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Elena Mendoza and “La ciudad de las mentiras”.

On 20 February 2017 the opera La ciudad de las mentiras [The City of Lies], a work composed by the Spanish composer Elena Mendoza (Seville, 1973), winner of the 2010 National Music Prize in the category of Composition, premiered at the Teatro Real in Madrid. On the occasion of this premiere, commissioned by Gerard Mortier during his tenure as artistic director of the Madrid institution, I interviewed the Sevillian composer at the end of January of the same year, during an intermission in rehearsals, for the magazine L’Officiel. But, as with the opera’s premiere, which was delayed for a year due to Mortier’s death, my interview was also delayed and was not published until February 2018. And, as is often the case with paper magazines, its length was significantly reduced. Here I can finally publish the full interview with Elena Mendoza. Always take into account both the year she was interviewed and the year of publication.


It is a fact that, in Spain, contemporary music does not receive the popular recognition enjoyed by earlier music. In the case of the Sevillian Elena Mendoza – although a resident of Germany for more than twenty years – this is so “like this” that the world premiere of her first opera, La ciudad de las mentiras, on texts by Juan Carlos Onetti, almost did not happen… because the person who commissioned it, Gerard Mortier, fell ill with cancer and died in 2014, before the premiere, scheduled by the Belgian artistic director of the Teatro Real for February 2016, could take place…

With Mortier out of the picture, the commission was unceremoniously postponed… It could have ended its days in a drawer, but fortunately, and without it being clear why or why not, it didn’t, and finally, a year later than scheduled, on 20 February 2017, the opera had its world premiere. Let’s just say that it is neither an unknown nor a newcomer: In Berlin, Mendoza is Professor of Composition at the Berlin University of the Arts (UdK), and here in 2010 she received the National Music Prize awarded by the INAEM in the category of composition for “her contribution to Spanish musical creation in all its fields; her contribution to the promotion and internationalisation of Spanish contemporary music; for the recognition of her work beyond our borders; and, in particular, for her premieres in 2009 at the Alicante Music Festival, Fragmentos de teatro imaginario (primera parte), and in Óperadhoy Niebla“.

The composer does not want to stir up past waters. However, she recognises that when she comes to Spain invited to show her work – not to visit her family, who live in Seville – she does so almost “as if she were a foreigner. Here it can’t be said that I have ‘contacts’. In Spain things have changed and are no longer as they were in the 1990s: since the beginning of the century there has been a great deal of musical activity in Spain and it can be said that each autonomous community has its own contemporary music orchestra, something unthinkable twenty years ago. And there is immense talent: I see it among my own Spanish students in Berlin.

Teresa Catalán, the last winner of the National Music Prize in 2017 and the only woman professor of composition in Spain, at the Real Conservatorio Superior de Música de Madrid, who was your teacher, has defined your style as “very close to the timbre, but formally very clear”. What does that mean?

I work a lot on timbres: everything to do with spectral music and Ligeti. Those are my background, but I also work a lot on small timbres, like a goldsmith’s work, that is to say, the relationship between the small, second by second, that has a texture and a global dimension. Like the texture of a sculptor’s stone, which is a whole piece, but which has had to be sculpted millimetre by millimetre.

It’s true that I also have a great interest in form and in offering a narrative result: I’m interested in telling stories with music.

Do you know why Mortier chose your opera?

Mortier commissioned three Spanish composers. He had the vision of giving a serious boost to opera in Spanish, because opera in our language has no tradition. The truth is that, both from a scenic and musical point of view, there is a lot of potential in Spain, and he thought that this was one of his obligations as director of the most important opera house in Spain. The three chosen were Mauricio Sotelo, Alberto Posada and myself. I met him when I premiered Niebla at the Teatros del Canal theatres, as part of the Ópera de Hoy cycle, and the success of that work was what made it possible for him to commission me to write the opera La ciudad de las mentiras. His commission was a rush!

You draw on Hispanic literary references: Unamuno, Cortázar, Onetti… How do you show your relationship with literature in your work?

I have always had an intense relationship with literature. Ever since I was a child. I have never dissociated the pleasure of reading from the pleasure of listening to music or, in particular, listening to opera. In fact, I’m a fan of opera. I also discovered it as a child and this union of text and music has always fascinated me. I was born in Seville, and in the eighties you couldn’t see opera there. I had my parents’ records and cassettes and from the age of eight or nine I used to listen to them while reading the libretto and imagining it in my own way.

That intense fascination for the sung or musicalised word comes from there. That is also the explanation why I think my music is very narrative.

