Amin Maalouf: Up-Close with the Man from “Afar”

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INTERVIEW: with Amin Maalouf (Kaija Saariaho’s librettist-collaborator on L’Amour de loin and other works)

The opera L’Amour de loin – or Love from Afar – premiered to conspicuous plaudits in Salzburg in 2000, and has enjoyed numerous productions around the globe. It also signaled the beginning of a remarkably fertile, ongoing collaboration between composer Kaija Saariaho and then first-time librettist Amin Maalouf.

Maalouf has since partnered with Saariaho on three more musico-dramatic works, all of them sharing certain distinctive features: strong female characters, epitomizing a generative, rancorless strain of feminism; an elusive, gossamer air of mysticism; a usually gentle, ultimately affirmative perception of the workings of providence; and a subtle yet dogged curiosity about the paradox of simultaneous interrelation and alienation between cultures, genders, East and West.

Born in Lebanon, raised a Catholic, and educated at eminent Jesuit institutions, Maalouf’s life itself has bridged cultural and geographical divides. A genial, conversational man, with an easy laugh and a winning manner, Maalouf has been scholar, journalist, novelist, and now librettist. His 1983 essay, The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, was in many ways Maalouf’s watershed, annunciatory literary moment, following which he became most celebrated for a prolific output of large, colorful, imaginative novels, many of them (starting with Leo Africanus in 1986, about the legendary Renaissance explorer who himself spanned cultures and continents) using provocative historical data as their jumping-off points. Balthasar’s Odyssey (2000) traced a mystical literary scavenger hunt from the Levant through 17th-century Europe, weaving together sensational elements ranging from the notorious Sabbatai Zevi “false-messiah” furor, to the pandemic mania of apocalyptic millenarism attending the advent of the year 1666, to the devastation of the Great Fire of London, yet all of it suffused with a sense of quiet, steadfast hope for redemption.

With an eminent career centered in France, Maalouf exemplifies the grace and creativity with which disparate and seemingly dissonant cultural heritages can be mediated and melded.

Maalouf quotes German Romantic philosopher Novalis in observing that “novels are born from the shortcomings of history.” And, indeed, he is eager to get back to work on his next, nearly finished novel (as yet untitled), which he says is “a way of imagining the world if things were not so bad.” It seems a touchstone of Maalouf’s artistic enterprise – observing the world – and its shortcomings – from unique vantage; making connections between past, present and to-come; imagining things as good, and capable of being better.

Amin Maalouf, Photo: Jérôme Bonnet

Amin Maalouf, Photo: Jérôme Bonnet

Recently, a short while after the current Metropolitan Opera production of L’Amour de loin was reviewed here (December 9, 2016), and toward the end of an epic 24-day stay in New York City (it’s the longest he’s ever spent away from his writing and his home in Paris; “but I love New York,” he is quick to affirm), Mr. Maalouf generously made time to reflect on his work, his worldview, his working relationship with Kaija Saariaho, and his emergence since the turn of the new millennium as a major contributor to the development of modern opera. His buoyancy and energy were palpable.

Here are signal excerpts from our conversation, beginning with a nod to his constitutive interest in history, and a gracious acknowledgment of our December 9 commentary.

Amin Maalouf: I notice that you like my favorite historian [Barbara Tuchman]! I love her work. A Distant Mirror, The Proud Tower and The March of Folly, and many things. I love the American part of March of Folly, about King George – that was extraordinary.

Charles Geyer: And let me congratulate you on your election to the august Académie française in 2011. You assumed the seat previously held by celebrated structuralist philosopher Claude Lévi-Strauss. Had you known Lévi-Strauss?

AM: I had studied sociology, so I had studied his books. But unfortunately I met him only once. I had written my first novel [Leo Africanus, in 1986]. The Academy had decided to give me a prize. Of course I was not a member yet, [but]he [Lévi-Strauss] was presiding that day. I was very proud to shake his hand. I couldn’t have imagined that almost 25 years later I would be sitting on his seat in the Academy.

CG: What a beautiful irony!

And it was a moment of great emotion when I started working on the speech – because that is the tradition in the French Academy: you have to make a speech about your predecessor. I met his widow. We spent a few days – my wife and I – at their country house. She opened all his library, his drawers, and I began to know him much more. I felt I knew him for years.

CG: That all sounds like it could figure in one of your novels someday!

