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Therése Raquin

Therése Raquin - Opera in two parts by Wulfin Lieske after a novel by Émile Zola

Thérèse Raquin

A music-theatrical work based on the novel from Émile Zola

February 2019

(Excerpt from the full version of the exposé - German version coming soon)


  1.  A new interpretation of the story of Thérèse Raquin

The novel Thérèse Raquin, which is arguably Zola´s most famous work, enjoys considerable attention up to the present day because of its contemporary actuality. “It tells the story of a young woman, unhappily married to her first cousin by an overbearing aunt, who may seem to be well-intentioned but in many ways is deeply selfish. Thérèse's husband, Camille, is sickly and egocentric and when the opportunity arises, Thérèse enters into a turbulent and sordidly passionate affair with one of Camille's friends, Laurent.” The affair culminates in the murder of Camille by the two protagonists. As a consequence, their further relationship is irreversibly marred, and the subsequent marriage becomes unbearable. 

This story could be happening next door or somewhere in the neighbourhood right now. We are always surprised, fascinated and, more often than not, disgusted when we read of similar crimes in the newspaper or view it on television news reports.  Nevertheless, we seem not to be able to resist experiencing delight in finding out all the sordid details of these occurrences. Our appetite for sensationalism is apparently not capable of being satisfied. Most probably for this reason Thérèse Raquin still is able to exert a powerful attraction on its audience. This realisation provides the starting point for our new interpretation of Zola´s work. Our intention is to create a work which emphasises the universal and timeless relevance of this story. These offences could happen in any suburb in any city of the world, not only in Paris of the 19th Century.

  1. 1.1. Sources and methods used in the new interpretation

The most important source is of course the novel itself. All the members of the artistic team are undertaking an intensive perusal of the novel so that all the relevant features can be uncovered and serve as a basis for the project. The goal of this enterprise is to come as close as possible to the essential nature of the work so that the intended transformation into a music-theatrical form can be true to this essence as we are able to achieve. 

A further source for creating a new interpretation lies in Zola´s biography. We consider it extremely important to examine the circumstances of his life as well the context in which he lived, so that the impetuses that arise from this can flow into the conception of the work. Central to these aspects is the fact that Zola was a journalist for most of his life. This affected not only his way of writing but also his political stance. It can be claimed that he wrote this work, as well as other works, with the intention of confronting his readers with the disdainful conditions in which these crimes occurred. Furthermore, the addressees should be provoked to reflect on their own contribution to these situations. We also wish to achieve a similar reaction in our future audiences. We want the audience member to initially identify with the main characters and then to become more and more surprised and disgusted at themselves when they realise what type of persons they identified with. 

The next important source for the project is the French naturalistic school of writing which Zola helped to initiate. The two major foundations responsible for the development of this literary movement arise from the thought of August Comte and Hippolyte Taine. Both followed the positivist scientific attitude to the acquisition of knowledge. In the form of social naturalism, particularly, the focus was not only on observing social behaviour objectively but also by conducting thought experiments to determine the effect of different conditions of human conduct. Taine insisted on the importance of the three pivotal factors of race, milieu and moment which referred in the same order to the inherited disposition, the social environment and the epoch in examining the demeanour of people in specific situations. He used this to as a foil to examine English literature. Zola adopted these views and insisted on applying these methods to his writing process. This movement has certain parallels to the contemporary practice of offender profiling. After collecting information about the criminal and the offense the criminal psychologist or profiler tries to compose a profile of the felon in a sense by imagining how the person could be. This procedure has certain similarities to the method of the writer and can almost be considered a literary process.  These parallels will be further investigated and utilised in the conception of the music-theatrical work.  

  1. 1.2. Defining elements of the new interpretation

On the surface, Thérèse Raquin is a story in which a crime is committed. The plot is simple and easy to narrate. The most interesting aspect of the narration is, however, the psychological profile which Zola delineates in the course of the novel. He introduces us to the characters with their inherent dispositions and brings them in a specific milieu and time together, so that we can observe, with him, what occurs to the characters under these conditions. In our interpretation of Zola´s novel the audience should experience the work from the standpoint of the modern profiler. This means that they can in a way see, feel and think like the perpetrators of the crime and experience how the crime came about by adopting the point of view of the protagonists. 

In the course of the story we see how the different temperaments of Thérèse and of Laurent affect each other, first in a complementary and then in a negative manner. The temperaments of the remaining characters complicate and exaggerate this effect. In this way it can be said that the four temperaments (sanguine, choleric, melancholic, and phlegmatic temperament) play an important role in Zola´s story. These temperaments, in both their psychological and physiological dimension are going to be used as a central element in the conception of our future work. The foundation of our will lie in the pre-verbal and nonverbal basis of the form of narration. On a subterranean level the story will be told via the bodies of singer-actors. Hence the story can be expressed in a form of visceral translation through which the audience can be touched, moved and agitated as a result of corporeal resonance. In the same manner these gestures and accompanying emotions will be transported by the words of the libretto and the tones of the music. The music will give us a view of the inner world and psychographs of the major characters. Additionally, the orchestral interludes as well as overture and epilogue will be composed as symphonic paintings of the major areas within the pictorial-poetic topos, for example “the river”, “the morgue” or “the eye” inherent in the work. The libretto provides the medium between the non-verbal pantomimic and music layers and has the task of providing a tangible articulated word-structure which channels the energy coming from both layers in a condensed and stringent form. In this way the energy can be harnessed and transported from the singer to the audience. The goal is this interpretation is to achieve a powerful symbiosis in which the story and the emotional content is narrated and conveyed on multiple levels to the audience.

