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Pamela Howard

 

In 2005, I directed and designed Martinů’s great work The Greek Passion and staged it in the ancient eleventh century citadel and former town’s prison in Thessaloniki, Northern Greece. Martinů wrote this “music drama” in 1957 while living as an exile in Antibes, basing it on the book by Nikos Kazantsakis, another exile and neighbour. It confronts the spectator with the continuing moral dilemma posed by displaced communities forced from their homeland to other villages, lands or nations, and needing help from their compatriots. It is musically and dramatically direct, unflinching, and provocative.

I began looking for another work to propose for the Martinů Revisited Festival 2009. I hoped to find something relatively unknown, short and humorous as a contrast to The Greek Passion. As a scenographic space explorer I was interested to see how chamber opera could be performed in a chamber – a shared space between spectators and performers. A colleague at the Martinů Institute suggested I should look at The Marriage, written in 1953 while Martinů was an exile in New York as a commission for NBC television’s “ Opera for the Millions” series. I discovered it was based on the play by Nikolai Gogol (1809- 1852) and was first performed in 1842, while Gogol was living in exile in Rome. The two writers who most interested me, Nikos Kazantsakis and Nikolai Gogol, had also stirred Martinů’s ever inventive musical spirit, and central to that spirit I thought, was the nature of exile.

In 2006, I was invited as an artist-in-residence to the Theatre Department of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, USA, to research and develop an innovative project. I decided to try and stage three fragments from The Marriage using only a piano, and student designers and directors as performers. Pittsburgh is a city of immigrants – 57 varieties –each retaining their original identity while gradually integrating with the larger American society. As a granddaughter of just such emigrés, (and knowing at first hand these outrageous, warring, argumentative characters), I began to reflect on the environment that Martinů might have known in New York and why he was interested in these two writers, both creators of a gallery of characters that are larger than life, totally    real and well observed in every tiny detail. This amplified reality excited me, and I decided I could transpose Gogol’s story into the Russian émigré world of New York in 1953, allowing the extreme Gogolian Russian characters to become elderly Russian émigrés living in New York, as if they were “in the old country.” Only Agafya, the unmarried girl of twenty-nine, with a long nose who doesn’t speak French, is a first generation American girl, torn between the constrictions of people who have had to rebuild their lives from nothing and her unrealisable dream of marrying “Cary Grant.” This also moved the piece away from the conventional period costumed opera-drama. The final presentation of “Three Fragments from The Marriage”, at the Regina Miller Gouger contemporary art gallery, resonated strongly with the spectators, who recognised the visual quotes and memories with love and laughter, convincing me that this interpretation could be developed into a full scale production.

In 1944, Vladimir Nabokov, the Russian born American writer and ardent investigator into the nature of invented reality, summed up the prose poet Nikolai Gogol as “a stage genius” in whose world “two and two make five, if not the square root of five, and it all happens quite naturally...” This is a world where nothing is as it seems. A bed is nothing more than a mattress on top of trunks and cases that still have not been unpacked. An old folding bed, perhaps found in the street, is put into service as a laundry airer – a shelving system is no more than an old ladder with three wooden planks – an American refrigerator houses the family china, and a never used washing machine has pride of place in the sitting room. Yet the gallery of characters who inhabit this world see nothing odd at all, for they live in their own reality in which they have remade their lives. They see themselves as fabulous creatures, though we, the spectators can see them as they actually are, old, unemployable and living in the past. Herein lies the warm and compassionate humour, so brilliantly mirrored musically by Martinů. Fyokla, the marriage broker and her arch rival Kochkaryov the market trader, are the only two capable of earning any money, which they do by exploiting the longings of vulnerable Agafya. They are all victims of circumstance, and their own craziness, and we are willingly seduced into their surreal world.

 

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Drawing of the original staging of “Three Fragments from The Marriage”. Regina Gouger Miller Gallery, Pittsburgh USA, 2006.

 

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Visualisation of the installation/performance space for The Marriage. The vignettes show from Left to Right: Dunyashka's quarters; Agafya's bedroon; The women's sitting room; The EntranceHall; New York City; Podkolyosin's apartment; Stepan's quarters. The left front shows the orchestra space and the conductor's podium representing the top of a wedding cake. The small skyscrapers along the front are small painted cardboard stools for spectator seating.

 

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Agafya meets her suitors

The Marriage, the opera-drama where no one gets married, re-presented in a new world that so many easily recognise, is optimistic. It shows, as in the finale of The Greek Passion when the priest Fotis leads his dispossessed congregation to independence, that when people take their lives into their own hands, however terrible the circumstances, they can begin again with an astonishing bravado that is encapsulated in Martinů’s brilliant score.

 


Pamela Howard has worked as a stage designer in the UK, Europe and USA since 1960, and has realized over 200 productions. She has worked at all the major national and regional theatres, including the creation of several large scale site specific works with the late John McGrath. Now both director and designer, especially for opera and music-theatre, she was awarded the OBE for services to drama in 2008. Among her recent works, "The Marriage," the comic chamber opera by Bohuslav Martinů/Nikolai Gogol, which she directed and designed at the Martinů Revisited Festival at the National Theatre in Brno, in the Czech Republic, in October 2009. She has taught in theatre departments all over the world and is the author of What is Scenography (2009. 2nd edition).