Simone Weil was a French philosopher, mystic and activist. A show dedicated to her entitled “La Passion de Simone” is playing at the Sydney Festival in January 2018.
I interviewed Imara Savage, the director of the show. Ticket info can be found at the end of this article.
I have a few questions about La Passion de Simone. The most logical place to start is probably to tell us about the show.
Ok so it’s a piece about the life of Simone Weil who was a philosopher, mystic and activist and more. We are working with a designer, Elizabeth Gadsby and Mike Daily who is a film video artist. Our approach to it is kind of like a video installation with live staging. So the video component is a huge part of work. The contributions of Mike Daily have been really instrumental and so has Elizabeth Gadsby who has worked on the large installation work.
It’s a piece that when we first came to was interesting because the composer Kaija Saariaho was interested in Simone Weil’s philosophies – particularly around spirituality and around her philosophies on gravity and grace and the director was kind of interested in her political activism and the librettist was interested in the kind of paradoxes and contradictions inherent in her life. So when you look at the piece initially you think “where do I go with this? Which direction do I take it in?” So that was our initial starting point for discussion with the work.
How did you actually come across it?
Jack, the conductor brought it to us.
Jack is from the Sydney Chamber Orchestra?
Yeah so he’s the artistic director and also a conductor on Simone.
Is your production true to the original production that was performed in France or are you taking a completely different angle?
Well the original production I think was with a soprano and maybe a dancer – I think that was the original production by Peter Sellars- you’d have to check that but I think he did that. No, ours is a video installation work I suppose for us we were in the original libretto, called La Passion de Simone. The libretto is organised into 15 stations so when we first read it and listened to it Elizabeth and I were kind of thinking about the passion plays and the episodes as discrete episodes. Usually in the passion plays it;’s the life of somebody who dies in the end, a Saint or a martyr and it’s all leading towards that death. But actually the episodes for us felt like in a way it didn’t help us in terms of trying to create a framework for the piece because the music doesn’t work in a very episodic structure. And the libretto doesn’t either. In some parts it gives you ideas about the life of this woman but in other parts it’s delving into this very dense philosophy about religion and mysticism and politics and the Nation State and war.
I think the most interesting this is that she was an amazing interesting woman who led an amazingly interesting life but in its essence, everybody who talks about her and this was since she was six or something is that she was a woman who had a profound empathy for the suffering of others. And throughout her life, she sought to put herself into positions of pain and suffering in order to better understand the suffering of others.
Which is ultimately what killed her…
That’s right and in doing so she was really looking for a kind of knowledge I suppose. There was something I read that in a way for her there was this idea that knowledge would come through stepping into pain and suffering. Her life in a way could be seen as an endurance work. So that was the stuff that we tapped into – as well as her philosophies on gravity and grace which is around materialism. Gravity in its most simplistic form being the world and materialism and consumption and individualism and the body and mass and grace being the opposite – the ability to transcend and move closer to a place of spiritual enlightenment and a kind of oneness with humanity and God whatever that might mean to her or you or others.
Why do you think she is someone we should know about
Well I didn’t know about her at all. I think that we should know about Simone Weil and I equally think we should know about Kaija Saariaho, the composer because she’s an extraordinary composer and personally I don’t think there are enough – when you come into opera to direct operas, it’s still not equal – you still don’t get the same number of operas presented by women that you do men. There are all these amazing female composers out there and Kaija Saariaho is one of the best in the world, one of the best composers in the world. I think her music is extraordinary and I think what she has done – she has become very interested about how to make manifest in music ideas around gravity and grace; and I find that kind of extraordinary. How to make manifest a kind of ideas around life and death and transference of energy and of matter.
