The world-renowned composer Osvaldo Golijov was slammed by UK critics for ‘sentimentality’. He tells Mark Glanville why feelings are key to his music
He can certainly pull them in,” remarks a well-known figure on the international opera stage surveying the packed Barbican Hall in London. Ninety minutes later, many of the audience are on their feet, paying tribute to the music of Osvaldo Golijov, the Argentinian-Jewish composer whose opera Ainadamar was given its first UK performance in a concert version this month.
The many reviews published on Golijov in recent days would suggest that, so far, the British music press is not in step with the public. “This isn’t opera; it’s a marshmallow cloud,” wrote the reviewer in The Times. The Guardian’s critic was concerned about the “indulgent sentimentality sinking into the cliche of musicals, rather than conveying operatic truth”.
The focus of Ainadamar, which has won two Grammy Awards, is the relationship between the great 20th-century Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca and the actress Margarita Xirgu, who played the title role in the writer’s first play, Mariana Pineda.
Xirgu maintained a close relationship with Lorca until his death during the Spanish Civil War in 1936 at the hands of the fascist Falangists, close to the canal at Ainadamar (Arabic for “Fountain of Tears”), which supplied water to the city of Granada.
Golijov sees Lorca as a figure “who was not aligned to the Communists and was killed by the Fascists, so he was in the middle — a spirit of freedom that made everybody uncomfortable”.
The 47-year-old composer, who grew up in La Plata, Argentina, the child of immigrants from Eastern Europe, identifies himself with Lorca in the sense “of not being aligned, of being original rather than part of a school. [Lorca] said Spain was this great kingdom, this great empire, and from the moment of the expulsion [of the Jews and Muslims], it became this little chauvinistic, provincial backyard of Europe. I want to bring back the richness.”
What motivates the music of Golijov is a genuine concern to discover and represent emotional truth. “I think I try to express the emotion that preoccupies me in sound,” he says, “and I try to express it with whichever means I have at my disposal, or whichever means expresses that emotion in the best possible way, and if that means to mix diverse things wildly, I’ll do it, and if that means to deepen in one particular language, I’ll do that too.”
His choice of style and tradition for a given song or sequence is governed by the success with which a given culture is able to convey the particular feeling he is trying to portray at that point in the music.
Rather surprisingly, the role of Lorca’s persecutor in Ainadamar, Ruiz Alonso, is powerfully delivered in flamenco style by Jesus Montoya, an exponent of the Andalusian cante jondo folk-song tradition Lorca celebrated in his poetry. Golijov explains this choice by pointing out that Alonso, though a villain, is in great pain, and that no tradition evinces that emotion better than cante jondo. “I don’t think so much of musical language as popular, folk, classical in terms of colours, but rather that certain cultures have explored very specific areas of the human soul in sound better than some composers.
“So, for instance, I would say that flamenco or cante jondo is almost a scientific study across generations of naked grief and desolate pain. Tango explores sexual provocation. I can’t think of any composer who wrote that kind of music.”
More controversial is his choice of singers. Golijov has chosen to work primarily with singers from popular and folk traditions — Mexican rock singers, gypsies, and chazanim (his piece K’vakarat was written for the cantor Misha Alexandrovich).
He declares that popular singers are more readily able to convey the emotional truth he is searching for. “They never forgot why they started. They never forgot that music is communication, and I think that many times in the operatic system people develop a certain armour. They have a representation of the theme rather than the theme.”
His vocal muse, the American soprano Dawn Upshaw, he considers not only an exception to this rule, but someone who can diversify in a way popular singers can not. “They are used to doing just one thing, whereas Dawn can do many, but the people that do many, sometimes don’t have emotional truth. That’s why I’m blessed with Dawn. She has both — versatility and the truth.”