Waiting for 'I Due Foscari' – An Encounter with Werner Herzog at the Teatro dell'Opera di Roma

2013 sees the bicentennial of Giuseppe Verdi's birth and to mark the occasion Rome's Teatro dell'Opera will shortly be staging a completely new production of I Due Foscari, directed by visionary German filmmaker Werner Herzog, and with conductor Riccardo Muti on the podium. On Saturday afternoon Herzog was joined by journalist Valerio Cappelli, the theatre's artistic directors Catello De Martino and Alessio Vlad, and film critic Mario Sesti, in a hugely entertaining encounter in the splendid foyer of the opera house to discuss not only this new version of Verdi's opera, but also his wider relationship with music during his entire film career through a series of clips from his movies and personal anecdotes.

This is third time that Muti and Herzog have worked together and the director was keen to stress that it is always Muti who talks him into taking on an operatic staging. In fact, he rarely goes to operatic performances himself and instead prefers to listen to CD recordings, finding it disturbing when another person's visual ideas interfere with the images he has created in his own mind's eye when listening to the music.
“Maestro Muti really dragged me into it...he really wanted me to do this and when he calls I listen...not 100% but in a case like this, yes! And of course, the main reason is that musically it is very, very interesting. It's like a new phase for Verdi, a new discovery, he's changing course... it's a transition time for Verdi.”
Werner Herzog presents I Due Foscari
The preview of I Due Foscari was presented through a very rapid slideshow of tantalising shots of production designer Maurizio Balò's dramatic wintery sets. I Due Foscari, Herzog explained, was a difficult libretto to work with because there is little character development, and even turning to Lord Byron's historical play The Two Foscari, on which the opera is based, is of little help because Byron, whilst being a wonderful poet, was sadly “not a great dramatist”. Pausing on one particular slide he noted that the members of the chorus have turned their backs to the politicians and are instead more interested in watching the two clowns on stage. He emphasised, to chuckles from the audience, that this concept had been devised well over a year ago, and was in no way meant to reflect the present political situation in Italy!

As admirers of Herzog's cinema will know, music is of fundamental importance in his work, with operatic pieces used in his soundtracks to extraordinary effect. His masterpiece Fitzcarraldo famously uses recordings by the Italian tenor Enrico Caruso.
“[…] in Fitzcarraldo, in the screenplay I described that Fitzcarraldo plays Wagner...Wagner operas in the jungle, and as soon as I tried out Wagner music in the jungle it just did not fit together, it just did not find resonance, but it is Bellini all of a sudden that is wonderful, Bellini and Verdi...miracles in the jungle, it's their natural habitat. It's a place for fever dreams and that's where they fit! Wagner is too Teutonic!”
The opening scene from Wodaabe - Herdsmen of the Sun, in which the young males of the tribe roll their eyes and bear their teeth to attract females in a male beauty contest, as an early 1900s cylinder recording of Ave Maria sung by the last Vatican castrato Alessandro Moreschi plays in the background, is another mesmerising example.
“There are very operatic moments in my films, staged moments, accentuated moments.”
Avoiding the obvious Hollywood-style scoring where emotions displayed on the screen are hammered home by the accompanying music, he explained that he likes music to emphasis the separate, parallel story playing alongside the film, the one the audience creates for itself.
“Music in cinema has a great power; it does not change the projection of light, the music does not change the image, but it changes our perspectives.”
On some occasions, most notably in The White Diamond and The Wild Blue Yonder, the haunting music – a collaboration between cellist and composer Ernst Reijseger, Senegalese singer Mola Sylla, and Sardinian vocal choir, the Voches de Sardinna - was created even before filming had begun. When asked by the director of photography as to how The White Diamond should look stylistically, Herzog said that he simply put some earphones over his head and said: “Listen! This is how we do it!”

With such an obvious affinity for music, therefore, perhaps Herzog's most shocking anecdote of the day, was that of a childhood trauma of being made to sing against his will in front of his class at school, resulting in a complete refusal towards not only singing, but music in general during his childhood. Thankfully, for both Herzog and the world of cinema, he would later fill that musical void as a self-taught music lover in his adult years.
“I shut myself out like an autistic child from music classes and because of that when I left school there was a deep void and hunger for music, so it was all for something good I think.”
They do say that one should never meet one's heroes, but I threw caution to the wind and approached the great man to exchange a few words at the end of the discussion! Am thrilled to confirm that he was utterly charming, and I am now the proud owner of an autographed Fitzcarraldo DVD.

I Due Foscari will run from 6 - 16 March 2013 at the Teatro dell'Opera