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In the cradle of the Phaedra myth

Volker Hagedorn visited Hans Werner Henze at his home above the Tiber valley, where the composer wrote "Phaedra", his newest opera.

He sits in the shade of the terrace gazing at the olive trees. He seems smaller than I had expected, as often happens when one gets to know the works before the composer. Smaller, too, than the man I had seen at first performances, where he was always the best-dressed person, his tanned complexion exuding vitality and making him stand out among the pale musicians and singers in make-up. Composer Hans Werner Henze is eighty-one. He gets up with some effort, but there is an amused twinkle in his eye when he hears where his visitor is from: Lower Saxony. "May I tell you that you look like a Hanoverian. My grandmother was from Hanover…" Henze certainly doesn't look like a native of Westphalia in his thin, white summer clothes, with his aristocratic profile and bright Mediterranean eyes. He moved to Italy more than half a century ago.

Hans Werner Henze's "Phaedra". All photos © Ruth Walz, courtesy Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Berlin

And here, on his estate south of Rome, he completed his latest opera "Phaedra" five months ago. It almost cost him his life. While working on it Henze suffered a collapse. His partner nursed him back to health. But scarcely was Phaedra completed when Fausto Moroni himself died at the age of only sixty-three. Henze's "closest, dearest friend," designer of the marvellous garden that surrounds the yellow house. "He was a sailor, a farmer from a Byzantine prince's family, with an unmatched gift for the art of living." Fausto, who had told Henze four decades earlier in Rome that his compositions weren't really his thing. But after seeing the ruin on the country estate that Henze had just bought, he decided not to emigrate to America after all but to tackle the building work. Now you sense the grief here.

Henze's fourteenth opera affected him deeply in more ways than one. The second act of "Phaedra" is set near Henze's home, on the edge of the mountains. The area is steeped in pre-Christian history like no other, reaching further back than the Eternal City, which you can see lying in the Tiber valley from the garden. "For people here Rome is kid's stuff," says Henze's assistant Michael Kerstan. "There's a car repair shop here where you can see a Mithra cult fresco on the wall. That was before Diana." That is, before the Greek Artemis became the Latin Diana and received her shrine here, as a result of the drama surrounding Phaedra…

"Phaedra" was premiered at the Staatsoper Berlin on September 6. It is Henze's fourteenth opera; after the thirteenth he said: "I think that's enough." Peter Mussbach is the producer, Olafur Eliasson has designed the sets, Michael Boder is conducting the Ensemble Modern.

When the young Saxon poet Christian Lehnert found out Henze wanted him as librettist, he must have wondered what was happening to him. "In a way, it's like working for Brahms. Or Beethoven… he felt the blood rushing through his veins, so that he felt dizzy for a moment and had to sit down." Actually it wasn't Lehnert who wrote this but an earlier librettist, Hans-Ulrich Treichel, whose novel "Tristanakkord" (the Tristan chord) is based on his experiences with Henze. The novel isn't about an opera, though, it's about a hymn – Brahms never wrote an opera, after all. It's not advisable to broach the subject with Henze. "He's never read it," his assistant says, "He had someone tell him about it and was outraged. A pity, really, it's a funny, lovely book."

This time, however, a book appeared ahead of the opera. It brings together entries from Henze's diary and notes by Lehnert, who turned up to see Henze at the luxury Hotel Adlon in Berlin in May 2004 carrying a torn rucksack. Until then, he had had little to do with the world of music. Lehnert, a priest by profession in Müglitztal, near Dresden, had previously only written poetry. Henze discovered Lehnert's poetry in a newspaper, and decided to ask the young Saxon to be his librettist. At first the hotel didn't want to let him in. But later the two sat in the luxury suite "eating sandwiches the size of a champagne cork" and talking about the new opera. Lehnert expressed doubt about whether he was the right person, but "Hans insisted, using his typical mixture of compliments, irony and stubbornness. He said, "The new text should compare well alongside Euripides, Racine and Schiller's translation."

"Schiller is horrifying, don't you think? Maybe we should include some of his verses." That's how it all started. "Phaedra" is the story of unrequited love. Phaedra, the wife of Theseus of Crete, has fallen in love with her stepson Hippolytus. He is unmoved by her love, however. Humiliated, she pretends to her husband, the conqueror of the Minotaur, that Hippolytus has raped her. Then she hangs herself. Theseus believes her. He calls upon the god of the seas, who has an enormous bull rise up out of the waves as Hippolytus is driving his chariot along the shore. The horses bolt, the wheels break, and the young man is dragged to his death. But the god Artemis brings him to Italy in a cloud and awakens him to new life – on Lake Nemi, twelve kilometres from here. The remains of the temple are still there, strewn with rubbish.