I find that really compelling and Simone Weil, I suppose because you know in any time, today probably even more so, but in any time for someone who comes from a place of privilege and is very aware of their privilege and who has the ability to look outside themselves beyond their privilege to feel a deep empathy and connection with people they don’t know and have no reason to seek out is quite an extraordinary act and in a way I think she found a kind of platonic Christianity by the end of her life but she was influenced by all sorts of religions, spiritualities. I think in its essence you have this idea that if you could love strangers and you could love people who you didn’t know in the same way that you could love your friends or your family then the world would be a more compassionate and generous place.
Definitely. You look at that with for example the asylum seekers and how if someone is not of the same colour skin as us that somehow they are not worth as much. A bit more compassion and empathy would be a good thing.
Yeah I think so. I think she was a woman who gave us all of her material possessions and lived a life of extreme necessetarianism and I think that you know she was kind of looking for a kind of wisdom or a way that the world could be that just felt less defined by the material and by ego and all of those things that we are very connected to in today’s day and age. But she also practiced what she preached – she did it from a place of privilege so that’s a very different experience but nonetheless it is unusual for someone to go “I feel so deeply connected to the plight of the asylum seekers that I am actually going to go over to Nauru and live with them.”
And of course that comes from a very different place when you have a choice and you come from a place of privilege. I totally get that but at the same time you can’t discount that the people who care about the people they don’t know and have no reason to necessarily care about that is a good thing.
I read that towards the end of her life she was existing on what she thought the French soldiers’ rations would have been.
Yeah. That’s right. She did that at the age of 6 as well. I think she was six during the First World War and at that time she had heard that the soldiers were getting rations of sugar or something.
I did see something like that – that I think it was at age 10 that she then decided she wasn’t going to have sugar.
Yeah and even at that age to have a political consciousness as a child.
Does it come from her parents?
I think her parents were very liberal, philosophical thinkers and encouraged debate and freethinking in their children. She grew up Jewish but she didn’t identify necessarily as Jewish and later on she became a Christian and she studied Eastern practices.
I think she was the kind of woman – it feels like the type of family where thought was really encouraged and not to land on ideas with a kind of fixed rigidness – that she was constantly open to questioning her own – she was very involved in the Communist movement for a period of time and the Worker’s party and then she turned against that when she discovered that there were things within that she really disagreed with. And then she was a pacifist and then she felt that she needed to go to war in the Spanish Civil War and you know – her life is full of contradictions because she was a woman who was constantly questioning her values and the values of the world in which she lived.
So coming back to the production, it’s described as an opera but it has video installations so does that mean it is essentially someone singing on stage with video behind them? Or am I making it too simplistic?
It has a narrative arc but that narrative arc is I suppose in some ways, I am trying to think…What is an opera? An opera is a drama with music I suppose. It has a video work and a live performance and the two are connected to each other. The live performer is not simply standing there singing. They are as much a part of the performance as the video work. And the two things speak to each other. Or in the conceptualisation, the two things are very much connected.
And part of the reason we are looking at the video work because in the libretto the narrator is a very slippery character so you kind of ask “is this person narrating someone’s life or is this person Simone herself?” At times you feel like she’s narrating her life and at other times you feel like she is actually Simone herself. So that in a way was our response to have two elements that were constantly talking to each other and allowing for the slipperiness of the identity of the narrator to continue to morph and change. If that makes sense.
It does. Is it being performed in its original French?
Yes it is.
So with surtitles?
Yeah with surtitles. It’s been described as an oratorio before but Kaija Saariaho herself disagrees with that. This is the Chamber Opera version. I suppose that in some ways the music is – the reason we did this video work in a way is because we are talking about the music and the music is in this never-ending state of transference or flux – it never really settles so it doesn’t work how you might imagine something to work dramatically. It doesn’t build to places where you say that is the climax of the work, this is telling me that the drama is this.
It is so ephemeral that it slips through your fingers before you’ve landed on what it is. So in a way, in terms of staging that it can be very tricky because you set up an image but it’s disappeared in the music before it’s even been resolved or landed on. So the reason we were looking at this video work – the designer and I were talking about how can you make something that’s always in a constant state of flux like the music. It’s a bit like you need something to be constantly in a state of evolution. So that was part of the discussion about where the video work came in.
