your own daughter, but clearly it is something that is in the story, and I came to the conclusion that this is exactly what Bergman intended to show. In the manuscript Eva tells her mother that Helena got worse after this man (her mother’s lover) leaving the house, so it is clear that it is this incident that had left her utterly ill and bedridden.

Do you mean that you were uncovering moments which Bergman, in your opinion, was not thinking too carefully about? The blind spots you mentioned – were you more sensitive to them?

At that time I also read about the process of making of that film. And Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullmann, they told Bergman that the fact that it was seven years since the mother’s last visit is too long and almost impossible. But Bergman did not want to change it, as he thought seven to be a magical number. For any normal person the fact of your mother not finding time to visit you in seven years would feel something extraordinary. But if we dig deeper and learn facts about Bergman’s life – and people in Sweden know it very well – he had nine children with different women – and while he was working, he didn’t bother visiting them, neglecting them and not making them a priority. So I thought that could be just his normal way of life, he doesn’t consider it odd or unacceptable. So yes, there were many moments where I had to consider carefully and unravel things that Bergman had internalized and then put into the script.

Autumn Sonata. Photo credit: Sakari Viika

You mentioned that while doing this libretto you had to adapt an intimate story for big stage. Could you describe how you did it? You have a choir functioning on stage as a character – was it part of the process of enlarging the whole project?

Had I just followed my own instincts, it would have been a chamber opera for a small stage and without an intermission, but the FNO wanted a big one with an intermission. So I was forced to find a solution on how to adapt it for big stage. Luckily I intuitively had an idea of having a choir playing the audience, and it was not a passive audience. It is very active in the lives of Charlotte and Eva because it is the audience that takes mother and daughter apart. Charlotte devotes her life to the public, and it becomes part of the whole drama. It gave me an opportunity to bring in different conflicts on stage – there is even one between Eva and the choir, as they ruined her life and took her mother away. It so happens that I have been observing lives of musicians for all my life because people around me work in this sphere and travel internationally, and I see that there is always someone left at home – and thus behind. This is indeed a real conflict and it has long-term consequences.

I actually think this is the first time when I saw such a conflict staged. I thought that this could become a subject for the whole opera: the relationship between the artists and their audiences.

Yeah, it could, definitely. Here it is interesting to be a bit provocative: the audiences in the opera say things like ‘Keep on playing or we will be bored and chew our mint pastilles’, ‘Please entertain us, we have paid a price for the ticket’. I used the choir very freely – sometimes it becomes an inner voice or a dream of Charlotte, and sometimes they are the real-time audience, I didn’t use any particular rules there, but the most important thing was for it to work on stage.

How did you find the mean of theatrical and operatic expression for this script? Did you have to forget what Bergman did in his film and reinvent it for the opera stage?

Yes, absolutely. I saw the film, read the script and then had to forget about it and just start thinking about how to make the story I was telling work on stage. It is also about location, flashbacks, and things Bergman was able to show in the film without even mentioning them in the script – for instance, the memory of the dead child is shown through them watching the video footage with the child. I had to erase it from my mind and to think about the big stage. I had to take away as much as possible and leaving only the most important things. I was also thinking about the rhythm created by how some scenes interacted with each other. For instance, before the terrible night scene between mother and daughter we can’t have a montage by visual means, but we have an emotional one. When Charlotte goes to sleep and has to arrange her reading glasses, her glass of water and other things such a person needs to have some rest, I made it into a humourous, almost comical scene.

Autumn Sonata. Photo credit: Sakari Viika

Also there is a scene with Helena where we have to understand that it is a flashback to the past which is easy to do it in the film but not so on stage.

Indeed, and in the film Leonardo doesn’t have any lines, we only see that he has died, but we needed his voice in the opera, so it felt natural to give him a real role to play. The same thing goes for Helena – in the film she is just a patient, just muttering something. You cannot have an opera singer on stage for 2,5 hours without singing a note – you could have put a doll there instead. So I had to make a solution, and in our opera she suddenly stands up, not being sick any more, and she sings: ‘I just want you all to remember that I existed and I was a real person’. It comes quite late in the opera and it is a surprise for the audiences, because they have seen her in a bad shape, with a prospect of dying soon.

When I was watching the opera at the Baltic Sea Festival, the similarities with Chekhov’s plays – ‘Cherry Orchard’ and ‘The Seagull’ struck me. In the ‘Cherry Orchard’ Ranevskaya also has a son that has drowned a few years ago and also visits her family after living in Paris with her lover, while Arcadina in ‘The Seagull’ is exactly that kind of a star, depending on her audiences and being distanced from her son. Do you think that Chekhov might have influenced Bergman? Did he influence you in your work?

Chekhov always inspires any writer, in my opinion. He is one of the greatest or may the the greatest dramatist we have. He is very close to everyone who does theatre. I wasn’t consciously thinking about these similarities, but you are right, they exist. I can imagine that may be Bergman unconsciously took something out of Chekhov’s texts. Also in life and in art same things can happen to different people without there being necessarily a link, a borrowing. For instance, when I had my plays staged, the actor playing a certain role could have a life situation or drama similar to what I had described. It is just a coincidence, and they take place. For a woman engaged in arts and becoming famous the pattern is almost made in advance, as she must leave her family. So may be both artists – Bergman and Chekhov – used it. Still it is a very good point to notice these similarities. Additionally, I had been looking a bit into Bergman’s own life, because he was married to a famous pianist Käbi Laretei, and I am sure that many details used in Autumn Sonata he knew personally because of this marriage. But here must be wary of making connections because he surely wasn’t just doing an identical story, but using something from his own life for his art.

