Text: A general of the artillery wrote the world’s most successful epistolary novel: DANGEROUS LIAISONS (Les Liaisons Dangereuses) / The characters experiment with the POWER OF LOVE and the power men hold over each other / Based on Karl Mickel’s libretto, Karl Schenker used this story to compose an opera seria full of wit and drama - -
Text: THE WOLRD SPIRIT, SO EVIL / “Dangerous Liaisons” or the COLD WAR of the Sexes
Alexander Kluge: In this opera, which deals with the dark side of love, women have the stronger emotions.
Anastasia Vareli: Not all women. Only I have stronger emotions. There are two actors, me and my Valmont. All other women are merely subjects of a bet.
Kluge: But you are attached to Valmont.
Vareli: Sadly, as I have to realize myself, in the end I am indeed.
Kluge: You throw yourself into the pit.
Text: Anastasia Vareli, Duchess of Merteuil
Vareli: I fall into the pit. Basically it is payback – everything you build up against others will eventually turn against yourself. If you juggle as many principles as Merteuil does, if you treat people like she does – at some point, these principles and methods turn against her. I destroy myself in the end. Even though in the beginning a sort of marriage emerged. The more I rehearse, the clearer this seems. In the beginning it’s just bizarre, a strange contract after the sex act, but then, when you read it: these two people, they love each other, they consider themselves equal, they are soulmates, and then they decide to enter into a completely different kind of marriage, including articles and paragraphs.
Kluge: The plan doesn’t quite work out this way.
Vareli: Usually people get married and say: We will be faithful to each other until death does part us. But they say: We’ll get married, and we divide the world into men and women, you get the women and I get the men. But you need to keep me informed about what you are doing with the women, and vice versa. We’ll help each other.
Kluge: There is no fidelity.
Vareli: But in this case, fidelity is infidelity. It’s a complete reversal. That’s also fidelity, in a sense.
Kluge: And it kills both of them.
Text: Dr. Josef Vogl, writer
Kluge: What are the Dangerous Liaisons?
Joseph Vogl: Well, perhaps we should begin by taking the French title literally: It’s called Liaisons Dangereuses. Which can mean something like dangerous love affairs. But of course, it also means dangerous interrelations in general. This novel deals with a relatively extensive network of characters, and this network becomes risky, dangerous. This network has, in its final outcome, catastrophic consequences.
Text: Friedrich Schenker, composer
Friedrich Schenker: Of course, then I think about how to stylize musical figurations that are expressed in a sexual act.
Interviewer: But a sexual act doesn’t necessarily need to be set up as a mirror image.
Schenker: That’s where they gradually come together and find the same rhythm, the same intervals, sure. That is exactly what is represented here. In that sense, it’s a very artfully concealed program.
Text: „Dangerous Liaisons” or The Cold War / OUVERTURE
Text: Heiner Müller during the production of his play QUARTET Dangerous Liaisons
Text: Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality – by Prof. Dr. Sigm. Freud
Text: Anastasia Vareli, Duchess of Merteuil
Text: Petteri Falck, Valmont/A seducer
Text: Gerard Rhoden, Danceny (tenor, lyrical-youthful)
Text: Sybille Plocher-Ottersbach, Cécile, corrupted innocence
Text: Anastasia Vareli. Merteuil
Text: Friedrich Schenker, composer
Schenker: I have got to say, I’m the type who composes very spontaneously. So I got the libretto from Mickel with the entire dialogue as we hear it on stage today, already categorized in musical forms, because he knows a lot about music. And basically, well, this sounds weird, but I basically started to compose wildly and blindly … of course according to my formal principles … and only in hindsight I realized what I created, but I still know that I got it right.
Interviewer: So you read the libretto beforehand, and now you have, let’s say, a scene like the sex scene in the first act, first scene: This scene was already written by Mickel as it is, in those exact words?
Schenker: Of course, since it’s a duet, that means: How do I layer the two texts on top of each other? How do I turn them into musical play – it’s already literary play, perhaps one stands on the right, one stands on the left, I have to layer them on top of each other, underneath each other, and I have to assign them notes, and have the orchestra accompany them, and so on. That is a significant modification of the text. And of course I connect the two, and in opera that often results in a high frequency of mirroring figures. Merteuil’s motifs are mirrored by Valmont’s motifs.
Interviewer: So how do you express the mirroring figure in music?
