Radar Magazine. Interview to Ricky Terezi. Photo by Scott Robinson.
Interview with João MacDowell – Composer and Artistic director of the International BrazilianOpera Company – IBOC.
RADAR – I understand that you are launching the International Brazilian Theater Unit inside the International Brazilian Opera Company, please tell us about it.
João – It is a work-group inside IBOC’s greater umbrella. The goal is to experiment with spoken word and develop a repertoire that translates the Brazilian theater artistic experience, while also creating opportunities for international collaboration. IBTU represents an effort to focus on a certain type of performance and to give our artists a chance to develop a new set of productions that may not be perceived as “Operatic” in a narrow sense. In a broad sense, everything that we present at IBOC is indeed theater, even when we present formal concert recitals, with no elaborate costumes or scenery, there is always a dramatic ritual going on. It is a pact between audience and the artists that enables the evocation of an ancient ritualistic practice, while we are in a performance mode of interaction and creating a communion of living souls. Hopefully, that communion will trigger an initiation experience, where one is allowed to be touched and changed at some level by the ritual itself.
RADAR – Is this something new or unique?
João – It is not new in that it has represented a tendency in performance art for a long time. It is nice to open the books from the great thinkers about theater and realize that the perspective is generally unifying through history. We look at Stanislavsky, Grotovsky, Artaud, Boal, Brecht, Becket, Aristotle, Kant and up to our times with someone like Robert Wilson, and it is always a perspective that brings together the arts that prevails at the highest level of thinking. The compartmentalized perspective that separates theater, dance, music and visual arts, that is a way of thinking that is in fact very limited to a short historic period in the Western mind. It is part of the mental trash that we inherit from a recent past and that we need to shed in order to move on. This need to separate and classify, to label things in different folders, has to do with the encyclopedists, they thought they could separate explain all aspects of reality. It is a very arrogant concept if you think about it, but it was useful for a moment. Nowadays people go to Wikipedia, which is fine for what it is, but it cannot be a source of knowledge at a deeper level. I doubt that one could achieve wisdom from Google. Instead, I believe in looking at the actual books and then maybe editing the Wiki, to make it more reliable and comprehensive. In “The Portrait of the artist as a Young Man” Joyce dedicates a long chapter to his Aesthetic theory, he picks it up from Thomas Aquinas and develops it a degree further. It is not a theory for literature, it is a theory for art in the broader sense. He talks about Integitas, Emanitas, and then Claritas, from which emanates the mark of Beauty: “A sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something.” That brings him to the concept of Epiphany: the experience of perceiving something that one was not aware before. I relate Epiphany to the Initiation Ritual, where one is expected to change as the basic assumption of the work. For me, if there is no Epiphany it becomes Entertainment, and I am not very interested in Entertainment, except maybe from a craftsmanship perspective.
RADAR – Most people see you as a composer. Please tell us about your theater experience.
João – I came to music from a theater and literature perspective. My first play was performed in 1984, it was a text called “Plin.” It was about a family dinner going slightly insane as the youngest child plays with a glass, ringing at irregular intervals. In a way, it was a musical text also, although there is no proper music in it.
I was a student at the dramatic college of Dulcina de Moraes. She represented an older school of theater that was already dying when I met her, and for many, she was the best Brazilian Theater artist ever. I had the privilege of being her pupil before she passed. She asked me to prepare Hamlet and I remember she would never let me go beyond the first few lines of text – she would take over and start doing the text. There was so much life in each of her words, it was impossible not to be mesmerized. It was a way of acting that had a lot to do with how opera is still presented, due to the supremacy of the written intonation in the music. She delivered each line as a musical phrase, full of drama and meaning. Nowadays most actors have a more naturalistic delivery, which is heavily influenced by cinema, it is a different school, and it implies on a certain type of aesthetic philosophy. It is interesting to see how the modern becomes old and the very old becomes contemporary.
RADAR – Tell us more about your vision for contemporary theater.
João – We could call it “Total Theater” or “Ritual Theater” or “Contemporary Opera.” Labels are always problematic because the true artist navigates the borderline of the label. Audiences need the label, in order to classify and dismiss the work in a category that has already been explained. The advantage of using “Opera” as a classifier is that historically “Opera” has stood for this all-embracing art form. Wagner calls it “Gesamtkunstwerk,” the total work of art. It is drama, music, literature, visual art, but it should not be just a piling up of different disciplines, as much as a unified experience that embraces all senses. That is why I like to think in terms of an initiation ritual. When Opera started, the Renascence Florentines wanted to revive Greek Drama, except they did not know much about ancient Greek culture, so they invented a new style of musical theater. Apparently, Greek drama was also sung throughout. But Greek Drama was itself a reinvention of older ancient rituals, from a time when music, dance, theater, magic, and medicine were one and only. In contemporary performance art, we are back at that space, the classification is obsolete. Gerald Thomas, who is another Brazilian theater director developing a fantastic work at La Mama, likes to call his work “Dry Opera.” When we watch Robert Wilson’s work, “Einstein on the Beach” for example, it is hard to say if it is dance, theater, or opera in any traditional sense. For the true artist, these categories are irrelevant, it is only the narrow-minded critic that seems to care. Gerald Thomas and Robert Wilson are living artists that still inspire me in many ways, they are not trying to achieve the easy success of repetitive formulas, but taking the risk to look forward to where the theatrical experience may go.
“It is interesting to see how the modern becomes old and the very old becomes contemporary.”
RADAR – But now you also have a separate division on IBOC that is dedicated to spoken theater.
João – That is true. I believe we felt the need to explore a specific aspect of the dramatic technique. We have been focusing on immersive theater for some time, we did not classify it as such, also because the label has become somewhat overused. It is a specific approach that aims to develop new works within a certain limitation of the technical resources. As artists, we often isolate aspects of the technique in order to improve and deepen the relationship with the craft. The final work should still be experienced as a unified experience, but the path that leads to it may be through a certain limitation of techniques which allows us to explore a greater depth in that specific aspect, in this case, it is the spoken work. Traditionally when we think of opera we think the music has to prevail, when we think of theater the spoken word has the supremacy. The actual frontier is foggy at best, but there is a technical limitation that implies in a different type of ritual. The Theater Unit comes to life as a necessity expressed by the very artists who are at the core team of IBOC. I have always been a theater person and I am proud to have watched some great talent blossom under our umbrella. Laudiceia Calixto is one of them. She worked with us on the first concerts of my first opera: “Tamanduá.” When we first met I was deeply touched by her personality and felt so much dramatic potential in her stage presence, later she went on to star in the theater production of “The maids’ The Maids” and has been extensively reviewed by the New York Times, not a small feat for many artists with a longer career.
RADAR – Any other developments that our readers should be aware?
João – We are also launching the International Brazilian Dance Unit, led by Antonio Negreiros, who is himself a legend as dancer and choreographer. We are looking for more dancers to join the group. We also continue recruiting singers for the New York Brazilian Chorus. We say the company is Brazilian in spirit and international in collaboration. We are very proud of the great variety of nationalities represented in all our productions.
More about João MacDowell:
More about the International Brazilian Opera – IBOC:
Laudiceia Calixto and Rita Oliveira in “The Maids’ The Maids – NY Times review:
Other expressions of Brazilian Theater in New York:
Gustavo Pace, a Brazilian actor, and dramaturge that has been gaining a lot of attention in New York:
Gerald Thomas and the Dry Opera Theater company:
Group BR – a Brazilian theater group that has been presenting the work of writers such as Clarice Lispector and Vinicius de Moraes to New York audiences: