Memories of Philippe Boesmans


Peter Franken:

In 1999 I saw Boesmans’ opera Reigen in the production of the Reisopera. The opera is based on a work by Arthur Schnitzler from 1897 which was not released until 1920. It is a controversial play with provocative sexual themes. Schnitzler explores the sexual morality and class ideology of his time through successive encounters between characters.

The action is set in 1890s Vienna. The dramatic structure is determined by ten interlocking scenes between love couples. Each character appears in two successive scenes, with the whore from the first scene returning in the last.

Luc Bondy adapted the play into a libretto for the opera of the same name, which premiered at La Monnaie in Brussels in 1993. The play, and also the opera, offers a disconcerting picture of the pursuit of sexual pleasure and the hangover that must surely follow. The cold, cold lust and the hunt for empty sex are mercilessly dissected.

In the Reisopera production, the act is set on a turntable with only sketchy locations: a lamppost representing a street scene and a scene in a park between a whore and a soldier, and between that soldier and a chambermaid; then a door turns as if to separate the sultry thoughts exchanged between the chambermaid and the young gentleman of the house.

The Count, a well-characterised presentation by baritone Roger Smeets, meets the whore (Janny Zomer) who was already seen in the beginning and who now is the last character in the round dance, or Reigen. In between we met Ellen van Haaren as the singer, Annelies Lamm as the chambermaid and Kor Jan Dusseljee as the soldier.

Ellen van Haaren, the ‘singer’ in the production of the Netherlands Opera:

Ellen van Haarden als Amelia in Ballo in Maschera

I was preparing for a rehearsal when Louwrens Langevoort approached me with a book/piano excerpt of the new modern opera Reigen by Philippe Boesmans, which they wanted to perform with the Reisopera. “Here, go and have a look, this is a great part for you! “

I spent the next few days thinking that this was nót for me. And, however honoured I felt, I gave it back. I really didn’t think it was for me! Some time passed; I was rehearsing Die Lustige Witwe at the time and there was Louwrens again, with the book!

” Listen”, he said, “I can’t find anyone who could do it better! You can do it, this part is perfect for you”. And I thought, o.k., this I cannot and will not refuse. It was very short notice, I think five or six weeks before the premiere. All right, I said, I’ll do it, but with whom can I rehearse it? “With Aldert Vermeulen. And the composer, Boesmans, is also coming to watch, he wants to be present at the rehearsals.

OMG was so scary!!! The next day came with learning, still more learning, memorizing, and singing it through.  And the thing I had been so afraid of, not being able to meet everyone’s expectations, shrank away bit by bit. It became more and more familiar to me, it became a part of myself and maestro Patrick Davin soon joined in. And we also had a connection straight away!

And suddenly there was Philippe Boesmans, the genius! The creator of this special opera. So calm and modest and friendly and encouraging. Through him I knew and felt…I can do this. He gave me the confidence! And from that day on, it was as if the sun broke through. The adventure I had embarked on became very enjoyable, it was really great fun! We laughed a lot at the rehearsals, about little things that Andrea ( xxxx the director BJ) and I had thought up… He was so happy and satisfied. That sweet modest man with his subtle humour!

Elen van Haaren met Janny Zomer in Reigen

And now this fine man and fantastic composer is no more. Thank you very, very much for the wonderful, special, beautifully catchy music! And thank you for the wonderful and fantastic memories of Reigen! R.I.P.


Lisa Mostin, Kristin in Julie in the production of the Opéra National de Lorraine:

Dean Murphy, Irene Roberts et Lisa Mostin, le trio de chanteurs qui interprète « Julie », sous la direction d’Emilio Pomarico, dans la mise en scène de Silvia Costa. Photo ER /Cédric JACQUOT

“I met him for the first time in the corridors of the Nancy opera house after the Orkesterhauptprobe (Orchestra stage rehearsal). He didn’t recognise me as one of the singers without my makeup on, because it looked so different and sinister.

© Jean-Louis Fernandez

He let us do it all by ourselves during the production process. He never came to say how he wanted a certain line. He always said in interviews that once an opera is written, he wants to let go of the piece and he accepts how the world will treat it. He did not only say this, he also did it, out of a wonderful feeling of acceptance and letting go, but I personally think also because he wanted to be surprised. Just as if you send your child out into the world and then, when they return from their wanderings, you will see what they have learned on their path of growing independence.

After the dress rehearsal, he came on the stage and realised for the first time that I was the one singing Kristin and that I was a Belgian singer. He first started in French and when he heard that I had a Flemish accent, like a true Brussels- born, he immediately switched to Dutch. It was extraordinary that two Belgians met like that in France. He said he hadn’t known there was an Antwerp coloratura soprano singing Kristin and said he would like to write another piece for me. I would have loved to sing whatever he would have composed for me, but unfortunately it is not going to happen in this world.

© Jean-Louis Fernandez

All the rest is not easily put into words, he had something that all the greats have. An energy that touches you and an unconditional love that radiates from him, I think that is what has stayed with me the most. An enormously amiable person.”

Meeting between Philippe Boesmans and Silvia Costa, who handled the production:

Philippe Boesmans died on Sunday 10 April 2022. His operas are performed regularly and both Julie(2004), after the play Fröken Julie by August Strindberg, and Reigen, after a play by Arthur Schnitzler, belong to the standard repertoire in opera houses all over the world.

Scene from Reigen performed by Operastudio Nederland (Daphne Ramakers & Pascal Pittie)

Below Julie from the Fondanzione teatro Comunale e Auditorium Bolzano directed by Manfred Schweigkofler:

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