Here, according to the Roman version, Hippolytus becomes Diana's priest under the name of Virbius. "But that sounds like a sleeping tablet, Virbiol or whatever," the composer says. So his figures have stayed Greek. The sung roles are Aphrodite, Artemis, the Minotaur, Hippolytus and Phaedra. Phaedra pursues her lover in the form of a zombie and bird creature all the way to Italy. Henze originally found her "quite nice, but then it turned out that she was a pretty rotten specimen of woman, base, avaricious, malicious, intriguing, heedless, lacking respect … I'm sorry!" She is sung by a mezzo soprano – for it was a mezzo soprano who first gave Henze the idea of writing an opera on this subject. Sometimes Phaedra is accompanied by two Wagner tubas, but here they don't sound at all like the dragon's lair; instead, they might, for instance, softly usher in the awakening of love: "Your gaze once captured me in the temple while lifting the sacrifice to the fire…"

The scoring for the small orchestra is daring, and trimmed to the Ensemble Modern, which is playing the first performance. Of twenty-three instrumental soloists, only four are strings: violin, viola, cello and double bass. At the same time, two percussionists play a total of twenty-eight different skin, wood and metal instruments. Then there is a piano, a celesta and the two Wagner tubas, which are part of a group of fifteen wind instruments. If they sound like Wagner at all, then like a Wagner who would have appealed to Nietzsche in his later years: Mozartian, southern, melodious. Or at any rate that's how they sounded during the first full rehearsal without singers in Frankfurt. "How's the balance?" asks Henze, who couldn't attend. The whole thing is so transparent, lets through so much light that there are no problems. "I'm simply good at instrumentation!" He laughs, as if he'd been uncertain.

At the first performance in Berlin, he had written in his diary, "I'll be able to find out more about myself as a specialist in fear and suffering." Not only because in "Phaedra" love leads to death on several occasions, but because death also threatened Henze himself. After finishing the first act, in autumn 2005, Henze lost his strength. "I stopped talking and slept all the time," he says. In October he collapsed and was taken to hospital in Rome. Then his partner Fausto Moroni and his assistant Michael Kerstan looked after him at home for six weeks. Things looked bad. "The coffin was already ordered, the death notices printed," he says, without changing his expression. But he pulled through after all. At the beginning of 2006 he began working on the second act, rather aptly the scene where the shattered Hippolytus is reanimated on Lake Nemi.

Work proceeded slowly. "He can sit endlessly on the terrace, alone with his olive grove," the librettist writes. "He seems to absorb the rhythm of the trees. Even the pecking of the chickens between the trunks he finds an unacceptable disturbance. Worse still are the aeroplanes taking off from Ciampino airport, or the helicopters flying over his garden to the Pope's summer residence." Nowadays it's enough for Henze when he sits there like that to direct his gaze to the five telegraph wires behind the old wall in order to imagine twelve-tone series in these airy staves. "More and more I would see an E-flat, an F, a C-sharp…" And certain complex polyphonic passages, he says, "I didn't need to check on the piano, they were simply right. That has happened frequently in recent years."

But his work and the blows fate has dealt him have made him tired. He often doesn't hear well any more, his left hand, with which he used to write, shakes. When a visitor from Japan arrives with a bunch of flowers he hands them over quickly – his arm soon starts hurting from the weight. He'd rather have another "acqua macchiata," water with a shot of spirits, before sitting down to eat. The food is prepared by the Albanian couple whom he and Fausto adopted – boat refugees with a three year old son. A daughter was born here nine years ago, on La Leprara. Now the brother and sister stand before him, Aurora und Aurelian, gentle and beautiful as if out of a fairy tale, smiling shyly. "I'm not their father, unfortunately," he says. "It is my greatest joy to see these children growing up. Fausto has done everything for them. Now they even have Italian passports."

The Japanese woman was born in Nagoya, which brings us back to Phaedra. For it was in Nagoya that Henze first saw the play by Racine, more than forty years ago. In Japanese. He fell asleep in the theatre and only woke up with a start when Phaedra loudly shouted "kokolo!" That was the name of Henze's dog at the time. In Japanese, however, kokolo means "heart." He asks her what people think of religion in Japan. It doesn't have much of a role to play, she says. He falls silent again and listens to the conversation, which has turned to the Pope and his Steinway to which his housekeeper has walked. Suddenly he says: "I think it's good when people don't believe in anything. No religion. With death it's finita la commedia. It makes our life more intense and more intelligent, if we know that. " Full moon over the terrace, the lights of an aeroplane coming in to land flash to the east. That is the route, he says, along which the gods once came.


The article originally appeared in German in Die Zeit on September 6, 2007.Volker Hagedorn is music critic for Die Zeit.
Translation: Melanie Newton. - let's talk european