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Kaija Saariaho

Publisher: Chester Music

Emilie (2008)
Commissioned by Opera National de Lyon
Text Writer
Amin Maalouf
Chester Music Ltd
Opera and Music Theatre
Year Composed
1 Hour 20 Minutes
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Programme Note
Kaija Saariaho Emilie (2008)

The idea of a monodrama for solo soprano dawned on me about 10 years ago. At that time I discussed the project with Karita Mattila, and therefore the image of her (her voice of course but also her intense, passionate and warm being) standing on stage alone formed my first vision of this piece even before I became acquainted with its subject matter, its orchestration or its music. This was then followed by the practical aspects - the story, the layout and the duration of the work - the theme initially being based upon the idea of a woman waiting, throughout a lengthy night, for dawn to break and for the receipt of a medical verdict.

I subsequently saw Karita sing Fidelio and rejoice, after her interpretation, in having had the possibility to sing and play a part in which a woman is depicted in a non-traditional manner. I then began to rethink of Emilie du Châtelet about whom I had read a book by Elisabeth Badinter and whom I had already envisaged as a subject for an opera. I made a few notes on this idea before contacting Amin Maalouf and François Girard, proposing that they would become acquainted with Emilie’s life and work. Then followed the customary exchanges between Amin and myself, like a long conversation over many months, over the form and content of the libretto.

When the text was ready, I began writing the score, and my long winter spent with Emilie started.

The monodrama format allowed me to experiment with a new set-up. The difficulties and challenges are rather different than those of an opera with many protagonists in which human interactions may create events and dramatic tensions thereby naturally generating a contrasted musical score. With a single character, however, other dramatic and musical solutions have to be found. Therefore, in this monodrama, I have crafted a portrait, trying to make it as rich and alive as possible, the contrasts arising within this single being. The most famous musical monodramas, such as Erwartung or La Voix humaine, depict a woman losing her life’s purpose owing to the absence of a man. As great as these pieces are, as a woman, I have always felt slightly unease because of this. Therefore, I have sought to create the portrait of a more complex woman in Emilie, even though she acknowledged herself the importance of love and happiness in her book Le Discours sur le bonheur. She writes about passions: “love is often known more for the misfortunes it causes than for the often indistinct happiness that it spreads among men’s lives. I state however that these passions are still desirable, even if we suppose for argument’s sake, that they create more miserable people than happy ones, as this is a necessary condition for the existence of great pleasures; however, there is no point in living only to experience pleasant sensations and feelings; furthermore, the livelier the pleasant sensations, the happier one becomes. It is therefore desirable to experience passions and I reiterate that this doesn’t behove everyone.”

Emilie had numerous passions during her life and these evolved between two distinct dimensions: her immoderate loves (men, jewellery and gambling) and her intimate and profound attraction towards knowledge and scientific study. These two strong and sometimes excessive sides to her personality contribute to the creation of a surprising character, very human in her contradictions and attractive even. Despite her tumultuous life, she managed to master scientific knowledge as only few could do at the time and to undertake, during her pregnancy and the last months of her life, a remarkable work by translating and commenting on Newton’s Principia Mathematica.

The opera is composed of nine successive scenes played without an interval. Each scene bears a title based on its own topic, the most important of which (foreboding, death, Voltaire, fire and science) carry their specific musical material, tempo and evolution. The choices of tempi are quite contrasted but the whole work can be qualified by its great rhythmic flexibility. The totality of this music represents Emilie, her thoughts and her feelings, and the orchestra exerts itself based upon the rhythm of her breathing.

Generally speaking, the parts pertaining to her personal life are more gesture based, carnal, and rhythmically capricious. Their vocal writing is expressive, often nervous, explosive even. The particular colours of the instruments are related to specific characteristics or themes. Thus, foreboding is illustrated by harpsichord and marimba ostinatos, whilst the Voltaire chapter is dominated by the alternating woodwind and string sections with semi-quaver rhythms, sometimes regular, sometimes dotted and irregular but always energico. The lengthy scene where Emilie sings to her unborn child has been built around a tune remotely inspired by one of Scarlatti’s themes which reveals itself progressively throughout this piece before being expanded and subsequently deformed. The metal percussions join with the harpsichord to create a malfunctioning music box.

On reflexion, I find the most inspiring aspects of Emilie’s writings relate to her scientific notes, the descriptions of her experiments and her remarks concerning the universe, colours and light. I have felt close to her by trying to accompany her written notes with my music. When Emilie writes: “A colour is nothing other than a coloured sunray, I mean a ray which has the power to provide us with the awareness of such a colour”, we share the same universe despite the time span which separates us.

During the parts pertaining to Emilie’s work, the music becomes more abstract, less rhythmic, the physical body is more absent. Emilie reads and enunciates the text unrestrainedly and her expression swings between these intense but calm readings and the passages sung in an ecstatic and almost enlightened state. The orchestral textures of these extracts are transparent, the microtonal harmonies replace the chromatic structures and the manner of playing the instruments (diverse string section colours, vibratos and different mutes) become a decisive aspect of the score.

My starting point was to devise a very intimate type of music. Initially, I imagined the singer with an electronic set-up, then surrounded by a small group of musicians. Little by little, I expanded my ensemble to a small orchestra with a woodwind section and a restricted brass section. In the first performance in Opéra de Lyon (March 2010), taking into account the power of Karita’s voice, I extended the string section beyond what was originally envisaged.

