European Premiere: ‘prisoner of the state’
January 12, 2020
After its acclaimed world premiere in June 2019 with the New York Philharmonic, David Lang’s fully-staged opera, prisoner of the state, directed by Elkhanah Pulitzer, begins a European premiere tour 11 January at the Barbican Centre in London with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Singers and conductor Ilan Volkov.
prisoner of the state was co-commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, Rotterdam’s De Doelen, London’s Barbican Centre, Barcelona’s l’Auditori, Germany’s Bochum Symphony Orchestra, Belgium’s Concertgebouw Bruges and Sweden’s Malmö Opera.
prisoner of the state tells the story of a woman who disguises herself as a prison guard to rescue her husband from unjust political imprisonment, with a libretto by the composer that refers self-consciously to Beethoven’s Fidelio. Lang was inspired to write the piece by what he felt to be the unrealized potential in Fidelio’s narrative. Lang explains:
The most problematic observation about Fidelio is that at the end, after the prisoner is freed, I always want the townspeople to sing about freedom, or about tyranny, or about justice, and instead they sing about how great it is for a wife to save her husband. ‘All who have such a wife, join our song!’ And of course, only one of the prisoners has been freed. What happens to the rest of them? For the past forty years I have wanted to make my own version of Fidelio, so I could think more closely about it, and maybe answer some of these questions for myself.
Lang started by constructing a libretto through an analytical process that involved assessing, appraising, and rearranging the content of the original work:
I began with the various versions of Beethoven’s libretti, filtering out the things I felt were dramatically confusing or off the topic, searching for moments that I thought were odd or interesting, or which gave me opportunities to go a little deeper into environment or character or narrative…My process was to simplify the parts of the libretto that I kept, and to comment on them, by adding language from other, outside texts that might deepen our understanding of the original. For example, after The Governor orders The Jailor to help him kill The Prisoner I have added an aria that is a paraphrase of Machiavelli’s famous dictum ‘It is better to be feared than to be loved.’ To describe the prison’s structure I have added a paraphrase of English philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s theory behind the invention of the ‘modern’ prison, modern being 1791. To The Prisoner’s aria I have added references to Rousseau, to the Guards’ definition of punishment I have added references to Hannah Arendt.
While constructing his libretto, Lang also drew upon historical definitions of criminality that may have informed Fidelio:
I was curious just who Beethoven thought prisoners were in 1805, when Fidelio premiered. I found a list from 1805 of those crimes for which English prisoners could be transported to Australia and I used part of it as a way for the prisoners to introduce themselves to us.
The production fully incorporates the orchestra into the staging, another move inspired by Lang’s experiences with Fidelio.
In the late 1970s I saw two performances of Fidelio within a few months of each other. One was a fully staged production, in an opera house, with costumes and sets and drama, and the other was in a concert hall, with an orchestra on stage, singers in concert clothes, and performed oratorio style. I enjoyed them both, but what I most noticed was how the format and location of each performance influenced how I thought about the piece. In the opera house I paid more attention to the opera’s narrative, while in the concert hall I paid more attention to the opera’s ideas.
With prisoner of the state, Lang seeks to bridge that gap, uniting the narrative and the ideas into the inseparable whole of its performance.