Giorgio Battistelli writes CO2,
Teatro alla Scala’s new opera for Expo Milano 2015
When Expo Milano 2015 opens its doors on May 1st of this year, catapulting the steely city into the international limelight with Italy’s first world exposition ever, Teatro alla Scala, the second most illustrious Italian brand after Ferrari, will be calling the curtain for an exclusive off-season calendar in celebration of the event.
Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life
Expo Milano 2015 has a one-track mind: ecological sustainability expressed through its official tagline —Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life. With an appropriate focus on food for a country recognized worldwide for its culinary excellence, Italy will be showing off its expertise in both food production and preparation, the emphasis being on the slow food lifestyle, how less is more, quality better than quantity, and how sharing is caring.
But anyone who has experienced Italy knows that the Italians are not only talking about food for the body, but for the soul. Milan officials set about to express that concept through a relationship with the world-famous Teatro alla Scala, an Italian symbol of tradition and cultural excellence. For Piero Galli, general manager of the Expo Milano 2015 event management, music has long accompanied food at events that qualify our every day lives and bring us together, such as weddings, birthdays. “Music, like art, often talks about food, and is the arms and legs of a cultural heartbeat that encompasses not only music but also paintings, sculpture, and every medium of artistic expression.”
For the first time, La Scala hosts a Festival of International Orchestras that will bring some of the world’s finest musicians to Expo Milano 2015, including the Berliner Philharmoniker, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Wiener Philharmoniker, and the Israel Philharmonic, some of which are rarely heard in Italy. In addition to launching an exceptional six-month season with Puccini’s opera ‘Turandot’, under the baton of Principal Conductor Riccardo Chailly (tickets for which sold out within 30 minutes of box office opening), the theatre, which will present a performance of ballet, concert, or opera almost every night, commissioned the Italian composer Giorgio Battistelli to write a brand new opera for the occasion, which he called ‘CO2’. Set in the future on an ailing planet Earth, on the threshold of ecological demise, human beings are faced with their own indifference or lack of power to alter a reality that’s been a long time coming. Underpinning the themes set forth by Expo Milano 2015, the opera premieres on May 16th, with five subsequent performances. Staging is in the hands of the celebrated Canadian director, Robert Carsen —a favourite at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera.
The contemporary opera is based on a book by the American politician Al Gore entitled, ‘An Inconvenient Truth: the crisis of global warming’. The documentary feature film inspired by the story, which grossed an average US$ 91,447 per theatre on its opening weekend, earned an Academy Award in 2007, and was the first documentary to win two Oscars, one for Best Original Song for Melissa Etheridge’s ‘I Need to Wake Up’. A parallel between ecological sustainability and the potential impact of that in the author’s life, the work has been applauded for raising international public awareness of climate change.
Why Battistelli for the opera? The composer was chosen by Teatro alla Scala for his work with a vast collection of styles, as well as what a spokesperson at La Scala calls a capacity to communicate on environmental risk issues. As an Italian, he understands the complexities of living in a multi-cultural world, and transmits that through the way he deals with music and text. Battistelli has written nearly 20 operas, accolades for which include the SIAE for Opera in 1990, the Cervo Prize for Contemporary Music in 1993, and the Herald Angel Award for his ‘Experimentum Mundi’. He was the Artistic Director of the Venice Biennale Contemporary Music Festival from 2004 to 2007, and has led the Orchestra della Toscana since 2011.
Feeding the planet through music:
a conversation with Giorgio Battistelli
Allison Zurfluh: As a world premiere production for Expo, what was the impetus behind an opera like this?
Giorgio Battistelli: The idea came six years ago when Stéphane Lissner, the general manager and artistic director of Teatro alla Scala at that time, asked me to create a new opera for La Scala. I wanted to write a libretto that was at the same time ideological and political, without the more conventional themes of love or war, but rather which explored a global issue. In his autobiographical book, ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, Al Gore approaches the very intriguing topic of personal pollution. He has a beautful family. His loss in the presidential elections of 2000 cleared his focus and set him back on the mission he’d been pursuing throughout his lifetime. His sister’s battle with cancer and his son’s near-fatal automobile accident were decisive in his return to the international ecological dialogue. So in essence, what I took away from that was Gore’s decision to return to the issues most important to him —family, the planet— and how he made the issue personal.
Zurfluh: One’s family being one’s own Earth, you are referring to an inner global warming?
Battistelli: The way in which Gore decided to return to the most important thing in his own life —family— was how he ‘fed his planet’. Paralleling the international dialogue on global warming and ecological sustainability —the use of energy and how we waste it— Gore exposes the personal risk man is taking by neglecting his planet, and how that will result in his own demise. I wanted to conceive an opera that would explore the issue of man and his relationship to his own nature (the Earth). Stéphane was enthusiastic, and he encouraged me to do that.
Zurfluh: How does the opera evolve?
Battistelli: CO2 begins with a confrontation between Adam (American tenor Sean Panikkar), Eve (South African soprano Pumeza Matshikiza), and the Snake (Canadian countertenor, David DY Lee). Amid a full traditional orchestra (not electronic), child chorus, mixed chorus, and soloists, nine scenes unfold starting with the creation and moving to an airport scene, the Kyoto Climate Conference, a hurricane, Eden, a supermarket, the appearance of Gaia (the Greek personification of Earth), and a powerful tsunami that culminate in an apocalypse, simultaneously raising existential questions on two planes: personal and ecological.
Zurfluh: So it’s a call to action?
Battistelli: It’s a furious song, yes. It’s not a desperate song. It addresses the danger that man is up against. Man has to decide whether or not he will go forward, whether or not he will save the Earth. The opera is very symbolic.
Zurfluh: In that vein, what was most important to you as a musician creating this work?
Battistelli: The problems of humanity, which are personal. Am I willing to look after things that concern the collective Earth, our present?
Zurfluh: Do you think music can change destiny or influence the heart of man?
Battistelli: I am convinced that music can change man. Music is not only consolatory; it is not only entertainment. Music can change a man’s soul. Only people willing to listen, to themselves and to those around them, can be effective. It means I have to care for my environment —the things I come in direct contact with— every day.
For more details
Expo Milano 2015
Teatro alla Scala