A journey into Mahler’s world: Teatrocinema premieres piece with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra.
Their unique style has taken them far. Not only do they create impressive theatrical worlds but they are also one of the most renowned Chilean companies on the world stage. With a history spanning more than 13 years, the acclaimed Chilean group Teatrocinema has been preparing one of its most anticipated and challenging premieres - Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), performed with the LAPhil and its outstanding director Gustavo Dudamel from April 5-7 at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in the United States.
By Constanza Yévenes Biénzobas
The duo made up of Juan Carlos Zagal and Laura Pizarro has spent more than 30 years creating unique dramatic worlds with an important visual content. First came La Troppa –which they formed together with Jaime Lorca and which was previously called Los que no estaban muertos – and now, under the name Teatrocinema, they have pioneered the art of fusing different styles. Theater, cinema and comics - as well as other disciplines - inspire each of their pieces, reflecting a creativity that would not be possible without the multidisciplinary team behind each production. “Teatrocinema is not just Laura and I. We also need a team behind us”, confirms Zagal.
For 13 months, the same team responsible for Historia de amor and La Contadora de películas has worked untiringly through 12 hour days to bring the company’s latest and largest piece to life and turn it into images: Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth, 1908) by Gustav Mahler. Together with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by acclaimed orchestra director, Gustavo Dudamel, Teatrocinema and Yuval Sharon have prepared an unprecedented version of this musical, which will have its world premiere on April 5 at the imposing Walt Disney Concert Hall, designed by architect Frank Gehry. The performance is presented by the LAPhil, with the collaboration of Cadenza Artists and the Teatro a Mil Foundation
The starting point for all of this was in 2016, when Teatrocinema was performing Historia de Amor in Los Angeles when touring through the United States. It was then that the LAPhil resident director and artist Yuval Sharon, renowned for his contemporary and broad operatic vision, met them and was captivated by their theatrical style. The visual beginnings of the Chilean company perfectly complement the staging of Mhaler’s work. “In the light of contemporary operatic trends and new musical theater, where the experience and atmosphere themselves often replace the role of the narrative, the time is right for a theatrical presentation of Mahler’s score … To treat the piece as drama, a non-conventional theatrical focus is needed”, specifies Sharon when talking about the project.
Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), Mahler’s penultimate work, is a mixture that is virtually unclassifiable, neither song cycle, nor symphony, nor operatic drama. Composed at a critical time in his life - he was coming to the end of his time directing the Vienna Opera, his eldest daughter had recently passed away and he was diagnosed with a heart condition - the work is impregnated with an existentialist spirit that navigates its way through chaos, confusion, contemplation, beauty and death. In an emotional depiction of the cycle of life, Mahler found inspiration and a written foundation for his compositions in the poems of Li-Tai-Po, featured in The Chinese Flute compilation by the German, Hans Bethge.
Made up of six independent songs (The Drinking Song of Earthly Woe, The Solitary One in Autumn, Youth, Beauty, The Drunkard in Spring and The Farewell), the musical is a round-up of the life and genius of Gustav Mahler, its creator. “I think it’s the most personal music I’ve written to date”, wrote this Austrian composer to Bruno Walter, the director under whom this composition was premiered.
For Zagal, one of the directors of Teatrocinema, “It’s a trip heading towards the final rest, to death. Not in the tragic sense, but rather by letting oneself go back to nature”. That’s why, once they accepted the challenge of becoming part of the project, a multidisciplinary team delved into Mahler’s world. They researched, read and listened to every note. They submerged themselves in studies from the time, his life and his aesthetic. Guided by the score and the lyrics, they came up with the script, a 3D model, animations and the projection that catches the images that surround the two singers on the stage.
Each lied – a brief song for a solo voice – has an idea, a moment, a journey, as if it were a story on its own. “To create the lied, we imagined Mahler’s piano at his cabin on the lake, which he used when he was composing. On it, he had objects, gifts, which we used to imagine the worlds in which The Song of the Earth takes place”, explains Zagal in the multimedia room at the Aldea del Encuentro, where the group worked before going to Los Angeles.
Only days away from its premiere, the company is already in the American city rehearsing and making last-minute adjustments. Every day at different times, the singers Tamara Mumford (mezzo-soprano) and Russell Thomas (tenor) visit them to rehearse their every movement and their timing. In the first week of April, they will move to the Walt Disney Concert Hall to work with the orchestra, with Gustavo Dudamel putting his tempo and stamp on the performance. “Our work isn’t like pressing play on a video. We accompany the score and the singers, following the tempo like an orchestra conductor. Through our 3D images and as only we know how, the singers are instantly immersed in a spatial journey through time in a really surreal environment”, says Zagal.