AM: Well, I wrote about it, but not a novel. My latest book, Un fauteuil sur la seine [A Seat on the Seine] is about my eighteen predecessors at the Académie, from 1634 to Levi-Strauss – [everyone who has held]the 29th seat of the Academy. And there are some marvelous people. There was [philosopher]Ernest Renan, and Claude Bernard, who was one of the main figures of new medicine – modern medicine. There were two cardinals.

[There were also the Baron de Montesquieu, and classic dramatist Pierre Corneille – plus the seat’s share of scandals, including love triangles, power struggles, mysterious deaths and suicides. Maalouf has a knack of mining from history its epic novelistic riches.]

CG: So, you wrote a history of the single seat? What a great idea. Had that never been attempted before?

AM: No, funnily, nobody had done it before. Usually people just do the elegy of the immediate predecessor, but I felt I needed to do the same for all of them.

CG: Let’s talk about your foray into writing for opera, beginning with your libretto for L’Amour de loin. Had you previously been an avid operagoer?

AM: Not much, to be honest. I had very limited experience. I remember seeing Porgy and Bess during my very first visit to New York; and I had seen [an opera], I think, once in Italy … and maybe once or twice in France. But … I wouldn’t describe myself as an operagoer. In fact, when Gérard Mortier [then the general director of the Salzburg Festival; later artistic director of the National Opera of Paris; and, briefly, named to head the New York City Opera; he passed away in 2014]asked me to write the libretto [for L’Amour de loin]I told him I didn’t know much about opera. So he began inviting me whenever he had something of which he was proud. And [he told]Kaija [Saariaho], “You should introduce him to [Alban Berg’s] Lulu,” [or]to this and that. And I began going very often to Salzburg to try to get connected to opera.

amin-maalouf-lamour-de-loin

CG: I gather that Kaija Saariaho originated the idea of an opera about 12th-Century troubadour Jaufre Rudel. But your libretto seems to lift the tale to the level of psychological, or even spiritual, allegory. Was that your conscious intention?

AM: I think so. Although some of it was not very conscious. I think that the idea of fearing to compare the image that we might have about a person or even an idea – or a country – with the reality is something that was very present in my mind, and I think it’s something that is very present in our time. We are in a world where we are having constantly to deal with the difference between what’s real, what’s virtual. We are constantly in contact with people that are far away – so the idea of being in love with somebody who’s far away is I think more real today than it was in the Middle Ages. This idea was present in my mind. I think it nourished my interest in the whole story.

CG: By the end, one senses even an element that is transcendent – I even want to say religious. When I look at the work of Simone Weil, who is the subject of another operatic work by you and Kaija Saariaho – La Passion de Simone – I find that Weil’s mystical writings seem to illuminate a lot about the latent meanings of L’Amour de loin. Would you say that’s true? That L’Amour and La Passion are in a sense companion pieces, reflecting themes back and forth between them?

AM: I think one of the paradoxes of her [Simone Weil’s] thinking was that she seems extremely mystical and yet she never said “I believe in God.” Like the very last part of L’Amour de loin – it’s very ambiguous. One could imagine that she [the Countess Clémence]is just praying toward Jaufre, or praying towards God. Or maybe confusing both of them.

CG: The allure of this ambiguity is part of the reason that L’Amour de loin keeps compelling audiences. It’s been produced any number of times now, right?

AM: Jean Baptiste [Barrière] was telling me that there have been eleven productions to date. I think I have attended six or seven. Not all of them.

CG: And all have been different, haven’t they? I notice, for instance, that in London, it was done in English. Did you craft that text?

AM: A translator made the translation, but then I discovered something very complicated. When one switches from thinking in French to thinking in English, a lot has to be changed. I didn’t rewrite it, but I changed many things. And I think Kaija had to change many things, too. Because when you sing a word – unless the word in the other language is practically the same – one has to change something in the score. It’s pretty complicated. Very complicated.

CG: So is that English version now an “authorized” version, or would you prefer that the French always be done?

AM: Well, I think … even in an English-speaking country [one]would prefer to listen to it in the original language. So I think that all the other productions were in French.

Eric Owens as Jaufré Rudel in Kaija Saariaho's L'Amour de Loin. Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Eric Owens as Jaufré Rudel in Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin. Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

CG: You’ve only written operas with Kaija Saariaho. Would you consider writing with another composer, or has that not come up yet?