Schenker: Well, the duchess might get a minor sixth downwards, followed by a minor third; Lady Merteuil responds with a minor third upwards and a sixth upwards. That’s a technique that’s been used a lot in the Twelve-Tone-Method, but it also appears in Bach’s work and older practices. In opera it has a particularly affective effect. Of course, the amateur probably won’t understand it, won’t be able to hear it, but might still perceive it indirectly.
Text: Liaisons Dangereuses, First act, first scene: The duchess loves Valmont, whom she leaves.
Text: Aria / It will take many years / until my body and my soul / can survive without / your looks, your lips / Yes, my lord!
Text: I am myself cruel / My breath is murderous / I drag women into misery / Yes! I feel / when I recapitulate / the consequences of my horrid acts / a very particular pleasure / which is almost greater / than the immediate pleasure / during the act itself
Kluge: So you recently wrote the libretto for an opera about Dangerous Liaisons. What is that?
Text: Karl Mickel, libretto
Mickel: It’s a novel from the late days of the Ancient Regime in France. The author is Choderlos de Laclos. He was a general of the artillery. Aside from this book, he really only wrote a treaty on artillery. And this novel, this erotic-philosophic-sociological novel opens up to us the world in of the late 18th century.
Kluge: And it’s about an experiment among humans. Is that correct?
Mickel: Yes, these human experiments are associated with the self-understanding of hedonistic aristocracy, the enlightened aristocracy of the 18th century. The human experiment Choderlos de Laclos describes is one of the more harmless ones. Actual experiments were conducted at the beginning of the 18th century, at the time of the regance. Experiments were used in order to discover the origin of the primal language. They brought 200 serf children into a camp, had them cared for by people whose tongues had been removed, in order to shield them from the sounds of language, and people hoped that those 200 children would invent a language as they grew up.
Kluge: By the power of nature, so to speak.
Mickel: Yes, that experiment was meant to confirm the materialist theory of the emergence of language.
Kluge: And what did they discover? Nothing?
Mickel: Nothing. The sample size was too small. You cannot do something like this with 200 people. And the duration of one generation is also not long enough.
Kluge: Otherwise, perhaps a new language would have emerged.
Mickel: I don’t want to speculate about what would have happened if the experiment had been conducted over several generations. Some kind of communication between the test subjects certainly would have happened.
Kluge: That means, humankind in itself always has the predisposition towards language. But what actually counts as language is not clear. And it does not have anything to do with a racist classification of language, with its descent from a primal language.
Text: IS THERE A PRIMAL LOVE? / Could it be discovered in cruel experiments?
Kluge: Here we have a women and a man, both of high nobility, and they negotiate a contract. Between the two of them, they attempt to agree on a social contract. Even though it’s impossible to establish social conditions in a group of two. Is this perhaps the fundamental error?
Mickel: Well, this kind of explicit contract is not actually part of the French novel. I call these two, Merteuil and Valmont, sexual super powers, and our strategy of using them for an operatic constellation has to do with the fact that for three quarters of a century there was, in fact, a global conflict between super powers. This global confrontation is over for now. For now – because what’s going to happen with China, what’s going to happen with Europe, with the USA, is that not going to turn into a three-body-problem? – But for now it’s over, and that allows for an aesthetic engagement with the material in an established art form. I have thought about this material for a long time, but I needed the year 1990 to happen before I could approach it from an aesthetic perspective. History has helped me out.
Text: ARISTOCRACY: Caged animals
Mickel: To come back to Choderlos de Laclos, to the opera: That was a very particular kind of nobility. It was the court nobility. Henry IV had already begun to take power away from aristocrats by calling them to his court. In the 17th century there was a strong pushback from the court nobility, but eventually Ludwig XIV fully cemented this form of absolutism.
Kluge: They are caged animals.
Mickel: Yes. He called them to the court, he granted them alimonies, cut them off from their power base, that is from the land. They were caged animals, they had lost the immediate connection to the source of their wealth. They had a spare potential for aggression, which erupted in these subtle, cruel erotic games.
Kluge: Even though over the course of the 2000 years which we can study as scholars of the history of economy, the libido – that which acts inside the human, our inner people, so to speak – the libido constantly conducts experiments, goes to war. Experiments of peace, the realization of hopes, and eruptions, explosions. It can make people sick, it can kill them, they can wait or pass it on to the next generation. Evil messages are in circulation. And there is the recurrent trope: fidelity for fidelity, that’s a desirable exchange. Lust for lust.
Mickel: Fidelity for trust. Infidelity for lust.
Kluge: Felony. That would be infidelity from above, the infidelity of the powerful. That is evil, that’s Don Giovanni. That has to be punished. Someone who has served faithfully and patiently and can now look behind the mask – he has been exploited. That leads to resistance, rebellion. The disappointed faithful servant takes action. Usually, workers are peaceful.
