Foretić: Semi-mono-opera

foto: Vedran Metelko
Semi-mono-opera, a “semi-opera, semi-seria” by Silvio Foretić, for one singer (tenor) and tape was premiered  by its author at the 1979 Music Biennale Zagreb. At the 31st MBZ, on 17 July 2021, in the Jedinstvo Plant, it will be performed again, but in a new version: on this occasion, it will be sung by Miljenko Đuran, while the author is doing some modifications and re-recording the part performed “from the tape”, together with Višeslav Laboš and Tihomir Vrbanac. This is also a part of the MBZ’s endavour to look back to the festival’s heritage and reshape it for a new audience.
Composer Silvio Foretić (Split, 1940) studied composition in the class of Milko Kelemen at the Music Academy in Zagreb, where he founded the provocative Ensemble for Contemporary Music in 1963. In 1966, he moved to Cologne and continued his studies in composition at the University of Music with Bernd Alois Zimmermann and in electronic music with Herbert Eimert. He also studied with Karlheinz Stockhausen and became an associate and assistant to Mauricio Kagel. Between 1974 and 2006, he taught at the Folkwang University of the Arts in Essen and Duisburg. He founded the Fin de siècle – Fin de millénaire Ensemble there in 1982. For several years, he was a member of the presidency of the Cologne Society for New Music and the artistic director of the Opatija Music Festival. He is the recipient of the Porin Lifetime Achievement Award in 2021.
Foretić works as a composer, songwriter and performer (conductor, pianist, singer) mainly of his own pieces (“When my music is played at a concert and I do not take part, I feel a little weird”). The element of humor plays a very important role in his opus, but, as academician Nikša Gligo explains, it should not be interpreted as a “don’t worry be happy” attitude. “His complex artistic physiognomy, in which a composer is accompanied by a versatile performer and songwriter, explains the relationship between worry and happiness in a clearly recognizable way – happiness is really a reaction to worry, but it is kind of a conscious opposition. Therefore, the bitter taste of the reality is being committedly mocked through this happiness, this humor that Foretić’s music exudes.”
We talked to the author in March, and photographed him wearing a face mask, among others, which reminded him of the gas masks that performers had to wear in his Valse Macabre. At the time, he wanted to use masks, he said, to warn against air pollution, but now the public wears a mask as well so it does not have the same effect.
 foto: Vedran Metelko
These days, you are once again working on your piece Semi-mono-opera, from 1979, because of the performance at this year's Biennale – you said you had to write the parts you used to improvise when you interpreted this piece yourself, because someone else is going to sing it now. So you have to define the parts, decide on the final version. To what extent is that going to change the piece?
I never improvised completely, not in such a way that there was something different each time, it was similar. But I did improvise some parts. Most of it was coming from the tape, pre-recorded. We need to re-record those parts with a new singer. Now, a new singer is going to interpret the piece, so this is like a first performance for me.
Did you feel it necessary to change anything else now that you have returned to this piece? 
Conceptually, not really. Even now, when I am writing the part someone else has to sing, I do not know exactly what I played anymore, but I try to imagine. It is hard to imitate oneself.
Autobiographical elements
Was the writing of this piece really preceded by your work on an opera, as described in the piece? The main character in the opera is struggling with composing an opera. Are depicted struggles a fiction with autobiographical elements?
The piece has some autobiographical elements, but let’s not belabor the point. I was, however,  “born” to opera. My first experiences of music were opera-related, and yet the more I discovered New music, the more I somehow moved away from opera... So there was a kind of love-hate relationship, or as the Germans say, Hassliebe, between the opera and me back then. I always liked to go to the opera, but I was also “embarrassed” that I was writing New music on the one hand and going to listen to opera on the other hand.
As soon as I started composing, when I was 12 or 13, I immediately envisioned operas and their content, yet I never wrote more than a few bars, so this is that autobiographical moment: you want, but you do not dare. Besides, opera seems a bit inappropriate for a composer of New music. This is exactly what this opera is about. He has been sitting, I do not know for how long, for decades, waiting for a sign. The Opera itself told him to hide it, not to release it until she said so, that she would give him a sign. Now He is waiting for it, but it is not coming. And then in the end, it seems to him that something really was that sign, but now he is looking for an opera that would be for everyone, not just for the theater. So He goes to the window, to the balcony and in the middle of the night begins to sing to the public, that in the future everybody should speak only through singing.
You have made the opera one of the characters in your piece. Perhaps this is a way for you to finally master it, control it?
