Arts: The director's new contract

Peter Greenaway is disenchanted with film (`Cinema is dead. We're using narrative techniques more than 100 years old') and has fallen in love with opera (`I'm amazed by the things you can do which you can't in cinema'). Which is why he's working on his second. By Adrian Mourby
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The Independent Culture
When he made his 1985 film A Zed & Two Noughts, says Peter Greenaway, "nothing much was known about Vermeer, so I could make a lot of it up. But the more I read, the more I realised that he lived in an extraordinary time for art in Holland, when the artist was in harmony with society and painters could depict the life they saw around them. This was a time when bourgeois serenity and creativity were in balance. But it was washed away in the great flood of 1674, which destroyed 75 years of Dutch prosperity."

Greenaway, who has been a famous film-maker since The Draughtsman's Contract of 1983, is dressed in his customary black suit and sitting in a modern cafe near Amsterdam's Muziektheater. He talks with animation about his latest project. It's not a film, though there are still plenty of those in the pipeline. Writing to Vermeer is an opera commissioned for the millennium, created with Greenaway's new partner Saskia Boddeke and the former hard-core modernist composer Louis Andriessen.

"I have been amazed by the things you can do with opera which you can't do in the cinema," says Greenaway. "What Pierre Audi is doing here is tremendous. As artistic director, he is willing to take risks on an English film-maker producing opera. He puts composers together with painters. He's a catalyst, yet the press in Britain is so mealy-mouthed about him."

Greenaway has worked with Andriessen and Boddeke before. Their previous opera at the Muziektheater, Rosa, a Horse Opera, previewed last year; even the press office of Nederlandse Opera admits that it was deemed offensive by some. Writing to Vermeer promises to be a very different work. It is based on 18 letters that Greenaway himself wrote as a result of his fascination with the domestic harmony that he perceives in the life of Jan Vermeer. Six of the letters are purportedly written by the painter's wife, six by his mother-in-law and six by his model and muse, Saskia. All three women say they are missing the artist while he is away on business in The Hague. All three love him. This, as Greenaway himself admits, is the territory of male fantasy. "They have built their life around him. It is idealised. While the world turns in leaps and acts of savagery that threaten to destroy it, domestic impeturbability persists."

It may be that a domestic idyll closer to home has influenced this latest work. For a man who has always seemed to be more interested in ideas than in human relationships, the new Greenaway is happy to proclaim the benefit he is deriving from his new life with Boddeke. "I have now been an honorary Dutch citizen for 18 months," he says proudly. "This is a civilised city. From our flat you can walk anywhere you might want to go." And yet it is the contention of Greenaway and Boddeke that time is ticking away for the serenity of Vermeer's life. "When the Dutch flooded their land to stop Louis XIV's armies, it was a disaster," he says. "Vermeer died soon afterwards, of overwork. His wife was bankrupted, the family fragmented. That deluge destroyed a perfect, precious balance that had existed between the painter, the commissioner and the client."

"It was a privileged time in Dutch history," confirms Boddeke, who is a staff producer at Nederlandse Opera. The two met while working on Rosa, for which Greenaway is credited with the direction and visual concept; Boddeke's role was that of co-director. "Peter sat in the stalls," says an insider, "and Saskia put his ideas on stage." It is clear that the relationship is more of an equal partnership these days, and that Boddeke has had a significant effect on Greenaway's thinking. It was she who took the 18 letters and prevented their becoming so many uxorious monologues by interpolating a series of violent tableaux from Vermeer's troubled world. "A few months after Vermeer left The Hague, the De Witt brothers were attacked by an anti-Catholic mob," says Boddeke. "They were left quartered, castrated and bleeding at the stake."

Boddeke, who is significantly younger than her more famous partner, is ambitious for what can be achieved on the operatic stage. "I am fascinated by how you can make music theatre today," she says. "I want to break through the proscenium. All too often we have to deal with a seated audience out there in the dark. I want to find other ways."

Among her more radical proposals, she intends to get a lot of water on to the stage. "There are five liquids in Peter's letters. Ink, with which they are written; varnish, which Vermeer's daughter drinks while he is away; the milk being poured in Vermeer's famous picture of the kitchen maid; blood, from the attack on the De Witt brothers; and water, in the flood that washes everything away. Each fluid will enter the drama, preceding the letters as they are being sung. There will also be an empty canvas floating in water at the centre of the stage. And as well as each woman being sung by an actress there will be five performers or dancers, representing her."

"And we'll be using video," Greenaway reminds her. "Yes," says Boddeke. "We will shoot beforehand and we'll shoot during rehearsals. I want to create a homogenous use of projection that will go further than anyone has gone before." The pair clearly function as a team, with Greenaway happy to hand over his project to Boddeke for restructuring before it goes two blocks away to the composer, Andriessen. "I'm aware that there is a massive number of words in what we have given Louis. So we said: `You select what you want.' And what he will do is hand back a text that has been set to music." Does this pose a problem if they don't like what Andriessen has done with their libretto? "In opera you have to accept the tyranny of the composer," Greenaway admits. He and Andriessen have already collaborated on an opera - Rosa - about the violent death of a composer, and Greenaway has nine more in mind, starting with Webern and ending with John Lennon. "The Revenge of the Muse," he says cryptically.

Greenaway is an inveterate film-maker who continues to write and direct films from Amsterdam, but this is another activity that is well suited to his new home. "I've had a Dutch producer since A Zed & Two Noughts," he says. "I filmed Prospero's Books here, with John Gielgud staying at the American hotel just over there."

His disenchantment with film itself is growing, however. "Cinema is dead. We are using narrative techniques more than 100 years old. Nobody really knows where the moving image should go now. I see cinema being replaced by 360-degree theme parks. The moving image will continue in a different form." His next work, Tulseluper Suitcase, is planned as four two-hour films which will be available in CD-rom form and on the Internet. "It will also be a 52-part TV series. The subtitle is A Private History of Uranium 1928-1989. I want to get back to serial form." Tulseluper Suitcase takes its title from Greenaway's fascination with the fact that most Americans have moved away from the town in which they were born. "The suitcase is a metaphor for our times," he claims.

Greenaway is now enthusiastically working with a Rotterdam company to put this story on the Internet. "Currently it's only appearing in textural form but the possibility of choice for the viewer exists. In this way in Amsterdam, the great capital of democracy, we can democratise art." Boddeke bridles at the word. "The artist's vision must remain paramount," she says. Even if there are three of them working on this particular project.

`Writing to Vermeer' will premiere in Amsterdam on 1 December. It will then go to Australia to open the Adelaide Festival. Details. De Nederlandse Opera (00 31 20 551 8922)