Text: STORED AGGRESSION / Rebellion
Mickel: I’m not sure what specific circumstances are necessary for the eruption of true protest and revolution. It’s a mystery. I don’t think there is a general answer to this question. The misery that by all means should be leading towards a rebellion often only leads to populism.
Kluge: Like in 1933. In contrast, an act of injustice, obvious injustice, combined with merely average oppression, can lead to a revolution.
Mickel: Forster, in his Views from the Lower Rhine, has a very nice theory. He says rebellions always escalate when the pressure from above decreases. The oppression from above can certainly be lessened for wise reasons; but the decrease of oppression is always going to be understood as weakness and will be answered with rebellion.
Kluge: So that the reformists are always especially at risk. The Perestroika and Gorbachev are going to be the first to get eaten. They bear the brunt of the aggression.
Mickel: Yes, that is the world spirit, so evil.
Text: The labyrinth OF LOVE / 2nd act, 6th scene
Text: Messieurs – allez! / Back to animality /
Text: Melodrama Danceny / Circe filled our cups / We raised our glasses and drank / and the deceitful goddess combed our hair with a switch / I say it shamefully: bristles sprouted from my back / words failed me and grunts replaced speech / While I bent my face towards the earth / I felt my mouth turn into a snout / my neck swelled and turned meaty, and now, a four-legged creature / I was trapped in the pen; I chewed acorns in the trough /
Text: Sextet Ensemble / Blabla blonblon /
Text: Proud heart! You wanted it this way: / you wanted to be infinitely happy / or infinitely miserable / And now you are miserable / Your victories / are far too perfect for me, Valmont / Always act so that the principle / of your will / could also serve as the guiding principle of a general law /
Text: Ensemble / Man, what you love, / is what you will turn into /
Vareli: And if you ask me who I am, I can only say, like Mephisto in that play: I’m the power that which eternally wills evil and eternally works good.
Interviewer: And there is a crucial sentence of yours, it says: Do what you can; think what you should; and appear as you must. In what context does this phrase come up?
Text: Anastasia Vareli, Merteuil
Vareli: That sentence sounds so existential, but it’s really not. It’s simply a phrase that shows her full virtuosity, her repertoire, which she has built throughout the years. She is not accidentally evil, she has studied evil. She combines experience with insight, and that’s what she expresses in these two, three sentences. Earlier, she says that she used to experiment as a young girl with every peasant boy while already married, in order to gain the necessary experience. But she didn’t leave it at the matter of the body. She always talks about body and soul, and that was merely concerning the body. She always wanted to explore the mind as well, and so she studied philosophers, anything one can think about.
Interviewer: Should think about.
Vareli: Can and should think about, because it is a virtue to be able to think. Everyone wants to think, but not everyone is able to. And on those two pillars, her encounters with lovers and peasant boys on the one hand, and her experience with philosophers on the other, she has built her entire image, what one should think, what one can do, what one should appear as. Action, thought, and appearance.
Interviewer: And the intended result of her experience in this field is – she explicitly says that – to produce examples of morality. That means, she breaks the hearts of peasant boys to produce examples of morality, or so she says.
Vareli: Yes, she shows great virtuosity. People say, and once again I have to turn towards a biblical thought, that Mephistopheles was the perfect angel. He was almost God before he became the Devil. He discovered perfection, and the moment he discovered it he became the worst dissident.
Vareli: I operate according to principles that I have developed myself. She loves these kinds of expressions, throughout her monologue she keeps using her favorite words, like: I steer the men, the other sex. I master, I steer, I entrap, there are terms like steering, controlling, principles – principle is her favorite word. She says that for the longest time she didn’t want to enjoy, she just wanted to know.
Text: Anastasia Vareli, Merteuil
Interviewer: And within this framework that she creates herself, she finds the freedom that permits her to do things like, for example, the first scene of the first act.
Vareli: Yes, she doesn’t find truth, eh, freedom. She achieves freedom. A person like her can never simply find something, because finding is related to the notion of coincidence or a different kind of development. But if someone with so much desire, principle, egotism … such a person can never simply find anything. That kind of person shapes their environment, even their freedom.
Text: Liaisons Dangereuses, 2nd act, 3rd scene: Confessions of a duchess
Voice-over: I did not become Duchess of Merteuil as a virgin. I faked embarrassment and fear. I considered pain and pleasure as facts, and explored the relationship between the two sensations. All his life my husband thought me frigid. On his estate I experimented with peasant boys and studied the writings of the philosophers in order to learn three things.
