"I had no problem with Satan. But like all of us, I had to find a solution for God. We all have problems with God.What to do about God?" The speaker was Krzysztof Penderecki, talking in Chicago the day before the world premiere of his monumental new opera, "Paradise Lost," on which the great Polish composer worked for five years.
"So I went to Israel -- after all, they invented Him. I visited synagogues and talked with some Yemenites who told me of a group that has preserved the old tradition. There are only about 40 of them. They sang for me from Genesis. And that music became part of my music for God. In the opera, Six voices in the pit are God. They are not amplified -- I hate amplification."
The use of six singing voices, which is only one part of Penderecki's final decision on how to handle God, is what Arnold Schoenberg used nearly 50 years ago when he was working on his opera, "Moses und Aron." In that score, the voice of God is heard speaking to Moses from within a burning bush.Precisely as Penderecki lately decided, the six singers in "moses und Aron" are seated in the orchestra pit. Schoenberg used a soprano, mezzo, contralto, tenor, baritone and bass for his God voices as if, in choosing one of each of the major vocal ranges, he might suggest the entire human voice.
Penderecki, in what seems a reflection of Milton's male-deminance posture, uses two tenors, two baritones and two basses, thus employing the full range of the male voce. This is again different from another recent vocal embodiment of God. In 1961, Igor Stravinsky, in composing "The Flood," decided to use two lower male voices, a baritone and a deep bass, for the voice of God, as if to suggest that God must sound deep, profound and perhaps just a touch ominous.
The single element common to all of these stage works is that in none of them does God actually appear. That happy materialization occurred in famous form in 1930 when Marc Connelly was inspired to show the world the Lord running a celestial fish fry in "Green Pastures."
Giving six singers the burden of singing the voice of God was, however, only a part of Penderecki's approach to the problem. He decided also the use a speaking voice for some of God's lines. In Chicago, this role was taken by Arnold Moss who also spoke lines as John Milton to open the two parts of the opera. (It is not Penderecki's intention that the same voice should be heard in both parts.)
It is not surprising that Penderecki should have thought long and hard about how to portray God in "Paradise Lost." Even the voice of God is rare on the opera stage, though it is a regular visitor in the world of the oratorio. That fact may be one of the reasons why Penderecki said, "I don't call this piece an opera -- it is a kind of staged oratorio." The program describes it as a "sacred representation."
Again there is a parallel with Schoenberg, though in reverse, since originally "Moses und Aron" had been conceived as an oratorio, a classification the composer said, in a letter to Alban Berg, he had decided to change to opera.
Sixty years before Schoenberg's opera, Arrigo Boito was finishing his large-scale opera, "Mefistofele." In the prologue there is a dialogue between Satan and God, but the conventions of that period did not permit even a suggestion of the voice of God. Thus, even though Satan frequently speaks to God, saying "Hail, Lord," and specifying, "From time to time I like to see the Old Man... it is nice to hear the Everlasting converse so amiably with the devil." God's part in the dialogue is barely suggested in questions posed by a "Mystic choir."
Today, a hundred years after Boito's great achievement, Penderecki writes after more than two decades of composing on some of the largest concepts to have occupied men's minds. His "Passion According to St. Luke" was the first part of a trilogy that has now been completed with music foe Holy Saturday and Easter. An earlier opera was on the subject of "The Devils of Loudun," while purely instrumental compositions have explored the tragedies of Auschwitz and Hiroshima.
At 45, Penderecki had an answer when asked what he was planning to write in the future. "My subject never changes," he began. "If God permits, I have plans up to the year 2000 of what I would like to write. Something on 'The Inferno,' and then 'The Divine Comedy.'" About his new opera, he continues, "Sonce the 'Devils,' nine years ago, I have changed about 80 percent. This is not the music of the angry man I was then.
"This ('Paradise Lost') belongs to a different time -- this is like the Violin Concerto (a work written at the same time as the opera) -- it is opening a new period." Facing a roomful of music critics gathered from all over the country and abroad, Penderecki continued, "I must never change my way -- because of critics who may not like it -- I preserve my language and my style. Every day I write. I am not waiting for a great idea from heaven. Now this opera is finished. I want only to expand slightly one first act aria of Satan, and to write a small intermezzo. But there will be no change of what is written."
Penderecki has a rich aural sense for drama in sound. In addition to the wealth of unusual orchestral and choral sounds in "Paradise Lost," there are many moments of silence used as theatrically as by Beethoven, Debussy, Stauss of Verdi.
At times these silences are impinged upon, almost soundlessly, by a choral humming so soft as to be nearly inaudible or an undercurrent of sibilants, as at Satan's suggestion to Eve that she should eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. "Up and enter now into full bliss-s-s-ss...." the devil insinuates, and the sibilance of "bliss" is prolonged while the chorus of Fallen Angels "can only produce the hissing sound of snakes." Penderecki's vivid tonal imagery is as splendid in the imaginative choral writing as in the magnificence of the orchestra.
At the premiere, one of the chief disappointments was in the lighting. A great dome. intricately constructed so as to produce light in muriad tiny areas or to blaze forth in a great white sunburst, rose and descended splendidly to suggest the realm of Paradise.
But almost every other scene, including nearly all those in Satan's darker realms, with his fearsome hosts, were often far too black to let us see the essential figures of Sin and Death, the serpent, and the other hellish angels. And the three central visions, which Penderecki calls "the climax of the opera," with their terrifying glimpses of pestilence, war and death -- all let loose by the fall of man -- were largely ineffectual because the movements were carried out in distances that were far too shadowy.
The role of Satan in the three-hour opera is long and taxing. Much of the time a parallel with Wotan is inescapable, both in the wide range involved, and the size of the orchestra over which the baritone must sing. Originally William Dooley was announced for the part. A change of cast brought Peter Van Ginkel into a part for which he simply does not have the vocal power or stamina.
John Butler's choreography, however, seems unlikely to be surpassed, as does the dancing of Dennis Wayne as Adam, whose singing counterpart, William Stone, was equally impressive. It is not surprising that the stage direction often looked routine, since there had been a change of directors only nine days before the premiere.
Other productions, perhaps those in Vienna and Berlin, with their inevitable differences in emphases, will certainly throw new light on "Paradise Lost." It is pertinent to note the revelations that lighting alone created in Bayreuth's Wagnerian productions in the 1950s. It is also interesting to speculate, with the composer's implicit blessing, on this new work it given as an oratorio, provided it is accompanied by sensitive lighting and a certain essential movement.