The Damnation of Faust, by Hector Berlioz

Terry Gilliam has been working on an opera - Berlioz's The Damnation of Faust - which is to be staged in London in May 2011. Early in April, the filmmaker spoke to Dreams editor Phil Stubbs about the work involved. Gilliam is optimistic, and started by saying that he is surprised that it's going incredibly well. "I'm actually enjoying it. I'm very confused, because things aren't supposed to go this well or easy for me."


Phil Stubbs: Were you offered The Damnation of Faust, or did you select the piece?
Terry Gilliam: That's the one they suggested at the beginning to be a good one. It's a strange piece; it's not a true opera. It was always meant to be a chamber piece. It was just chorus, orchestra and singers - stood there and they sang it. In fact Berlioz referred to it as an opera without décor or costumes. I was intrigued because it's never particularly been successful as an opera. It isn't done that often. I thought that if I'm going to start with something in this new medium for me, I'd better do something where I won't be compared to all the greats.

As the director of an opera, where does your role begin and end?
That's what I'm learning. Because of the nature of this piece, you've got to imagine it - or reimagine it. What's so strange about it is the narrative is constantly being interrupted by these long musical passages, which are lovely. It's great incredible music, but it buggers up the narrative flow. So, I thought what it needed is a second narrative, that everybody knew, that would pull us through the Faust narrative.

I got excited about German art, German music, German culture. I thought: here's a neat idea, let's go from German Romanticism to German Expressionism to Fascism. Let's do it visually, that's a nice road. So I decided to set the opera in the first half of the 20th century in Germany… because we know where that story is going! And surprisingly it worked. It seemed to slot in, with the musical pieces - it fits the whole story. Berlioz wrote this in the 1840s, yet the First World War fitted in there very nicely, as did the Weimar Republic, the rise of Nazism and everything. It all just seems to work.

The musical passages are the bits where I have to count on the audience's knowledge of German history of the first half of the 20th century. For example we are doing the Hungarian March as the First World War.

The Hungarian March starts out like a gentle dance…
Yes, and we start it with the monarchs' tea party. The monarchs of Europe gather together, trying to cut up the cake that is the world, and it goes a bit wrong. These musical bits were making me crazy. I was getting so angry at having to deal with them, and yet it forced me to come up with solutions, which we are managing to make work.

At this point, Gilliam spoke about several aspects of the production content that he would like to remain a surprise to audiences.

I don't know what the audience will make of it. That's the interesting part of this, it's a delicate balance. I'm doing humour on things that normally wouldn't be humorous. And yet there are things that are tragic, and there is beautiful romance in it. It's trying to keep this balance between humour, darkness and beauty. I still don't know if we are going to pull it off, but so far we seem to be striking a pretty good balance.

The contrast is certainly there in the music
The music is great, it's wonderful. Berlioz - I wish he was alive, because I think I would get on with him. I like him. He's fearless; he's throwing so much in here - the shifts in the music. When we were rehearsing it at the piano, sometimes it sounds like a silent movie piano track.

Irony is the key word I keep using all the time. We are trying to make ironic statements about certain things. It keeps it from getting too boringly heavy. I'm trying to avoid being too "operatic".

ENO has the Coliseum, which is not an opera house; it's an old music hall theatre, a very large one. I'm thinking more that we've got a _show_ here with lots of different things: the shifts are quite surprising in the mood. The music is doing that shifting already, and my reaction is that if the music suggests one thing, then let's go in the opposite direction, and see what happens.

There are parts that are hard to sing, it must be difficult for the performers to move around, act and deal with props at the same time
That's what's amazing about this… the people we've got can do all of that - they are good jugglers as well as singers. That's what surprised me. It's exactly the same as making a movie, you've got to get the right gang of people together, and we have managed to do that. We're all having a ball. There are difficult pieces, and we've got people running up and down stairs, jumping on bikes, all sorts of things that I would find impossible to do. Like patting your head in one direction, and rubbing your stomach in the opposite direction. These guys are so good; they just go ahead and do it.

Is there anything that you have challenged them to do that has just been impossible?
No, not yet!
That's a surprise!

In the beginning of the fourth act, when Marguerite sings about being abandoned…
She's the straight one in the piece, she's the tragic victim.

…the music is very manipulative to make the audience feel compassion for her
We just did this a couple of days ago… it's heart-breaking. She's really good - Christine Rice. It's probably the most powerful scene in the whole piece. The music is really like movie soundtracks. It was very advanced for its time, he was way ahead. It's like it was written like 50 years later. I have this funny relationship with Berlioz. Even though he's dead, we seem to be arguing a lot.