Text: Yes my lord, I can proudly say / that I perfectly practice / the highest, most difficult / of the feminine arts / the art of the final goodbye / One man’s secret I guard / just as Dalila held Samson’s hair under her scissors / another man, he doesn’t know how / betrays me and regrets it / for the rest of his life - - and so on /
Voice-over: I was ready to feed it to the objects, and to bring the exaltations of men’s souls under my service. Consider my wisdom. The world saw one admirer after another rejected, because I was entirely indifferent towards the gallants whose hopes I seemed to awaken. This is how I produced examples of morality and soon became the showpiece of influential congregations. The chosen ones though, who were granted permission to enter my private chambers, did not receive a single glance in public.
Text: What does it mean to say: “Art has to be just?”
Interviewer: What does that mean, art has to be just? For example, is this about who has to die in the finale, so that Dangerous Liaisons is fair, so that the play concludes with a fair ending?
Mickel: Everyone. No character can be given preferential treatment over the course of the opera. Whether everyone ends up dying or only one character, while the others have to live – that can be punishment, too, after all – needs to be decided on a case-by-case basis. In Schiller’s Wallenstein, only Wallenstein dies in the end, but the others have been put on trial and convicted as well.
Interviewer: When you write a libretto, when you write the beginning, the first scene, the first act, the sex scene – how do you write something like that? Do you already write in expectation of the music that Friedrich Schenker is going to compose later on?
Mickel: The language that is meant to be sung is different from the language that is spoken in so-called spoken theater. And the language on the theater stage is different from prose. Even if prose uses direct speech, you cannot directly adopt phrases for the stage. And you cannot directly adopt phrases from spoken theater for the language that is meant to be sung, if you were to adapt a play for the opera.
Text: Karl Mickel, libretto
Text: Ansgar Haag, director and producer
Kluge: Everyone dies.
Ansgar Haag: Everyone dies. He is killed in a duel by a disappointed partner, Tourvelle dies of a classic broken heart, Merteuil throws herself – once all her partners are dead – into hell, which in this case is simply the orchestra pit. In the end, the female protagonist falls to the sounds of a thousand wailing broken hearts, which call to her from the orchestra pit.
Kluge: You have a thousand women in the orchestra pit.
Haag: A thousand women. That is, if I may say so, a reference to Don Giovanni. That’s the intended parallel here, based on the concept of the opera seria, even if that’s not Don Giovanni directly, but the Mozart reference is there. And what we are looking for here are themes, motifs – Valmont is clearly a Don Giovanni – but also themes and motifs from Cosi Fan Tutte, that is: Thus Do They All, the great comedy of errors …
Kluge: The Marriage of Figaro.
Haag: The quartet from Figaro. There are even Figaro citations in the overture. That’s the context for those thousand lost souls, which, if you will – in Don Giovanni there are 1005 souls at the end, it used to be 1003, and then two more join them; and here we have also 1005, because we are using a modern artistic twist: Tourvelle’s wife appears in two voices, a so-called ‘jewel voice’, which in this case refers to the body part, the nether regions, the anima; and the woman has got her own voice, which is sensual, a coloratura voice, and the character is in an inner dialogue with herself. After both have failed, there are five voices in total, and this is how the play ends with the same number of fallen women as Don Giovanni.
Kluge: It’s a cynical play, but also a very modern one. Freud is everywhere.
Haag: I’d phrase it like this: The subtitle is The Cold War, and the tension and violence between humans isn’t something that’s specific to the 20th century. It’s the result of a learning process which started at the latest, probably earlier, but at the latest in the 18th and 19th centuries. And this opera tries to employ motifs from the 18th and 19th – the Walpurgis Night, Goethe, Faust, and so on, they are all cited in this opera. A conglomerate of the history of science is constructed here in order to show – and that’s what’s modern about it – the brutality of present times reflected on stage in a modern soundscape.
Text: Melodr. / The wailing / of 1000 women / whom he dragged down into misery: / Instrumental piece: the cries of the 1000 /
Text: Dangerous Liaisons, 1st act, 7th scene: Finale
Text: Those who sin / are of the devil / because he created sin: /
Text: Ensemble / But if one rightly resists / its evil ties / it quickly dissipates / Those who sin / are of the devil / because he created sin: /
Text: THE WORLD SPIRIT, SO EVIL / “Dangerous Liaisons” or the COLD WAR of the sexes
Text: In cooperation with the Ulm Theater and the Ulm Philharmonic Orchestra / RICORDI