She, the Opera, is a character, an invisible, but audible character. The main character is HE, this composer, named the Indecisive Composer, who is still waiting for something. Another important character is Dr. Freund, not Freud, but Freund, who happens to have the same initials as I do. He sees what the problem is and keeps telling him, “Write that opera finally,” constantly urging him. Another important role is She, that hidden Opera, which cannot be seen, but could be heard at one point, although it is not singing anything of its own, but simply repeating his words, as an echo, because he is talking himself into it.
Another relatively important role is the Neighbor, Mr. Sordini, who is protesting that HIS playing and singing to himself in the middle of the night in the flat is too loud, and the people are increasingly protesting and calling the police. Then, slowly, everything sinks into the darkness. In the epilogue we see HIM sleeping in an armchair – he dreamt it all, obviously.
This is not your first piece in which sleeping plays an important role.
Yes, that is really important to me. Even in the booklet of my concert, held on the occasion of my 75th birthday, there is a photo of me sleeping.
Situation and Improvisation
How did the process of working on music unfold? Did you first get an idea of a composer’s struggle and then decided on the musical material, or did you already have the sound in mind?
Compositions are created, roughly speaking, in two ways. The first is primarily musical, which means that you hear sounds, a melody, but you do not know where to use it. The second is if you have something akin a situation, as is the case here. For example, I want to write a composition for a pianist playing two pianos or an opera in which the situation is clear, but the music is not. Only when those two come together, when I understand – ah, this theme would work here, when both of these come together – does a piece begin to emerge.
You can have a completely clear situation, but not the music for it; it can start with a C sharp, D, this chord or that one... but occasionally, as I said, you can have an idea, a musical one, but not know where to use it.
In this case, you already had a clear situation in mind, this attitude towards composing operas?
This one was created from a situation, yes, but the immediate impetus was the Biennale, and in agreement with Nikša [Gligo] it was first performed at the 1979 Biennale. Although, as usual for me, I did not fully finish it, but I cleverly first edited everything that had to do with the tape, at the Cologne Radio, in their Electronic Studio, so that the only thing left was what the main composer, this He, speaks in person. I had no more time for it, so I improvised. And once you improvise, It is really difficult to say to yourself, “And now I’m going to write it down.” I actually improvised every single performance so far. Only now, when I really have to…
Everything has its own time, even after forty years!
About that, many years ago, in Germany, in Cologne, a man from a large insurance company specializing in musicians showed up... and asked me if I was interested in getting myself insured. I told him that I was neither a pianist nor a singer, that I could only insure myself against the loss of ideas! He badgered me for a while... and then shortly after, I lost my voice. I should have insured it after all. But you do not think about it, I did not know what to insure... my brain, because they did not insure hearing. But I do have an earthquake insurance! 
From Bel Canto to the Beatles
How did you choose the sounds that complement the content “situation” for this piece, the situation that you had at the beginning? You turned towards the echoes of bel canto as well as pop music? Did you want the “battle” between the various influences to be heard? Also, the libretto mentions dodecaphony! 
Ah, yes, that is one of the jokes. When HE cannot do it anymore, and feels down, a clock starts to strike, it is twelve o’clock, and to him that is the sign – for dodecaphony as well.
I let the music flow. It was written in the 1970s, so there is rock music, and the Beatles, from afar, there is Puccini. There is no one clear direction, there are no quotes. There is a little imitation of styles. 
Let’s get back to the characters. There is also a High Official. What is the difference in your mental image of this character in 1979 and in 2021? Are the “officials” different today?
This part is actually always the same. However, at the time I wrote it, there was a Secretary General, like at the UN, but I named him a High Official. When HE decides to release an opera and that it was an opera for everyone, he is persuading the High Official – HE actually calls Freund, thinking that he is calling the High Official – to sing the Aria of Peace, which he composed for him. And in the epilogue, he listens to the news and hears the High Official talking about some conflict and slowly starts singing. So it all ends, the Official is singing, the phone rings again, Freund answers, but the Official does not want to hear about the opera again. At that time, the Secretary General was Austrian, so I added to his speech, which is in English, a few German words that I will now throw out.
You actually insisted on the performance being in Italian, even though you did not write it in Italian?
Yes, for several reasons. One is utopian – an assumption that one day it might be performed elsewhere, that it would not have to be re-translated and parts re-recorded, but will be in a unique and common Italian. Also, some word games are important in this regard, the very word opera means both “work” and “opera” etc. So I chose Italian, except for the speech of the High Official that is in English.
I know a little Italian, but I did not dare write the libretto in Italian, so Lidija Parać did it. Interestingly, I originally wrote both in Croatian and German, here automatically in Croatian, and in Germany automatically in German. In fact, this is a composition written in three languages. When I started composing, I saw that I had to shorten the text, particularly in the first part, because the real events start when the phones ring. Even now I am still shortening the beginning.
Italian is also a link to bel canto, to opera.
