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[Herald Interview] Alex Olle’s realistic reimagination of opera ‘Norma’ keeps art form alive

By Hwang Dong-hee

Published : Oct. 12, 2023 - 16:58

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“Norma” (Royal Opera House, Seoul Arts Center) “Norma” (Royal Opera House, Seoul Arts Center)

In opera, tradition often takes center stage. But director Alex Olle of La Fura dels Baus boldly reshapes timeless classics with realism, breathing fresh life into operatic experience while challenging the boundaries of tradition.

The opera “Norma,” which premiered as the opening production of the 2016 season at the Royal Opera House in the UK, is set to be staged at the Seoul Arts Center on Oct. 26-29.

"I wanted to come to Korea for at least a week to meet the actors and help them build the characters," said Olle, speaking to a group of reporters at the Seoul Arts Center. The 63-year-old Spanish director was in Korea ahead of the Seoul performance.

"The stage is alive. That's why it always has room to improve when you have a different location."

After the Korean production of “Norma,” Olle will direct the new opera “The Love of the Three Kings (L'amore dei tre re)” at La Scala Theater in Milan.

Director Alex Olle speaks in an interview with reporters at the Seoul Arts Center, Sept. 26. (Seoul Arts Center) Director Alex Olle speaks in an interview with reporters at the Seoul Arts Center, Sept. 26. (Seoul Arts Center)

Bellini’s tragedy, “Norma,” which premiered in 1831, tells the story of Norma, the priestess of the druids, trapped in a disastrous love triangle with an imperial officer, Pollione, and the young, naive Adalgisa, who serves as an altar girl.

The important keywords of most works set in the Roman era are madness, jealousy, hatred and love, explained Olle. And “Norma” is no exception.

“The story is about (Norma’s) love, jealousy, revenge, forgiveness, sacrifice and more,” said Olle. “I wanted to portray her as a vivid character, displaying all these emotions -- someone who is very much alive," he said.

“Norma was a religious leader, and the question arises: What did she do wrong to be sentenced to be burned alive? She fell in love, bore a child as a priestess who should have remained pure. But then she deserves to be executed?" he asked.

He picked “madness” as the predominant theme in this dramatic narrative.

"I wanted to show the negative consequences that can arise when religious power becomes too strong. The reason Norma is executed is because of societal madness. … I respect all religions, but I wanted to show how far one can go when they become extreme in their beliefs.”

“Norma” (Royal Opera House, Seoul Arts Center) “Norma” (Royal Opera House, Seoul Arts Center)

Olle reimagines the work in modern times and explores the story from the perspective of personal desires. He also incorporated modern Spain into the production, filling it with symbolism related to 20th-century Spanish dictatorship, civil war and the enduring influence of Catholicism.

The stage design of the vortex of 3,500 crucifixes was inspired by the Hill of Crosses in Lithuania -- reminiscent of thorn crowns -- and the white robes with caps that rise high above the head come from costumes worn by children in Spain during Lent. The big ritual scenes allude both to the Spanish Inquisition and the Ku Klux Klan.

"The direction should not be fantastical, but realistic. I reflected on things that happen in reality. Spanish Catholic culture is heavily reflected (in this opera).”

Olle said the reason for his realistic stage setting is to bring more audience involvement into opera.

“If the audience can't appreciate the opera, traditional opera may disappear and only exist in museums. We need to incorporate real-life concerns and contemporary issues into opera,” said Olle.

"I'm not interested in operas following traditions of the past. Watching an opera made 200 years ago feels absurd today. Opera needs to be adapted to fit the current reality. My stage is very realistic and there are risks because it deviates from the traditional framework. But if we do not take this risk, the genre of opera will remain in the past.”

In Seoul, "Norma" is produced by the Seoul Arts Center in association with the Royal Opera House, London. South Korean opera singer Vittoria Yeo and Desiree Rancatore from Italy take on the role of Norma. The performance is accompanied by the Korean National Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Roberto Abbado, with the Noi Opera Chorus.