The symbolic matrix of the work exists in the multifarious cross-references that the work offers. Most of these were most probably not intended by Zola. Nonetheless, it provides us a fertile womb in which the creative work can be incubated. One of the important symbolic references is the biblical “mark of Cain” which could refer to the wound on Laurent´s neck that results from Camille biting him during their fight. This wound continues to torture and play on Laurent´s conscience. The portrait in Oscar Wilde´s “The Portrait of Dorian Gray” has an obvious parallel in Laurent´s portrait of Camille, although this serves to foreshadow the appearance of Camille after he has been murdered. The manner in which Camille is resurrected in the marital bedroom to torment Thérèse and Laurent echoes Nikolai Gogol´s short story “The Portrait”. This tells us of a unsuccessful, poor artist called Andrey Petrovich Chartkov who acquires a portrait of an old man who comes alive in his dreams. Nikolai Leskov´s novella “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District” is also an important source that will be included.  Edgar Allen Poe´s The Tell-Tale Heart” tells a story that corresponds to the manner in which Laurent and Thérèse betray themselves in their madness to Madame Raquin. Water also plays a central role in Zola´s novel. Of all the possible cross-references is not least the mythological “river Styx” which represents the passage from the realm of the living to the realm of the dead. The symbolic lode which all these facets offer to the artistic team will be mined, extracted and refined to be used in the construction, as well as embellishment, of the fabric of the music-theatrical work.

The naturalistic school of painting, with particular reference to Claude Manet, not least because of his inextricable connection to Zola, will also included in the visual manifestation of the work. Other important artistic works, particularly from the modern and contemporary period will also be used to illustrate certain important aspects. These visual elements will be principally be made available to the audience through digital and video projection and performance.     

  1. A team in artistic cooperation

The order of presentation of members of the team in this section reflects only the chronological sequence in which they became involved in the project. All of the members bring valuable skills, knowledge, experience as well as creative energy which will ultimately lead to a successful culmination of the project.

  1. 2.1.  Stephen Ibbotson (dramaturgical and creative consultant)

After reading Zola´s novel Stephen became convinced that it was well suited to be transformed into a musical-theatrical work. This preoccupation remained and developed throughout his long international career as an opera singer. His experience on the stage of many opera houses, including renowned companies such as The Australian Opera, the Badisches Staatstheater Karlsruhe and Staatstheater Stuttgart provides a rich basis of practical expertise which will flow into the current project. In his career he sang Italian, French and German repertoire. Particularly important for this project were his significant portrayals of Benjamin Britten´s Peter Grimes, Alwa in Alban Berg´s Lulu and Sergei in Dmitri´s Schostakovich´s Lady Macbeth from Mtensk. 

Throughout his career he continually expanded his knowledge in opera and related forms through academic study. Although he stills sings regularly in concerts he is currently employed as a cultural commissioner of a German comprehensive school near Duesseldorf. As a consequence of this wide-ranging experience he has acquired the proficiency required to conduct the necessary research, coordinate the creative undertakings and organise the various elements that are needed to bring the project to realisation.

  1. 2.2.  Wulfin Lieske (composer)

Wulfin was immediately electrified with the prospect of composing a music-theatrical work based on Zola´s novel. He started post-haste with an intensive perusal of the novel with the diligence which he brings to all his endeavours. This alacrity is particularly evident when looking at his biography. He studied classical guitar and attended the jazz seminar at Cologne University of Music. Shortly after he gave his first concert in the Abbey on Ilona in Scotland. He gained international reputation as the winner of competitions in Alicante (Spain 1981), Gargnano (Italy 1982) and Almunecar Certamen Andrés Segovia (Spain 1985). He received as a result invitations to numerous international festivals as well as being engaged for many CD, radio and TV productions. Alongside his impressive career as a solo classical guitarist he has experience and recognition as a composer. His compositions include works for guitar but also a large range of chamber music pieces for different instrumental and vocal ensembles. He has also written a large number of major compositions for larger ensembles including choral and large orchestral pieces. Most notable is his major work “DREAMTIME: Requiem for didgeridoo, guitar and orchestra” which had its premiere performance in the Kölner Philharmonie with the Symphony Orchestra of WDR in 2013. Also worthy of mention are his Clarinet concerto “Angel’s Ride” from 2014 and Violin Concerto “Resurrection” in 2015. The premiere of his oratorio “Über den Wassern” at the EXPO in Hanover in 2000 was performed by Hilliard Ensemble and his own quartet Bronsky RITUAL. His affinity to the singing voice is further exemplified in his numerous vocal compositions including SCHNEESTERN FLAUM ACHAT Three songs for soprano and guitar after poems by Christine Busta in 2011“IN LUCE” for soprano, guitar, mixed chorus, string orchestra in 2016 and NACHT DAUER ROSE Three Songs after poems by Georg von der Vring for baritone and piano in 2018. In these compositions he has been able to show his sensibility for nuances of the singing voice and a highly developed intuition for the setting of lyric texts. The project has won considerable weight and dynamism through his involvement in the project which will be a deciding factor in its successful completion.

