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Editor's Column

Novel intensity: How David Marton adapts literature for the stage

In a theatre season full of great adaptations, we spoke with David Marton about the process of adapting Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s novel, The Melancholy of Resistance, for the opera.

David Marton’s previous works include The Well-Tempered Piano. Photo: IMAGO / DRAMA-Berlin.de

Berlin’s best theatre this spring – or at least what I’ve loved, what truly married poetry and performance – have been the adaptations: Murat Dikenci’s Yahya Hassan, Hakan Savaş Mican’s Unser Deutschlandmärchen, Yana Ross’s Sterben Lieben Kämpfen. These productions reconceived their source texts in fascinating ways – Dikenci located something fine and fragile amidst Hassan’s bombastic poetry; Mican not only excerpted choice moments from Dinçer Güçyeter’s novel that let his actors shine but also augmented its power with stirring song; Ross’s selective attention to Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle reworked it into a feminist critique of itself. How does a director think about approaching such a project?

David Marton, established director of musical theatre and opera whose work has appeared at the Volksbühne, the Schaubühne and the Bayerische Staatsoper, explained his approach to me. In collaboration with the French academic, translator and poet Guillaume Métayer on the libretto, the Hungarian-born Marton has adapted László Krasznahorkai’s wild novel of small-town apocalypse,The Melancholy of Resistance, into an opera.

Set to a disquieting orchestral composition from Marc-André Dalbavie, it will premiere at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden in June. It’s a dizzying text to attempt, a thoroughly novelistic novel whose plot – a circus’s arrival in town generates excitement, rumour, riots and opportunity for a local power grab – fails to do justice to its ominous mood and pulsating energy.

We were very close to the novel

At its centre is Valuska, the town’s postman, a gentle man whose inability to communicate his rich internal life relegates him to the status of town idiot, scorned by his mother and only beloved by Mr. Eszter, a former music director who has retreated into his home in resistance against the town’s coarseness. Eszter’s wife wants Valuska to convince her estranged – but widely-respected – husband to run for mayor so she can rule in his stead. The circus’s arrival (with the world’s greatest stuffed whale in tow) becomes the catalyst for political and existential drama.

Marton had long loved The Melancholy of Resistance, but only decided on it for the stage after a conversation with his composer. After Marton suggested the novel, which takes music as a central subject, Dalbavie was equally enthused. However, Marton and Dalbavie both agreed that the composer’s native French would best suit the composition, and so, noting that Krasznahorkai purposefully made the town nameless, Marton set the adaptation in northern France, where the current political climate most approximates that of the text.

Yet, even as he makes this shift, Marton emphasises his responsibility to Krasznahorkai’s original work. He sees adaptation as a project of intensification and condensation, citing Alban Berg’s vital Wozzeck as the kind of opera adaptation he wants to emulate. “I can’t put 400 pages of a novel on the stage,” he says, “but we tried to keep whole the spirit of Krasznahorkai as a writer… There are many operas that really flatten literature,” he adds. “There’s no reason to turn a novel into a pamphlet.”

The final success of an adaptation ultimately relies on the performers on stage

Marton has focused his condensation on a particular aspect of Krasznahorkai’s text: its attention to detail. “The novel truly overflows with descriptions, extremely close description of people and of their behaviour, as well as of objects, rooms and atmosphere,” he says. “And this world of miniatures – or rather, microscopic observations – is something that I find very interesting for opera because opera is condemned to be bombastic, always. Everything is big: the size of the room, the size of the orchestra, the sound, and the entire apparatus – which I found a nice contrast to these small observations.” 

To translate these small observations into opera, Marton will incorporate live filming and use frequent closeups to focus the audience’s attention on detail. While he found a way of translating the novel’s aesthetic visually, he admits that the language posed a literal problem for the libretto. “The way that Krasznahorkai writes involves this ever-shifting perspective,” Marton says, “but never systematically. You don’t know – you’re in the head of someone, and then suddenly Krasznahorkai describes him from an external perspective.”

This meant that Marton and Métayer, who are both fluent in the novel’s original Hungarian, had to work together to figure out how to translate Krasznahorkai’s prose into French. “We were very close to the novel,” he tells me, “but Guillaume still had to find a new language in French to translate the novel’s poetics into people’s mouths.” 

It boggles my mind, fashioning a usable libretto from the text, I admit. What will it be like to sing Krasznahorkai? Marton smiles, shrugs, and tells me that he doesn’t know either – he’ll find out in rehearsals. With this, Marton reminds me of a truth that I should have remembered: the final success of an adaptation ultimately relies on the performers on stage.

  • Die Melancholie des Widerstands starts Jun 30. Staatsoper Unter der Lindon, Unter den Linden 7, Mitte, details.