In fact, the cast is fantastic - this is one of the things I held out for, to make sure we had really good actors. So we are just having a ball, and they are just full of ideas. Chris Purves, who plays Mephistopheles, was in Eric Idle's Not the Messiah, the thing we did at the Albert Hall. That's where I met him - he is fantastic. And Peter Hoare (Faust) was just in a version that Simon McBurney did: Bulgakov's A Dog's Heart which was a really amazing production. And I was digging my heels in for months not to take a certain singer who was being offered up, who was a wonderful singer, but who I didn't think would have the acting skills, the freshness, and the ability to run around and do whatever was needed. Luckily at the very last moment I managed to get Peter free from another gig he was doing. He's fantastic too. We're just having fun; we spend most of our days laughing - Christine, Chris, Peter and myself.

Where have you been rehearsing?
We are working down at 3 Mills Studios, which is where Danny Boyle is currently working as well - in fact it's where he shoots his films. He's down there planning the opening ceremony for the 2012 Olympics. And strangely enough, what we are doing in Faust is the 1936 Olympics. So we are saying that the first act of Faust could be the opening ceremony for the 2012 Olympics. It's very funny - we're sitting there rehearsing our thing with all these young German athletes, while Danny is upstairs trying to do the real one.

Your specific role, would you say you have to be more careful about treading on toes in the world of opera, compared to film?
No, that is what's so interesting about it. What's happened here is that the ENO people assembled the crew. They chose very wisely because they knew I was a novice in all of this. There's a lady named Leah Hausman who is the Associate Director. She has done so many operas - she knows her stuff, yet it is new territory for me. She's a choreographer, in many ways she is the co-director of this piece. Because I know what I want to do, she understands what we are doing. But she can deal with… in particular this is a chorus of 74 people. And forgetting about other elements, just dealing with those people, working quickly, because it's surprising how limited your time is with rehearsals, you're just moving a lot of people round. She's got a great sense of the music and how we can tell our story more clearly. And it's working out to be a great collaboration, because she listens to me and I listen to her. I'm getting what I want but it's being done better than I would be able to do it, if I was trying to do it on my own.

And then there are even a couple of assistant directors who are great, so we've got an incredible team of people who are supporting me. In some ways, I find it slightly odd because I am not doing everything that I normally do in a film. I'm able to stand back much more than I've ever done on a film, and say yes, no, let's do it a little more that way. For me, I'm just learning every day - what you can do, what you can't do, what you should do. It's like learning a new vocabulary and language.

There are people who take a very dim view of people from outside the world of opera coming in…
I think we'll make their lives a misery! And that'll be fun. I don't watch opera. I've seen more operas after I signed on to do this one than I have in my previous life. Just trying to learning what operas are, how they work, and why they work. I've seen a lot of bad operas!

What is it about doing an opera that appealed to you?
I've been hassled, ever since I made Munchausen, to do opera. OK, I said, enough's enough… I might as well try one and see what it's like. I was also thinking: it gets harder and harder to fund the kind of movies I want to make, so I may as well have another job. It's nice at this age to be learning new tricks. It's got me both terrified and exhilarated at the same time. It's been a surprisingly pleasant trip since we started rehearsing.

Can you change any of the words?
There are a few instances. It's written in French, we are using an English translation because it's the ENO. I changed a few words - not many - just to make it less ridiculous when someone is talking about something that makes sense, but it's very slight. You have to make certain leaps. When Mephistopheles is referring to a couple of horses, there is a motorcycle with a sidecar. In opera, these kinds of leaps are very easy.

Doing all this preparation, you'll be spending a lot of money - is any of that public money?
Yes, the ENO has a grant. But, it's surprising how little money you get in opera. It's not a way to make a living, that's for sure. I've discovered most opera director have to do four or five operas a year at least to make a decent living. The cuts were announced a week ago. The Opera House was cut 15%, yet the ENO was only cut 11%. Apparently they were given the break of 4% for being daring, inventive and taking chances.

The Mike Figgis opera at ENO earlier this year was broadcast in cinemas, and was on Sky tv - will this one be too?
Not at the moment. Just 15 minutes ago I was writing an email to the ENO asking is there any way we can film this thing. It seems to me foolish not to get this thing filmed in some form. Because I think this is something that is going to be pretty powerful.

In the context of the setting, what would you say Mephistopheles is representing?
He's representing anything that can twist and turn humanity in doing the some of the most unpleasant acts in history. I think he just has fun with humanity. He pushes enough buttons on them that allow them to behave as badly as they are capable of. Also he is very good at dealing with people's vulnerabilities and weaknesses. It's just a game for him.

That was originally the subtitle - The Damnation of Faust or The Mischief of Mephistopheles. Mephistopheles has become the character I got really interested in. I thought that this is where we can have some fun. It's basically Mephistopheles's show. He's having a great time.

What contemporary meaning do you think the story has?
I think it's going to resonate, because what we are dealing with is Fascism and romance. I think we'll get strong reactions from some people.

In the story of Faust, are there any echoes of your own life?
That's the bargain I have tried to avoid all my life. I've worked hard at it. That's why I'm not getting so many films made. Had I done the bargain, I would have been a far more successful film director. I have no regrets at all. Not doing that bargain has allowed me to be free.


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