When you were nine years old, listening to opera instead of Bom Bom Chip…

(laughs) Maybe it was because I was a big reader. Reading came before listening to opera. And the truth is that I had the records there… If they’re close at hand, because my family comes from the cultural world, it’s easier than if you don’t have them.

Why did you go to live in Germany?

I went to Germany when I was twenty, to study. And between my period in Düsseldorf and my period in Berlin I studied in Madrid, with Teresa Catalán, to get my Spanish degree as well. But I started to offer my music in Spain because I was in demand, because I’ve been living in Germany for more than twenty years, teaching at the University of Berlin.

I had no contacts here. When I came here, it was as if I were a foreigner. But since the beginning of the century there has been a lot of musical activity in Spain. Now, almost every autonomous community has its own contemporary music orchestra, something unthinkable twenty years ago. And there is immense talent. As composers and as instrumentalists. And I see it among my own Spanish students in Berlin.

The bad thing about Spain is that things are very fragile and with the crisis everything fell apart. Everything depends so much on politics…! The structures are not solid. And it’s very difficult to plan for the long term.

In Germany, cultural managers are not so dependent on politicians and have much more autonomy. Their positions, moreover, are more long-term and they can plan. It’s not like here, where you can be fired after two or three years.

How did the idea for the opera come about, what did you want to tell?

I had done a very experimental musical theatre project on Unamuno’s Niebla, which I premiered in Dresden in 2007. There I began a very close collaboration with the stage director Matthias Rebstock. In Niebla we decided that we were not going to work with the traditional method of having a librettist.

In the traditional way, the librettist comes with the libretto, then the composer does the music, and finally the stage director comes up with the staging. I’m not convinced by this method; I’ve had previous experience of working in this way, and I found it very boring. It seems to me that the different elements that make up an operatic staging have to react with each other. That is to say, in the traditional form the composer reacts to the text, but the author of the text does not react to the music. And then, when it is staged, the stage director reacts to both, but neither the librettist nor the composer reacts to the staging… The path is unidirectional. I proposed another path: that of interaction between all the parts and elements that make up the opera, so that it results in something much more flexible. And that is what I proposed with Matthias Rebstock.

He is the stage director, but he is also in charge of the text. I’m in charge of the music and also of modifications to the text. And we both co-direct the staging. And the fundamental thing is that our work works like this from the beginning of the play and we develop everything in parallel. In fact, the first thing is a scenic image: what is going to happen on stage when text and music come together? And, in order for the interaction we want to happen, what is the music going to be like and what is the text going to say? Everything is related, because music and text are going to happen on a stage, not in an abstract space. You have to think from the beginning about the spatialisation of sound. And you have to involve the performers very early on. In this opera, in fact, this was already done in 2011, albeit with sketched rudiments to see also how the performers reacted, improvising.

Is this the Gesamtkunstwerk of which Wagner spoke?

We don’t work in the desert: we come from a tradition. In any case, I wouldn’t dare to make up a text, which Wagner did… In fact, we base ourselves on pre-existing literary texts: we didn’t write them ourselves, and we work on them according to our scenic-musical idea.

What we do actually has much more to do with the ways of experimental theatre than with traditional opera.

Why did you choose these texts by Onetti? And what did you want to capture with them?

Onetti has always been one of my favourite writers, like Cortázar and Unamuno. It’s true that after our experience with Unamuno we wanted to try something more… polyphonic! We liked the idea of trying a dramaturgy of intersecting stories. Onetti’s stories lend themselves very well to this formal game: he had invented a fictitious city, called Santa María, in which most of his stories and novels take place. To really know Onetti well, you have to have read all his work, because his work is a kind of global novel, because the same characters always appear in different stories. Sometimes they are secondary, sometimes the main characters, but they are the same constellation of characters and places: the same bar, the Plaza hotel…

His city, Santa María, is tremendously provincial and sordid, an oppressive, closed place, with unsuccessful characters, without opportunities. Onetti’s women, on the other hand, have the transgressive capacity to confront these oppressive circumstances.

In our opera, a woman has had a dream that she wants to see represented on stage (a dream while she slept, not a dream as an aspiration) and she gives everything to achieve it. Another woman, for reasons of honour, had to leave the city and when she returns, after a while, her fiancé has died and she finds the whole city desolate and goes mad, but she says that she wanted to get married and she is going to get married, in spite of everything, and walks around the city dressed as a bride. Her madness allows her to save herself from the oppressive reality.

The woman in the album is a woman who tells stories to seduce a young man, and he falls in love with her stories, not with her. The surprising thing, which is discovered at the end, is that the stories were real and he, on the other hand, feels betrayed, because he wanted fiction, not reality.