AM: Well, I’ve never written for another composer. I don’t exclude it, but we have a very good working relationship and it was really a pleasure for us to work together. From having read stories of the complicated relationships between composers and librettists, I know this is very, very unusual.

CG: You appreciate how fortunate you are that you and Kaija Saariaho are on the same wavelength.

AM: Absolutely. I was very fortunate to work with her, and we became really very close friends, and there are close relationships between our two families. Really, something very, very special. And I am not sure I could reproduce the same with another composer.

[The second Saariaho/Maalouf collaboration is the powerful and tense opera Adriana Mater, about life amidst warfare. A woman is bearing a son in an unspecified region of strife; the child is the product of a violent rape, and the mother fears that the son may inherit the father’s iniquity.]

CG: You’ve said that Kaija Saariaho came up with the idea for L’Amour de loin. What about Adriana Mater – was that her idea, too?

AM: Yes and no. I think the idea of Adriana Mater came mainly from me, but there was one aspect that came mainly from her. Complicated motherhood came of course from her, and I only translated it into my words. But it came from long conversations. There’s a whole passage with the woman describing the feeling that she has of two hearts beating in her breast. All of that, of course, is my words, but they are also her words.

CG: There was a famous and provocative play (and novel) in the 1950s called The Bad Seed, the theme of which was whether evil can be inherited. That’s this woman’s fear, that the father’s evil could be carried forward by the son?

AM: Absolutely. And this is one of the elements of this opera. It ends on an optimistic note because the son decides not to take revenge and not to [let it]be transmitted through him. “Violence will not go through me. It ends in me.” And she is proud of him. At that point she realizes that he is morally her son, even though physically he is also the son of that man.

[Saariaho’s and Maalouf’s third opera collaboration was the aforementioned La Passion de Simone, based on the life and work of French mystic, philosopher, social activist and French Resistance fighter Simone Weil.]

CG: Back to the subject of La Passion de Simone – I’m going to guess that you conceived that idea?

Kaija Saariaho with with Peter Sellars (left) and Amin Maalouf (right) in Salzburg, 1999.

Kaija Saariaho with with Peter Sellars (left) and Amin Maalouf (right) in Salzburg, 1999.

AM: Well, not exactly. I think the person who was most interested by Simone Weil was Peter Sellars [the theater and opera stage director who has been the third collaborator in originating each of the Saariaho/Maalouf-written works]. Peter used to read a lot of the texts of Simone. I think Kaija was very interested also. But [as]I began to know all of her story, her family, her friends up to the moment she died, I discovered that she knew very well people that I knew, but who had disappeared before I had begun to be interested. For instance, there is Maurice Schumann [French author, journalist, statesman and war hero] who was very close to Simone in London, and was one of her closest friends, especially at the end of her life. He was one of seven persons only who attended her funeral.

CG: Whose idea was it to structure the opera as a reflection of the Stations of the Cross?

AM: That was my idea. She [Simone Weil] had this desire to imitate the Christ, and also a desire for sacrifice. And I felt that the whole passage of her life corresponded to Le chemin de la Croix.

CG: I think T.S. Eliot called Simone a saint, didn’t he?

AM: She was in a way a saint. But at the same time she was very complicated.

CG: And I understand that Charles de Gaulle, leading the Free French effort, is alleged to have called her “crazy”?!

AM: She wanted to be sent behind enemy lines. Basically she wanted to become a martyr, and I think they were afraid of her enthusiasm. They asked her instead to write an analysis of what France could be after the war. They wanted to use her intellectual capacity, which was huge.

CG: When she was in her 20s, she wrote a brilliant criticism of Stalinism. And I understand she had lively disagreements with Trotsky?

AM: She knew Trotsky. She was not at all close to the ideas of Trotsky, but she knew Trotsky personally. In fact, when he came to Paris as a refugee, when he was expelled from the Soviet Union, she proposed [that]her parents had a whole floor in their building that they didn’t use. So he stayed there near the Luxembourg Gardens. And one day he told her “we have founded the Fourth International in your apartment!” They didn’t agree at all. She didn’t like his ideas, but they had conversations. She was intellectually brilliant.

CG: Now, your and Kaija Saariaho’s fourth opera, Émilie? That was your idea, no?

AM: Unfortunately, no! I think that was also Kaija’s idea. Again, I knew a few things about Émilie du Châtelet. I was interested in her. But I hadn’t at any time thought of writing a libretto about her.

CG: What is Émilie about?

