'You leave the corpse out in the sun, and you let the birds peck away all the flesh and ligaments," says Matthew Jocelyn over lunch in Toronto, describing one of his favourite kinds of art project. "You're left with a skeleton, that you then have to turn into something operatic."
The corpse and the birds are Jocelyn's way of explaining the extent of the reduction that needs to be made when converting a play or novel into an opera libretto, a task he has performed to acclaim several times. His latest work in that line, an opera based on William Faulkner's novel Requiem for a Nun, opened at Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires on June 10, with Jocelyn directing.
Opera isn't a form that most people who follow performing arts in Canada would associate with Jocelyn, who is finishing his fourth season as artistic director of Canadian Stage in Toronto. But he has had an extensive career as opera director and librettist, all of it outside his native land.
Requiem, the Faulkner opera, is Jocelyn's second with Oscar Strasnoy, an Argentine composer based in Europe. The first was a one-act adaptation of Irène Némirovsky's short novel Le Bal, which premiered at Hamburg State Opera in 2010, on a triple bill that Jocelyn also directed. That opera has since been performed at the Châtelet in Paris, and was given a new production in Munich last year. "It's got a life of its own now," he says.
Jocelyn's life on the lyric stage began in earnest 20 years ago, when he landed a gig assisting English director Jonathan Miller in a production of La Bohème at L'Opéra Bastille. That connection soon led to a three-year position at the Paris Opera, where Jocelyn taught theatre to singers in the company's international opera studio. He started a similar program at Opéra National du Rhin, and ran that for 10 years. All the while, he was directing theatre. While leading a production of a play by Paul Claudel, he persuaded Philippe Boesmans, a major Belgian opera composer, to write some incidental music. The Boesmans connection eventually led to Jocelyn's first big assignment as an opera director: Ernest Chausson's Le roi Arthus, at Brussels's La Monnaie, which had hosted the work's premiere in 1903.
Coming into opera production through a rarity such as Le roi Arthus would be unimaginable for a director based in North America, who might also wait a long time for a crack at Richard Strauss's Die Frau Ohne Schatten, which Jocelyn subsequently did at La Monnaie. His base in Europe also brought him into contact with a much more robust environment for new opera than he could have found in Canada or the United States.
In terms of the work involved, he sees strong parallels between stage direction and adaptation of a text for the singing stage. "Both have to do with interpretation, with deciphering what is core to the work, and deciding through what filters and lens you want to share it with an audience," he says. But transforming a novel or play into a drama to be sung requires editorial decisions more radical than most theatre directors would ever face, as Jocelyn discovered while working on Le Bal.
"The libretto is half Némirovsky, half invented, and some of the invented parts are totally new," he says. "I've added characters, and put in a couple of arias that are absolutely not there."
Faulkner's dense prose posed an even bigger challenge. "It's not singer-friendly at all. There are no arias, no monologues," says Jocelyn. "You have to make it legible and singable, you have to make choices that are music-friendly and composer-provoking. When do you decide to have a duet, or a trio, or to have people sing together even when they have conflicting agendas? This is why I love writing libretti." Faulkner's baroque sentence structures didn't survive the adaptation, although Jocelyn says most of the text comes from the novel.
His next libretto project will compress and reshuffle but not add a syllable to the original: Shakespeare's Hamlet, which the Glyndebourne Festival commissioned Jocelyn and Australian composer Dean Brett to turn into an opera for the 2017 season. It's the first commission from the venerable British house in a decade.
Asked about how he feels about never having worked in opera in Canada, the voluble Jocelyn falls silent for a long moment. "I don't say, 'I should be working here,'" he says. "I'm very committed to Canadian Stage, I'm not out looking for work, and I really respect the autonomy of artistic directors. I am one myself, so I have no feeling that anybody should do anything except what is most appropriate for their vision."
Still, his CanStage contract allows him to do one outside project per year, and his first was an opera: Boesmans's Julie, based on August Strindberg's play Miss Julie, which Jocelyn directed for a French production during his first CanStage season. After that, he hunkered down with his new Toronto company and did no opera for three years.
Requiem marks Jocelyn's return to the singing stage, and work on Hamlet is well advanced. He is clearly ready for more opera, whether holding the pen or directing the show. But we in Canada may not get to see it.