I accumulate my treasures. I’m a super reader, but when I read I write down the possibilities of the stories being set to music.

Do you think about the audience when you write or do you write what-you-have-to-write?

I write what I have to write. But I want to communicate. I write with that intention. But I know that I can’t please everyone. Some come from rock, others from classical, others have never heard anything contemporary… They are diverse origins and, therefore, the public is not a homogeneous block or a unit: it is a multiplicity of sensibilities. I write, then, for a sensibility akin to my own. And within these similar sensibilities, there are those who find me too abstract, and those who find me too concrete. Criticism comes from all sides!

In my opera there are things that will surprise you. For example, that there is so much spoken text and not sung. Or that there are instrumentalists on stage who also act and speak. There is a transgression of the traditional roles of singers, actors and instrumentalists. But we do it with a great sense of humour.

You also have to glean the information, because you don’t tell a story in a linear way, you go from one story to the next without any continuity. You have to finish the puzzle in your head. So the listener is going to have to do a lot of work…

In opera, moreover, everything is amplified, because there is a lot of spoken and even whispered text. And to find the balance with the instrumentation you have to amplify the voice. But there are also actions on stage, acoustically relevant, that are not done with instruments. For example, the bar waiter improvises a musical fragment with trays, cutlery, glasses and bottles, common elements in a bar. There is also a game of dominoes played rhythmically on a table. And all of this has to be amplified, otherwise it would give an insignificant sound. It’s been a very fine job, so that it sounds and you don’t notice that it’s amplified sound.

One of the things that I don’t know if it’s good about the current moment, compared to the past, is that now there are no “popes”: Stockhausen, Boulez, Berio… were highly respected figures, in the field of contemporary music, at the age of thirty! I don’t know if it’s because they were spearheading a “movement”. Now, on the other hand, there is no “movement” and there are no unquestionable young figures in this field. It’s almost as if modernity is defined because each composer is a movement in itself. Nowadays, there is no cohesion, and when there is no movement or school, the composers are not talked about as much as when there is. The same thing happened with the minimalists: Glass, Reich, LaMonte Young, Terry Riley…

I don’t know if I belong to any movement or not. That’s for history to say. For example, which movement does Ligeti belong to? And György Kurtág? None! Not all composers belong together. I don’t know if at that time people were aware of being part of a group. You mentioned Berio together with Stockhausen and Boulez, but Berio was an absolute precursor: the precursor of postmodernism in music.

We composers make and then history puts labels on us.

Except for very specific people who set themselves up as a school, like the spectralists of the Ensemble l’Itinéraire (Gérard Grisey, Tristan Murail and Hughes Dufourt), the rest of us don’t like to be categorised. They were reacting against serialism.

We have moved away from this vision of the male composer, with a beard, as a paternal figure. Contemporary society has, thank God, diluted these authority figures. Now it is more normal for a woman or a transsexual to compose.

Music is not just for a backdrop in the car. Music is an art form and good art is hard to get into. Who understands Wagner the first time they hear him? I don’t think anyone does. In contemporary art you also have to enter to find out what the artist has to offer. I’m not arguing that good art has to be incomprehensible; not at all. I don’t advocate a hermetic stance. But neither should it be populist. I write music to communicate with the audience.

What did you think of minimalism as a musical form in itself and as a confrontation with serialism?

Minimalism is not what interests me most. I’m more interested in the more timbral currents, like spectralism. Minimalism was very fashionable when I was young and still living in Seville, and we went to some Michael Nyman concerts; it was a trend somewhere between the cultured and the popular. I’m not interested in his vision of time, that way of modifying the perception of time through repetition, because mine is more narrative. What a composer does is modify, shape the listener’s perception of time. Minimalism takes you to a nirvana in which you lose consciousness. I’m not interested in the trance effect, but in the narrative through sound.

Riley said that when he composed In C it was “the only tonal music being made” and that it was revolutionary.

Yes, but the feeling of trance can be achieved without making tonal music. It can be achieved in many ways. What characterises minimalism is repetition, not the material from which it draws.

How has your relationship with rock been, considering that Berlin is home to some of the most internationally relevant avant-garde rock musicians or bands…?

I don’t know it well, so I can’t talk about it. I have more of a relationship with the world of jazz or popular music, out of personal interest. I’ve heard of Einstürzende Neubauten, but I don’t have an opinion.

Heiner Goebbels and his old band Cassiber, maybe?

Yes, of course, he is a reference in musical theatre. Contemporary music is not a watertight compartment. If there is one thing that characterises today’s avant-garde, it is the search for points of contact with other arts and other trends.

© Photography by Eli Lorentzi, courtesy of L’Officiel and Spain Media.