The harpsichord plays a central role in the work. Emilie du Châtelet actually played the instrument and the use of it allows me to highlight the orchestra’s colours in different ways. The harpsichord’s timbre points towards Emilie’s contemporary music style and I am not only thinking of Rameau but also of Domenico Scarlatti whose writing for harpsichord I particularly enjoy.

The harpsichord is also spatialized, as is, momentarily, the soloist’s voice. In order to evoke the characters Emilie is thinking of, the singing voice is occasionally also prosessed. This work was realized with Christophe Lebreton and David Poissonnier during the Spring 2010, first in the studios and then during the rehearsals and performances of the Lyon production, as the entire electronic part is interpreted in real time.

(This text is a modified version of a text written for the program book of Opéra de Lyon.
The original text was translated from French by Agnès Ausseur)

(c) Kaija Saariaho

This third opera by Saariaho was commissioned by Opera de Lyon which presented the premiere performances beginning March 1, 2010, in a production by Francois Girard.

Preview the score

Or browse the vocal score here.

See the below video for information about the 2015 Finnish National Opera production.

  • 06 FEB 2020
    Griswold Hall / Baltimore, MD / USA
    Now Hear This

Like her fellow Paris émigré Samuel Beckett, she [Saariaho] comfortably unites her cultural origins and new linguistic environment. An unmistakably Scandinavian feeling for massive but radiant texture, for effects of light, elides in her work with a very French affinity for experimental timbre, with the “spectralist” harmonic innovations of her Parisian contemporaries, and the subtilisation of music lengthily explored in Ircam, the Paris underground electronic studio, where she studied.
Paul Driver, The Sunday Times,07/03/2010
Conductor Kazushi Ono and Lyon’s excellent chamber orchestra emphasise the sensuality of the score’s baroque references – the fretful rhythms and verdant trills of Rameau, Purcell, and Scarlatti.
Anna Picard, The Independant on Sunday,07/03/2010
“Emilie” shows a pronounced emotional side. Saariaho approaches the character with noticeable empathy, and the librettist, Amin Maalouf, found exactly the right words for it. The piece lasts a little over an hour, and tells absolutely no story. It is much more as if you were witnessing one of the self-reflections connected with Emilie du Châtelet’s beloved letter writing. The world premiere at the Opéra de Lyon, which commissioned the work, turns this into an intense experience. Karita Mattila completely commits herself to her task. Although the action takes place at the very front of the stage, it is so touching that it seems nearer still. This is primarily due to the music, which unfolds calmly. From the very beginning the harpsichord can be heard, in reference to the 18th century. The music is kept very delicate, even intimate, although the orchestra, brilliantly conducted by Kazushi Ono, is occasionally permitted some powerful strokes, like a quiet wave washing the shore, with not only an amazing variety of gestures but also allusions all combined within a clear structure.
Peter Hagmann, Neue Zürcher Zeitung,04/03/2010
The music is more designed to be a part of the drama than to carry it. It transports moods and provides very specific backgrounds for the dramatic situations. The music is not melodious, but tonal and dynamic. It remains multilayered and subtle at all times, sketches hidden emotions and their contradictions and frictions and comments occasionally, or else it anticipates, thus working in an exemplary psychological way, often illustrative. It is a music that comes forth as if possessing no mass of its own. It lets the drama and the contents take front stage and illuminates everything but does not push itself into the foreground in front of the actors. The touching quality of the music is created solely by its atmospheric clarity. Nonetheless, creative modesty is not its predominant quality, but rather circumspection and clear thought, as well as a tremendously adept technical knowledge of efficiency and conciseness. An understated presence like light in a room, it acts like omnipresent gravitation. That is to say, it is anything but a small work of art.
Hans-Jürgen Linke, Frankfurter Rundschau,03/03/2010
The music plunges from great heights to tremendous depths; a true storm of colour and form comes into being. But, as far as complexity goes, Saariaho takes a few steps back with this score. In exchange for this, a congruent, coherent flow of sound is created. Nothing in this opera, or rather this monodrama, is too long. Nothing is superfluous, and nothing is superimposed. Consequently music, text and staging resurrect the biography of a headstrong woman, freeing her from what was probably her greatest worry – being forgotten.
Florian Fuchs, Wiener Zeitung,03/03/2010
Textures are dense and rich ... she makes Emilie an alluring and sympathetic figure.
Rupert Christiansen, The Telegraph,03/03/2010
The loneliness of a woman in a man’s world, a forsaken lover is the keynote in which this piece with verses by French author originally from Lebanon, Amin Maalouf, moves. It is free from mawkishness, but also from aggression of any kind. Everything appears in the light of mild serenity, as conforms to Saariaho’s style of composition. It works with cautiously sliding planes of sound interspersed with morse code-like signals here and there. Only when the singing voices are driven into very rare highs and lows, can they comfortably stand out in front of this layer of background film. Mattila exudes her sensuous, beautiful, soft but expressive voice with veritable primadonna grandeur. The Lyon orchestra under the direction of Kazushi Ono gently places a garland around the piece. Thanks to Saariaho’s instrumentation technique, which makes much use of the silvery, shimmering qualities of harpsichord, glockenspiel and vibraphone, even multilayered masses of chord stay transparent and diaphanous, and as such, never cause pain to an auditorium full of avant-garde sceptics. These sceptics can also hold on to the melodic lines – which are mainly pieced together from major-minor remnants and are given to “Emilie” and also to many wind soloists – and lastly, sincerely applaud both women.
Wilhelm Sinkowicz, Die Presse,02/03/2010
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