Autumn Sonata. Photo credit: Sakari Viika

How did you work together with the composer Sebastian Fagerlund on the creation of this opera? Did you constantly adjust the libretto or did you give him the final text to work?

We started out reading Bergman’s script and discussing its main themes. We talked about how we both understood it and what we thought was interesting in it and what could be left out. We also discussed the motivations of characters. These conversations were a very easy cooperation, as we saw things in a very similar way. Then Sebastian just left it to me and I made two drafts of the script. Then the FNO and the Bergman estate had to approve it first, and then Sebastian started composing. Sometimes he would send me an email about some minor details that he wanted to change – may be some word here or there. But there was one crucial thing – he wanted to have one more singer, one more voice. So I added the cellist Leonardo, the lover of Charlotte.

Can you describe the rehearsal process? How did you and Sebastian communicate with Anne Sofie von Otter and other performers?

The answer is very easy – I was not involved at all. This was very different from what I am used to in theatre because there the writer is involved in the rehearsal process. With this project I came for some rehearsals just to see how they worked as compared to theatre, but all in all I had done my part and then left the work to Sebastian, the stage director, the conductor, the orchestra and singers.

How did you perceive the music when you heard it at the premiere? What impressions and feelings did you have when seeing your text finally transformed into an opera?

I was very pleased. I was incredibly happy because I felt that everything went so well. It was a lucky production. There are so many things that can go wrong in a big production, with all its participants, lighting, costumes, etc. Here every part was harmoniously put together. I was very happy that Sebastian was not afraid to use the orchestra to emphasize the emotions and to go all the way when needed. He was not shying away from writing music that reflects the feelings of a character on stage, and the result was beautiful and powerful. I could not have hoped for more.

Autumn Sonata. Photo credit: Sakari Viika

What, in your opinion, is the reason behind its success with Finnish and Swedish audiences?

Actually recently Autumn Sonata visited Hong Kong, participating in the festival. Sebastian was there, and he told me that Chinese audiences were very enthusiastic and felt very strongly about it. The core of this opera is a story of a child who wants to be loved by her mother. She is over 40 and is an adult, but she still fights for some love and understanding of her mother. This seems to be a problem that you can have in many societies. I think this is the main reason for its success.

A modern opera production is still quite a rare occurence in the opera world, if compared with the rest of the operatic repertoire. What are the ways, in your opinion, for such collaborations to prosper? Is there a future for modern opera?

From my experience (which is mainly in theatre), if modern operas were conceived more like drama and the librettos were more professional, it would enhance their potential for success. At the moment a composer often chooses to write a libretto himself (or herself). I am not sure that you can all of a sudden become a skilled writer even if you are a professional composer. Historically there have also been great operas with... hmm... lousy librettos. It has been a problem in this sphere. But there is another problem and it concerns the general sphere of modern music – audiences are not rushing to all new concerts, and opera is not an exception. Opera as a genre is not that popular with mass audiences now as it was in the previous centuries, and new operas have to struggle for public attention even more because of that, as they are even a finer stratum in the operatic world, unknown for the public. The operas should strive to become as interesting for audiences as, say, Netflix series. You should seat on the edge of your seat during it, wonder what happens next and be amazed and surprised – in that case could be an opera of the future that could successfully compete with other genres of entertainment.

Autumn Sonata. Photo credit: Sakari Viika

There is now a new expectation and belief that opera could be enlivened and enhanced by introduction of new technologies, where you might need a headset to watch a production. Do you think that a dramatist could write a libretto envisioning the use of 5G, AR, VR, etc., incorporating these advancements into their scripts?

I must say I am a bit sceptical here. There have been a lot of video screens on stage in opera and theatre during the last 10-15 years. I often feel that it is used in a way that makes the theatrical element less effective, because it is people who make the strongest element on stage. If you put a camera between the audiences and performers and make it difficult for the public to see what is happening on stage, then it comes to resemble television. May be these new technologies could be effectively used in video games, but I am not sure I see it working effectively in theatre. There is another new idea that has been developed recently, with audiences given the chance to put together their own version of a story. I think that ultimately it is the writer who is telling the story and it is negotiable. You can transfer the right to speak just for fun, but the authority has to remain with the writer. As a writer, you are morally engaged and have to stand behind the story and what is happening in it, so it is not acceptable to give it away. The story is a certain moral position, and cannot be allocated to different people in the public. The writer has to be clear in making a message, although sometimes it is hard to know the impact of your own idea immediately, you only come to realize what you meant to say in a few years’ time. But even if it is a comedy, you have to be serious and responsible for what your characters do on stage, and stand by your words in theatre.

My final question would be – what is your advice to fledgling dramatists (like myself and many others) if they want to try their skills as librettists? How does one start in this profession?

I seriously don’t know (laughs). Usually it is not you – the librettist – who is the main force behind the project. It could be a composer or the opera house. In theatre it is the director who usually is the driving force behind the production and searching out for a play or commissioning it. The same thing with the opera, so you have to known by the interested people to get approached by them. If you don’t have any credentials, it can be quite difficult just coming to the opera houses and saying “Hey, I want to write a libretto, can you give me a composer?”. For a composer doing an opera is a long-term project, for Sebastian it was two years of full-time work. It is a big responsibility to give a libretto to a composer, as he or she will have to spend the next couple of years working on it. Is it good enough? Will he or she just waste their time because the libretto was not strong enough? But I can suggest approaching a composer you know whose music you like and who you trust could write a good opera. You could just ask him or her if they would like to collaborate on a certain idea. Very famous ones have a lot of other mail in their boxes, so go for less well-known ones. It would also be good if you had similar cultural views, perhaps belonged to the same generation, because you need to share a way of thinking, intuition and generational experiences. And if it works between the two of you, it could turn out to be a success and a building step for having future commissions.

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