  1. 2.3.  Milan Sladek (producer)

Milan was asked by Wulfin if he would be interested in becoming involved in this project. Thankfully, he consented and is going to bring a great depth of knowledge and experience of theatre to our common undertaking. First and foremost, he is an exceptionally gifted pantomime who is best known for his portrayal of the alter ego Kefka and has dedicated his long life to the perfection of the art of pantomimic theatre. From the beginning of his training at the Academy of Performing Arts in Bratislava he had the good fortune of being able to work with renowned theatre practitioners including Emil František Burian and Jerzy Grotowski. 

He founded together with the choreographer, Eduard Zlabek, the first pantomime ensemble in the then Czechoslovakia. During this time, he was responsible for significant innovations in pantomimic art through experiments in black box theatre, figures and masks, dance, clowning, as well as spoken theatre, which brought the company considerable attention.  Subsequently, he undertook a large number of international tours and performed at many important festivals. After the Prague Spring of August 1968 his pantomime theatre was closed. In the same year he left Czechoslovakia and emigrated first to Sweden before he moved to Cologne, Germany in 1970. Here he opened together with Eduard Zlabek and Julia Lindig the Theater Kefka which was the first non-Soviet full-time pantomime company in Europe. In 1976 he initiated and organised the International Pantomime Festival, Cologne “GAUKLER” that remained over a long period of time a platform for artistic exchange for movement artists of all types in Germany. Furthermore, countless important internal and external productions were presented. Additionally, many young pantomimes were able to receive training. In this time he presented a number of notable productions including “Die Bettleroper”, Kefkas “Don Juan” and König Ubu”. From 1987 to 1992 he was Professor for Pantomime at the Folkwang University of the Arts in Essen. From 1994 bis 2002 he was director of the THEATERS ARENA, des International Institute for Movement Theatre in Bratislava. He was involved for many years with Goethe Institut and conducted many creative projects for them. His most recent production, in which he also performs, is “Dubcek Spring” which he created in memory the politician Alexander Dubcek for his actions during the Prague Spring. This production is not only remarkable for its overwhelming revival of the events with pantomimic means, but also because Milan at the age of 80 still is actively performing. This show his extraordinary devotion and diligence in pursuit of creative and artistic excellence.

Milan´s experience producing opera is particularly important for this project. In 1991 he produced his own version of “Die Hochzeit des Figaro” from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in Seoul. He took inspiration from the Japanese puppet theatre Bunraku to achieve a completely new vision of Mozart´s opera. In Tokyo he produced the Dreigroschenoper from Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. His experience in this area is particularly important for the project because the conception of the work is based on the nonverbal und preverbal foundations of music-theatre. Over and above his contribution to the creation of the work his preparation of the singer-actors will be a determining element in force of the music-theatrical performance.

  1. 2.4.  Sancia Fischbein (librettist)

Sancia was also introduced to the other members of the artistic team by Wulfin. She was a former guitar student of his. After studying Law she decided to follow her dream and become a writer. At present she is completing a bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing and Cultural Journalism at the Institute for Literary Writing and Literary Studies at University Hildesheim. In one of her first publications, the short story "VEENDAM" she has been able to show a mature command of the German language as well as the literary mechanisms required to achieve a gripping and palpable atmosphere in her narration. Furthermore, she was able to create a perceptible verbal and nonverbal score of the expression of the individual characters. She is capable of convincing us that we can hear, see, smell and feel what is happening. 

“An jedes Ohr dringt die Stimme, als stünde der Kapitän in körperlicher Präsenz direkt neben einem; man spürt die Wärme, die diese Stimme überträgt, sie hat einen heißpfefferminzigen Atem, der wohlig durch die Gänge kriecht. Es ist ermutigend und erfrischend, die Stimme eines echten Kapitäns zu hören, wie er mit wohlgesetzten Worten darauf hinweist, dass draußen immer noch schlechte Sicht ist, aber niemand sich Sorgen zu machen braucht…“ 

The authors she takes inspiration from for her own writing include John Irving and Simone de Beauvoir, both of whom provide an excellent model for the task of writing a libretto for this project. Despite, or, perhaps because of, her youth she can bring a fresh and contemporary impulse to the project. She possesses the necessary academic rigor coupled with a creative openness which will contribute to the success of our venture.