But the video work is still very much tied to the narrative arc of Simone’s life but it’s just not in a literal way , in which the libretto describes the stations of her life. It doesn’t seek to emulate that or describe them again. That’s already happening in the text so we didn’t feel the need to do that in the staging.
So does the video actually contain any images of Simone?
The video is a video work of the singer so the singer is in the video and the singer is also in the live performance so there are two images of Jane. The live image and the video image. No because again the life of Simone is spoken about in the libretto and I think what is most interesting about this woman is that her life is full of contradictions so it feels like it would be a disservice to her life in a way to be able to succinctly capture what it was.I think she was searching for a very deep, spiritual enlightenment – how do you make that manifest on stage?!
When I listen to the music and the music is so extraordinary and when I think about this woman’s life being a life dedicated to kind of you could it suffering or you could call it empathy because in a way she stepped into other people’s shoes in order to understand their experiences better which she actually did put on their shoes. She put on the factory workers’ shoes, she put on the boots to go to war. So that kind of profound act of empathy – stepping into places of suffering in order to try to understand the experience of other people – that forms the basis for our conceptualistation of work and also it’s kind of – the music is a kind of meditation on a life. And it’s not an easy life to try to succinctly capture. It’s kind of I think more complex and again the music is doing so much work that our job as theatre makers, I think, is to find an idea that resonates and to allow that idea to keep building over the course of the work – I’m talking in circles! It’s so hard to explain!
I guess you just have to go see it.
You have to go and see it yeah!
Which leads nicely into why people should come and see this show when there are so many to choose from at Sydney Festival – why this one?
I mean I think it will be for some people and not for others. The work is not entertainment. I don’t think it’s entertainment and that’s not what it’s intended to be which is strange because in some ways I am in the business of entertainment. But the designer and I have really gone against that.
This feels like it is asking you to step into a place – a kind of meditation in a way – it’s like a meditation on someone’s life through music and image-making but in the same way I suppose that endurance art work might be stimulating in a particular way but it’s not the same way as seeing a musical. So it depends what kind of art you’re interested in seeing. I just think it’s extraordinary music and tobe able to go into a space with a bunch of other people and sit in a kind of sacred place – it sounds really wanky but I think (laughs) that’s kind of what this work is.
And it’s not your typical opera either.
It’s not your typical opera because it’s not drama in its strictest narrative form.
Have you directed operas before?
I’ve done three operas for this company. A Phillip Glass opera and a Benjamin Britain opera and a new opera by Elliott Gyger based on a novel by David Malouf I think was the last one that I did.
In some ways this is more akin to the work that Elizabeth and I – Elizabeth is a designer – that we made with Elliot Gyger and Jack who was the conductor, which was Fly Away Peter. In that we were talking about a visual gesture that could hold a multitude of narratives over a long period of time and how that big visual gesture could embody and number of different meanings. So that’s probably – there was a narrative in Fly Away Peter but similarly it was something that was quite fluid and so that work in some ways, it’s very different in others, but in some ways it is similar in that we are looking at one material, one big visual gesture where the meaning can keep changing with the music.
Is there anything else you want to tell me about?
I suppose the difference with this piece is that the video designer Mike Daily and the designer, Elizabeth Gadsby, this is different in a way that the lines between director and that jobs are very blurred so it ended up quite a collaborative kind of work in which installation, video design and live performance come together with music of course.
It’s a really hard piece to talk about. It’s hard to talk about her – she’s so complex.
La Passion de Simone will be playing at Sydney Festival from 9 to 11 January. Tickets cost between $45 and $60 plus booking fee.
Tickets are available here https://www.sydneyfestival.org.au/events/la-passion-de-simone
Did you know of Simone Weil? What shows are you planning to see at Sydney Festival?