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Performing philosophy: ‘La Passion de Simone’ at the Sydney Festival

By Steve Dow
The creatives behind this Sydney Chamber Opera production on the extreme empathy of Simone Weil

Simone Weil was a “performative philosopher”, the theatre director Imara Savage believes. “Here is a woman who was living her life through a lens of empathy,” she says, seated beside her colleague, Sydney Chamber Opera artistic director Jack Symonds, as the pair prepare La Passion de Simone for its Australian premiere at Carriageworks for the Sydney Festival. “She just kept putting on other people’s shoes and putting herself in extreme positions.”

Born into a freethinking secular Jewish family in Paris in 1909, Weil ranked at the top of her class at the Sorbonne; Simone de Beauvoir ranked second. She would write that mechanisation had reduced human beings to machines, and during a stint working on a Renault assembly line, Weil tried to lift her co-workers up, telling them about Plato in her lunch hour.

But Weil wasn’t made for manual labour and had to be hospitalised on occasion. Weil and her parents would end up as refugees in New York in 1942, yet Weil only remained in the United States for a matter of months.

American theatre director Peter Sellars directed the original oratorio version of the opera in Vienna in 2006. Sellars has said that Weil wanted to return to Nazi-occupied Paris to join the French Resistance. “Of course,” he says, “she was so clumsy, they would not let her near anything.” Weil found herself in London, working with the Free France government-in-exile under Charles de Gaulle.

There, she wrote The Need for Roots, a treatise on the post-war rebuilding of Europe, which advocated the elimination of both capitalism and communism. Weil’s works, however, were not well known until after her death at age 34, in 1943, having contracted tuberculosis and starving herself in protest at the atrocity of the Holocaust. Sellars has noted that the writing Weil left behind is challenging – alternately profound and offensive, like a “very difficult friend” you can’t stand but need in your life because she speaks the truth.

“She has a huge legion of fans now,” emphasises Jack Symonds, whose Sydney Chamber Opera has quickly developed a reputation for premiering new and risk-taking chamber works since he co-founded the company with Louis Garrick in 2010, when the pair were in their early 20s. “All these people have come out of the woodwork: ‘Oh my god, a Simone Weil opera, how exciting.’ There’s a real hardcore band of Simone lovers.

“It’s an acquired taste. If you like philosophy, you will really love her philosophy. The strength of what this piece does, and [Finnish composer Kaija] Saariaho’s achievement here is granting some very difficult ideas and some very abstract thoughts and giving them quite visceral and much more universal spiritual content in the music.”

Saariaho, who had travelled Europe as a teenager with a copy of Weil’s book Gravity and Grace in her backpack, collaborated on the opera with Lebanese-born French librettist Amin Maalouf. Weil was a spiritual searcher who described her factory work as “time on the cross”, thus the opera is structured like a passion play, the episodes of Weil’s life linked to the stations of the cross.

“I would never have read [Weil’s] book in a million years, it’s the kind of thing I would avoid,” admits Symonds. “The sheer act of the music-making and the way it acts on the body is a much more present and direct way of experiencing the thoughts of Simone, as filtered by Saariaho.”

Not everyone is convinced: when the Sellars-directed oratorio moved from Vienna to London’s Barbican in 2007, Guardian critic Andrew Clements gave the production two stars, praising the “wonderful naturalness” of soprano Dawn Upshaw’s vocal lines, but complaining about the staging and a lack of dramatic highlights in the music. Clements also found the text hard to follow.

“People laughed at that show when I saw it at that time,” Symonds recalls. “The piece for me doesn’t suit those large, grand venues. When you have a large orchestra and a large chorus, that becomes the dominating factor and it does become quite a static piece.”

In 2013, Saariaho’s chamber version of the opera premiered in Slovakia. This is the version that will be seen in Sydney. The soloist’s vocal line and narrator’s spoken text are unchanged – at Carriageworks, soprano Jane Sheldon takes on that dual role – but solo voices, sourced from the Song Company, replace the chorus.

Symonds says Dawn Upshaw’s recording of the work presents an “innocent, unending purity throughout the whole piece”, whereas rehearsing with Jane Sheldon, “We found a lot more grit in the piece than one might imagine from that recording, and a lot more textural variety of how the voice can be used as an instrument.”

Sydney Festival director Wesley Enoch, meanwhile, recently praised Imara Savage, now directing her fourth Sydney Chamber Opera production, as “one of the country’s most underrated directors. Anything she does is worth checking out.” Savage says La Passion de Simone deals with interiority and, wanting to emphasise “gravity and light” and the sense of someone suffering on a cross, video artist Mike Daly is filming work to be projected during the performances, while costume designer Elizabeth Gadsby will aim for simplicity in dressing Sheldon as a Weil-like ascetic and mystic philosopher.

As a performative philosopher, Weil’s story “lends itself more to performance art than it does to ‘entertainment opera’,” says Savage. The result sounds like opera mixed with a durational artistic performance.

“Weil wrote a letter to God in which she basically said, ‘I want to de-create myself; I want to become the food for humanity.’ Like the Eucharist, you know? So that was her personal mission. How do you represent these kinds of ideas on stage? That lent us more to the medium of film. So it’s film and performance.

“Durational artists endure something over a long time, which is essentially what Simone Weil did her entire life.”

 

La Passion de Simone will be performed at Carriageworks as part of the Sydney Festival, January 9–11.

Steve Dow

Steve Dow is a Melbourne-born, Sydney-based arts writer.

@dowsteve

La Passion de Simone. Photo by Samuel Hodge

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