What does a singer think when she is on the opera stage? When she kisses Jochanaan’s severed head like Salome or dies like Madame Butterfly? Documentary filmmaker and opera director Jan Schmidt-Garre wants to know and puts headphones on three sopranos. They listen to their singing and quietly reveal their thoughts. “Breath. Air. Back. Space.” Or like Salome: Where is the lipstick? And “Do not press. Close. I love you so much.”
The experiment involved three opera stars in the film, Albanian Ermonela Jaho, Lithuanian Asmik Grigorian and Canadian Barbara Hannigan, who specialize in new music.
Not that the secret of “Fuoco sacro”, as the movie is called, ie the sacred fire of the great voices of opera, can actually be revealed. But the film approaches (and sometimes burns) the fire with free and wild accompaniment through headphones, with close-up views during rehearsals and performances, and with conversations.
For the soul that needs every beautiful voice maximum after ten minutes as Ermonela Jaho says. About the shelter without which exposure is not possible. About channeling your suffering. A toiled soul helps in art, says Jaho. She says it carefully, almost apologizing.
Technique is one thing, working with your body instrument, plus rituals. Grigorian speaks the text of the aria with his lips grotesquely gathered and gurgles in a glass of water with a straw. Jaho trains her voice, endangered by tracheitis, as she kneels on a medicine ball. Hannigan pulls the tones on itself with sweeping arm movements.
Barbara Hannigan, who is also the conductor, sings Mahler as Maestra on the podium, she is the intellectual in the trio of protagonists, so to speak. But she also says she does not interpret Debussy’s Melisanda, but embodies her. Without distance: When she sings Satie’s “Socrates”, accompanied by her seriously ill pianist friend Reinbert de Leeuw at the last concert before his death, the fragility and courage of her companion are hidden in her song.
Next is the big, unexplained residue.Although the pretentiousness of the director’s off-screen comments is sometimes annoying, “Fuoco sacro – Seek the sacred fire of song” is worth it because of the closeness the singers allow the camera.
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So you can guess, the nerves bare in the dressing room during the application of makeup and the need to touch the stage planks or to walk on the wings as in ecstasy before the curtain rises. Grigorian bluntly mentions the panic attacks he has long suffered, as well as the medications he has received.
Finally, the most disturbing are the close-up scenes on stage, for example with Jahos’ volatile piano as “Suor Angelica”. Maestro Kirill Petrenko is mesmerized during the rehearsal, he promises to disappear with the orchestra, so that she can lower her upper notes with such gentle pain.
[In Berlin ist “Fuoco sacro – Die Suche nach dem Heiligen Feuer des Gesangs” in der Astor Film Lounge zu sehen.]
Nothing is done when Asmik Grigorian surrenders to the illusion of her character during her legendary performance “Salome” at the 2018 Salzburg Festival and merges with the role. Or when Ermonela Jaho in the role of Violetta in Verdi’s “La Traviata” takes a breath, gives the last breath with a failed voice. Tears, exhaustion, loneliness, she internalizes everything in her voice. A person actually dies on stage.
One of the most beautiful moments of the film is the last applause after Verdi, when Jaho can not separate from her Violeta and appears in front of the public, completely upset, like an abandoned child. Female singers, the big ones, can turn into zombies. They give life to the service of music and come back marked.