The Golden Cockerel is the 2nd opera produced through the partnership between Adelaide Festival, Aix en Provence festival and the Opera de Lyon. It will be presented in Australia at Adelaide Festival this March. We chatted to Wilfried Gonon, the French actor who played the title role in the production at Aix festival last year.
Wilfried Gonon, you recently played the titular role in The Golden Cockerel in France. Who is the Golden Cockerel? What is the role that you played?
Actually, the Golden Cockerel is a gift offered by the Astrologer in the opera. The astrologer, you could say is a bit of an old witch. It’s someone who offers a cockerel to the Tsar Dodon. This cockerel is meant to be warn of attacks on the Tsar’s castle and is offered, at least in the beginning, as a gift. But the astrologer tells him “I’m giving you the golden cockerel and you will see that he will be able to warn you of coming attacks. But you will owe me a favour”. So, what happens is that later, the cockerel having warned of all forthcoming attacks, the astrologer returns and falls in love with Tsar Dodon’s wife. What he wants as a favour is Tsar Dodon’s wife. The Tsar refuses.
So, he decides to kill the astrologer. In revenge, the cockerel decides to kill the Tsar. However, in fact, we learn – so that’s why it’s a very satirical, it’s a dream world and we finally do – the astrologer comes back to life and in reality, it never existed. All that existed was me and the queen, the Queen of the kingdom. But there are a lot of adventures actually in this little story. I can only really talk about the cockerel.
Of course, the cockerel is your role
For me. It is above all, a whole construction of the animal, of the cockerel. His way of walking (I only had a single claw on my foot, to give the illusion of the cockerel), his look, his way of posing on the tree – etc. and to work with the director’s vision. I needed to have Russian coaching so that my pronunciation was perfect, so that I could give the illusion that it was me singing the voice of the golden cockerel, so that my lips would move correctly and at the right time. The opera is sung in Russian. I’d never done any Russian but it is the second time I’ve been in a Russian opera. The first opera “The Enchantress » by Tchaïkovski. I didn’t have any lines so I didn’t need to learn Russian.
So as I was saying before, the cockerel is strongly linked to the astrologer. The astrologer offered me as a gift. For most of the opera, you have the impression that I belong to Dodon but I am always linked to the astrologer as that’s who offered me to the Tsar and who is my master.
The cokerel is a central character because everything revolves around the cockerel – I’m offered to the King as a gift and I warn of each attack. I am on stage from the beginning right through to the end.
You’re on stage the whole time. How long does it run for? 2 or so hours?
Yes 2 hours. There are 3 acts. I am only there for a little of the second Act – at the beginning and the end. Acts 1 and 3 are less long but while I am not on stage for all of Act 2, I am on stage from the beginning of Act 1 to the end of Act 3.
I took a look at your CV. Have you studied singing?
Yes, well I’ve sung a little. I’ve already worked on singing but it’s quite specific because I am not an opera singer and the part of the cockerel is actually sung by a singer who is off scene.
Ah, so you’re not singing at all.
No, I don’t sing. I lip-sync. But the idea is that it has to look like it’s coming from me. I move my lips. She’s called Maria Nazarova who is a Belarusian singer performs off-stage behind me and I needed to work on my Russian pronounciation.
I needed to work with the director’s vision. So, I had Russian coaching so that my pronunciation, even if it’s not my voice that’s coming out, is perfect. I needed to make sure it was perfectly in sync.
Of course. I saw on your CV that you have many interests and talents such as rollerblading, playing the clarinet, combat sports… so learning Russian is just adding another talent.
Exactlym, it’s adding on. And I am really passionate about opera. There are a lot of operas that are sung in Russian so for me it’s really interesting. In the end, I wouldn’t be able to have a real conversation in Russian as it was moreso about learning how to sing the words perfectly. In the end the phrases used by the golden cockerel are quite repetitive. There are 3 changes but not more than that. It’s really all about warning each time because the cockerel is there to warn. So it’s always the same thing. It was interesting however to see the difference in the sounds a cockerel makes [in Russian] compared to in French. He has a way of expressing himself and it’s interesting to see how that’s expressed in a different language. It’s quite funny to see the difference between cocorico, for example and koo-kah-re-koo in Russian.
And in English it’s cock-a-doodle-do.
Yes, it’s interesting to see the differences in pronunciation of the cries of the cockerel across diffferent countries. Even if we don’t speak the same language, I would have though that the animal sounds would be the same.
It’s almost as if animals speak the language of the country in which they live!
That’s right! So, it was really interesting and intense. I remember at the beginning, after my first Russian coaching, I went on stage for rehearsals and it wasn’t good enough. It really had to be perfect. If I didn’t open my mouth at the right time, or if I didn’t have good articulation, I needed more Russian training. I took 4 coaching sessions before I felt comfortable. It was intense to get the timing right. Of course, I’m a musician so I know how to read sheet music, but when you’re on stage, perched on a tree, it was very difficult to be on time, because I didn’t have a sheet of music in front of me, so in order to be on time and to open my mouth at the right moment, I had to learn the melody by heart.
I can imagine. It must be difficult enough to do that in your own language let alone in another language. That’s quite a challenge.
Yes. I am not an opera singer. I am an actor, not at all a singer. I work with stars that singers who travel everywhere and learn to sing things that are not in their own language. I’m quite amazed by that. For actors, it’s rarely an international world We rarely go abroad to speak our language. We are really oriented to what we write in France, we work on the French language. We stay in French theatre. Or when we go to play abroad, it’s really rare. We have subtitles, but to perform in another language, it’s very rare.
How did you prepare for the role? You mentioned that you took Russian lessons and worked hard on opening and closing your mouth at the right moments. To make out the words as they should be. But physically, did you have to do any training for the role?
Physically, not really. But I did some research on the character. I really studied the cockerel. When I was offered the role and accepted it, I decided to really work on the cockerel. I knew at that point already that I only had a single claw so I needed to work on his way of walking.
In fact, Barry had told me that I only had a single claw, a single shoe. If someone has only one shoe with a heel of only a few centimetres, you have to work on the way it moves.
So I watched documentaries about roosters to try and work out their comportement. How they do the cock-a-doodle-do, how they express themselves and what happens in their bodies, how they walk as well. So I worked on those things at home.
And then I saw that I was completely free, except for concrete actions. I had some specific actions. You have to do this, you have to do that but the rest, I really worked around that and working on those in line with being in a dream world. Barry turned The Golden Cockerel into a dream world.
Yes, I had the impression that it was quite a surrealist direction
That’s right, That’s it, basically the Golden Cockerel is a majestic figure, but in this version the Golden Cockerel is more of a mysterious figure, half cat, half cockerel, it’s a bit of a “UFO”, it’s a bit scary and it’s funny, because you have the impression with all the make-up, that the cockerel went down a chimney. In other versions, it’s completely different, when I watched videos to get a feel for the opera, the golden cockerel was really dressed in gold, with a real majestic image. Whereas here, yes, it’s a very surreal version of The Golden Cockerel. It’s scarier, but in reality, The Golden Cockerel is still a satire, which leaves room for many different interpretations. I loved working on this version, even if it was very physical and intense. I love to immerse myself in worlds that are out of the ordinary.
We thank Wilfried Gonon for this interview
KEY INFORMATION FOR THE GOLDEN COCKEREL
WHAT: Russian opera The Golden Cockerel, part of the Adelaide Festival
WHEN: 4-5 and 8-9 March
WHERE: Festival Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre
HOW: Buy tickets through this link: https://www.adelaidefestival.com.au/events/the-golden-cockerel/
Ticket prices start at $69 (for Reserve D) and go up to $319 for premium tickets