AM: Émilie du Châtelet was a brilliant lady in the 18th century. She was probably one of the best scientific minds of her time. She translated the work of Newton – and explained it. She was very close to Voltaire. They had been lovers. Many of the philosophical ideas of Voltaire came from her. A brilliant, brilliant lady.

At one point, she had a relationship with a nobleman, and she became pregnant. She was already over forty, maybe forty-five. There was something very poignant about it because she knew that she might not survive if she had to deliver. The opera takes place exactly at the very end of her life, when she is in a sort of castle in the east of France – Voltaire and she. At that point they were no longer lovers, but they were very close friends, living together in the same house. They were very modern-minded. There was nobody else, I think, in those days who had this kind of relationship. Voltaire would dress very well and come and have dinner with Émilie. He would stay and he would just look at her writing very elegantly, trying to finish her book on Newton before she died.

The center of that piece was the gap between a great mind and the disadvantages of being a woman in the 18th Century, a victim of sexism and of course at the same time of the backward medicine that couldn’t save her – being pregnant at forty-five in those times and the huge risk of not surviving.

It is a monologue. That was created in Lyons for [soprano]Karita Mattila. Karita was alone on stage throughout the performance. With a statue of Voltaire.

CG: Are you and Kaija in discussions about another project?

AM: For the moment we have been enjoying the last few weeks and I think we are tempted to have discussions about something else, but at this point no. She has a few things to do. I’m finishing a long novel. I think we’ll maybe meet some time and have a discussion.

CG: Where do your ideas come from and what are your writing habits?

AM: I read a lot. I follow what happens in the world. And sometimes when I’m writing a book, I encounter something, and I say if I were not writing this book I would certainly work on that idea. So, usually, I finish my book, and then I test that idea and see if I would continue and make a book out of it.

Usually, I begin writing in the morning. I get up, I take some coffee and go into my writing room. And in fact I have two cabinets, identical, made by the same person, one in Paris and one 500 kilometers from Paris. When I feel like going to the other place, which is on an island, I take my laptop and I go there and I begin the next day to continue working on the same book.

CG: An island! Where is that?

AM: In the Atlantic. It’s very quiet. It’s not very cold, but it’s not a tropical island! It’s invigorating, this climate, and it’s ideal for writing, because I’m in the thick of serenity when I’m there. I can stay for a month and not think of anything else.

CG: You were brought up Catholic. Do you regard yourself as a practicing Catholic?

AM: I never broke with my community, but I’m not a practicing Catholic. I feel that I’m part of a community of history. I know also that in my own family there are people who come from different traditions. I never try to cut off and renounce a part of my heritage. I tend to accumulate elements of my heritage. And my interest for religion is more an interest for the values and the spiritual dimension of mankind, but not really so much interested in dogma or specific religious practice.

CG: It seems clear from all you’ve said that your spirituality also leads to a conviction that goodness exists, goodness is important, that things can be redeemed. You’re not a materialist, or a pessimist, I believe – am I wrong?

AM: Certainly not. Certainly not a materialist. I believe that what’s most important in the world is to believe in certain values of humanism and progress towards a future where humans will not be fighting against each other, but building something together. And I feel our times are very paradoxical because on one level we have built much more than anybody before us – the spread of knowledge, communications, medicine. And, at the same time, the managing of human differences is awful – a mess! I think that there is a gap between progress in science and technology, and stagnation – and sometimes regressions – on the moral level. And that is my main preoccupation today.

CG: Thank you, Mr. Maalouf.

[The Robert Lepage-directed production of L’Amour de loin at the Metropolitan Opera, score by Kaija Saariaho and libretto by Amin Maalouf, was scheduled this season through December 29, 2016; the opera now appears well-established as a mainstay of the modern repertory, and will no doubt see regular productions internationally in the future.]

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About Author

Charles Geyer is a director, producer, composer, playwright, actor, singer, and freelance writer based in New York City. He directed the Evelyn La Quaif Norma for Verismo Opera Association of New Jersey, and the New York premiere of Ray Bradbury’s opera adaptation of Fahrenheit 451. His cabaret musical on the life of silent screen siren Louise Brooks played to acclaim in L.A. He has appeared on Broadway, off-Broadway and regionally. He is an alum of the Commercial Theatre Institute and was on the board of the American National Theatre. He is a graduate of Yale University and attended Harvard's Institute for Advanced Theatre Training. He can be contacted here.

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