When HE started singing in the middle of the night, one can hear the neighbors (I also used other voices here), people complaining. I used a wife’s voice and, at one point, even that of a child, asking, “Papà, che cosa è opera?” That was my little boy who was 4 or 5 at the time, but now we have to record it again.
This is actually similar to when I asked my father, “What is opera?” as my son had asked me here. These are autobiographical elements.
You used to say that you grew up in opera, but that, given the time you were growing up, it was also “between Bellini and Mussolini”?
Oh, yes. I said “Bellini – Mussolini” to make it sound better. It was probably Puccini or Verdi, but Bellini worked much better here. When I was born, the war was only just beginning, you could hear it outside... or you ran to the basements, and my old man would sing sometimes, so my first auditory experiences were of war and opera.
An early lesson that the good and the bad go together? Or about music in spite of everything?
Yes... Everybody can see it the way they want.
Three Times Semi
I do not know if anyone asked you in 1979 whether your piece was “a real opera” or something else..?  You call it an opera, but the classification of a piece does not seem that important today.
The question is what a “real opera” is. I do consider it a real opera, even though it is not, according to certain elements. Then again, why does an opera have to have an orchestra, a choir, more characters? To me, this is a real opera, but I will probably never write a real one in the traditional sense. Still, I did write The Marshal, which had a complicated destiny as well; there is always something. I consider it de facto not yet performed, just that it had its dress rehearsal recorded.
This was supposed to be a total mono-opera: for one person (me), who had to record all the voices, who had accompany himself on piano, at least at the beginning… but who also had to change the scenery, deal with the lights – it turned out that I needed someone’s help, that I could not do it all by myself.
…and that is why it is not a mono-opera, but a “half mono, a semi-mono-opera”?
Well, yes, that is why it is semi, semi-mono, and “semi” refers to semi-opera, as well as semi-seria.
Those are three halves, then, a piece and a half! And in this piece and a half, the new one, you will not be heard?
I am not in it now, not even on the tape. I am only going to handle the staging and prepare the performance with the singer.
Maybe I will there out of necessity. In the original it was just my voice, which was recorded, and a little bit of family for those people, the masses. I did not sing only the High Official as it is in English, so I
asked my fellow composer Clarence Barlow, an Indian whose mother tongue is English, to do it. He did the speech and the singing, but now I need to figure out what to do with this part. 
The time when you first performed the Semi-mono-opera was also when you started to perform regularly at the Biennale?
Yes, I did not participate at the first seven or eight Biennale festivals, even though I was Kelemen’s student! All Šulek’s students were at the Biennale before me. Then, for a while, I performed several times in a row, somewhere from 1977.
Concerto for second violin should have been my very first performance at the Biennale, in 1977, but I did not write it on time. And then, for a while, I was not planning to. Eventually, though, I was supposed to perform it in 2001 but in another version, without stage action, only as a composition… but, again, I did not finish it. It was only in 2005 that that a Hungarian orchestra performed it. I almost did not finish it even then. Now, the new CD contains that version they played at the first performance. The Croatian Composers’ Society (HDS) at one point released a score that I modified in the meantime, so the score and the recording differ.
Deadlines and Prejudice
If there are more of these pieces you did not finish or did not finish on time, could we conclude that this an important feature of your opus? Perhaps an intentional action, implying that a piece is never completely finished, everything is always in a state of flux? Like it is a part of your composer’s credo?
Something like that – semi-intentional. And now, I am again dealing with the first part of the Semi-mono-opera, and I also have to edit with the guys. 
When we taped you for the MBZ Stories, we also taped musicologist Đurđa Otržan, who recalled an anecdote from the 1970s. You were arriving at the Student Center and the workers said, “Ah, this is the one that smashes pianos,” and you replied, “No, I’m just breaking down prejudices.” Do you now feel that the prejudices from the 1970s have been broken down?
I do not really recall that anecdote… Some prejudices have been broken down, but whether I can take credit for it or someone else... Certain things were unusual in those days, and are now almost commonplace. 
You returned to this piece after a long period, 42 years. Has it been that long for some other piece, to redo it?
I almost always return to my pieces. This one has not been performed for a long while. I could not perform anymore, so for a while I did not try to find another performer. Others I put aside for other reasons before finally returning to them. For example, the Lessing’s Fables: I composed the first five, then put them aside, only to continue working on them after some 12 or 13 years. Hm, what else... I modify or change, at least something, in most of my pieces.
Did you wonder, in 1979, what 2021 would be like or did you not think about it at all?
I did not dwell on it. I never wanted to be some kind of prophet, or a fighter for the fate of music, although some believe they must. But you cannot write that way. I just wrote music – once more conservative, another time more modern, the third time more fun, the fourth time sadder… I did my own thing.