All of Teatrocinema’s work has had its starting point in literature. What has it been like to take on a musical?
Zagal: ‘Everything changes so nothing changes’. Since La Troppa and now, with Teatrocinema, music has always played a leading role for us. If a play lasts an hour and a half, an hour and ten minutes of this is music. Music’s always there, like a soundtrack, background music, searching out emotions, daydreams. The difference is that Mahler’s composition is a masterpiece. The complexity of bringing it to the stage hasn’t been that hard for us: it’s like looking for the poetry in action using music and lyrics. In this sense, we’ve discovered a lot of content, symbolism, open interpretations that both he who writes the music and the music itself provide. That’s what’s so nice about music. It gives you freedom of interpretation. We play, probably just like Mahler did with his music, at creating these worlds.
Vittorio Meschi (Teatrocinema’s Art Director): the method that worked really well for us was creating a playwriting group, made up of Juan Carlos Zagal, Montserrat Quezada, Sofia Zagal, Julián Marras, Max Rosenthal and myself. After listening to the music and the sung texts - the Chinese poetry that accompanies the whole play - we started brainstorming to define a concept and what we imagined when we listened to the music. It was a real group effort; we were really in sync.
You’ve said that the process has been very open and trusting. How have you managed co-directing with Yuval Sharon?
Zagal: Once we committed to this project, we had our first meeting with Yuval to talk about Mahler and content. We listened to each other and talked a lot. When he came to Chile, we went over the storyboards and the animatics and prepared for Tamara Mumford’s participation. He came back with Tamara and Paolo Bortolameolli, who was in charge of conducting the pianist. That was an important moment; making sure the singers weren’t intimidated or boxed-in, but incorporated as part of the camera’s movements instead.
Laura: Yuval is co-director because he’s the one who brings everyone together. He was also involved in monitoring the work carried out as part of the process.
Over the last few years, the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra has presented an updated and diverse series of performances that aims to bring classical music to new audiences. What is Teatrocinema’s contribution and what mark has it made on this?
Zagal: Teatrocinema contributes a hyper-contemporary, dramatic avant-garde style that has only been seen a few times before. When we take our plays anywhere, the first thing people say is that they’ve never seen anything like them. Everyone’s surprised, involved, because the images are intertwined with the theater and with each of the actors’ movements. This is the language of today used to reinterpret creation. Theater, cinema, comics, music, lyrical song, orchestras are all mixed together in a show. It’s very contemporary. This mixture, this fusion of styles, of cultures, this great metropolis that is Los Angeles all coexist together and this is also a vision, a reflection of what we are living.
Max Rosenthal (3D drawing and modelling): With everything we’ve learnt from previous plays, this group’s starting-point was much more advanced. The technical aspects we’ve learnt along the way are now much more integrated and are staring to be applied. From the beginning, we’ve been doing a lot of research, experimenting and trying different things out, from the play’s aesthetics to technical scale aspects.
With 30 years of experience and on the verge of completing this challenge, what’s next for Teatrocinema?
Laura: Finding ourselves and discovering new creations to discover where we’re headed. We’ve always been driven by the desire to get better and closer and closer to perfection and our organic nature and to keep on reviving this style as our own. This doesn’t mean that there’s a certain recipe for doing things, but that things are always frenetic and there’s a risk of finding or trying something different. At the end of the day, we’re trying to turn the theatrical stage, where we connect, into a place for in-depth communication with the audience. It’s a search for the great catharsis that every theatergoer, from the Greeks onwards, has aspired to find in creation.
Zagal: More specifically, we’re going to go out, find and work on any idea we want. With Laura, we’ve made a huge effort to survive as a company, as people, as actors, as creators, in a dignified manner. Not the two of us, but a large group of people that could have their own space. Our project consists of a site on a free loan that the city hall, the municipal council and the mayor of La Reina (near the Aldea del Encuentro) formally gave to the Teatrocinema Foundation to set up a Center for Experimentation in the Performing Arts, including theater, dance, music and images - a kind of laboratory. That’s our main aim - getting the resources to build our own place and keep on working, consolidating the team of young professionals whose ideas make up part of the group and having time to create.
Many young actors see us as an authority, a group that lives for and with the theater, living off it, sustainable as a company, travelling through Santiago, Chile and the world. If Mahler’s work is anything, it’s an invitation to take part in a new project, with a new audience. It’s an opportunity to help ideas and creation find their place.
Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) will be performed from April 5 to 7 at 20:00 at the Walt Disney Concert Hall (Los Angeles, United States).