Paul and I say our goodbyes in the dingy half-light of a Berlin bar. His fastidious punctuality has given way to a soft fatigue brought on by the end of long night’s work, but his professional guard remains firmly in place. The hug is cordial, measured in its familiarity. We ask one another the unobtrusive questions to which two colleagues are obliged when a brief but intense stint of shared work recedes and leaves a new gulf of distance in its place: When do you leave town, where are you heading, anything fun coming up? I tell him I leave tomorrow for Bucharest: The Enescu Festival is mounting a one-night-only production of Messiaen’s four-hour “Saint François d’Assise.” I’ve never seen the opera. I want to be there when it happens.
At the mention of “Saint François,” something flashes over Paul’s eyes that I can’t quite read. It starts almost as fear, sharp and dangerous, a moment of recognition that quickly glazes into what looks like wistfulness, as his eyes slide somewhere over my left shoulder. The violence of it catches me off guard, and in the sudden silence of my surprise Paul reveals the decade of his life spent in pursuit of that opera. He pours out the private details of their spare and international love affair, his voice heavy with a hushed, trance-like intimacy that flings me somewhere in the destabilized space between voyeur and confidant. He says he crossed its path three times, including once at an infamous meeting in Munich in 2011, from which Messiaen emerged dripping in several thousand gallons of blood (courtesy of the late Austrian action artist Hermann Nitsch). Paul describes an insatiable hunger with almost sexual immediacy. Only in the last few years, he tells me, has the obsession faded into a natural and distant amiability. But, smiling somewhat bashfully (though still not meeting my eyes), Paul admits he thinks of his beloved opera whenever it rains. “Endure the storm, patiently, with joy,” Saint Francis instructs at the end of the first scene, a line meant apparently for Paul more than anyone else.
A queer Berliner in his 30s—meticulous and orderly, prone to solitude and nights of jam-making and averse to the flights of fancy that tend to characterize opera-obsessives—Paul isn’t exactly the audience I anticipated for a piece that is, in many ways, the last great artistic testament to an Old World French Catholicism that all but died out with its composer. Written well into his 70s, “Saint François d’Assise” is Messiaen’s most explicit testament to the devout orthodoxy that defined his life’s work. The opera’s eight extended tableaux sketch the spiritual journey of a canonized saint to the cross: his selfless humility, his healing of lepers, the visitation of the angel, his sermon to the birds (a favorite of Messiaen, the semi-professional ornithologist), his reception of the stigmata, and his ascension to heaven. Heavy-laden with musical symbolism for the core tenets of the Catholic faith—perfect joy, angelic music, calls to God, doubt, contemplation, and affirmation—it is a grand spectacle of faith and prayer, a nearly four-hour ritual behemoth that requires hundreds of participants to fill out its expanded orchestra and massed chorus, all for the glory of God.
Paul and I, meanwhile, belong to a generation that has watched the Catholic Church tumble from grace in one of the greatest crises of faith in modern memory. Between the endless abuse scandals and the church’s worrying proclivity to align itself with far-right leadership and ideologies, the role of religious institutions in liberal under-40 culture has vastly diminished. In the art world, where a pervasive distrust of organized religion has long been the norm—the tar-caked ooze of Schoenberg’s “Moses und Aron” or Francis Bacon’s screaming pope—the chasm is doubly pronounced. Which makes “Saint François” and its devotees all the more baffling: Messiaen’s opera remains an obscure and lonely bastion to Catholicism in the annals of a modernism that has struggled to find a place for it.
And yet Paul—and myself, I suppose, given that I’m winding my way towards the Palace Hall in Bucharest laced up to the knees in four-inch black heels and a pleated skirt that ripples on the wind behind me—has had no problem reconciling his love for the opera with a progressive identity. Nor is he alone: Le Balcon, the French experimental performing arts troupe behind the Bucharest production, is spearheaded entirely by millennials. Maxime Pascal, their virtuosic conductor, isn’t yet 40, and then only a few years older than Antoin Herrera-López Kessel, the Cuban baritone whose austere majesty (not to mention ravishing outfit: A black sheath gown with a mint-green marble sleeve, accented by a slender strip of dividing gold) lent a rock-solid foundation to the deliriously ornate score. A majority of the design team were young artists, as were all three of the Ondes Martenot players. It was, across the board, a young person’s event, a fact made only more stark by the steady stream of gray-haired ticket-holders—including the four Christian retirees from Connecticut whose enthusiasm at the end of the first act (once I had explained the opera to them; they had done no research before) had waned considerably after the marathon sixth scene; they made quick plans to visit a bar (ironically located in a former church), and I never saw them again—filing dutifully out of the Palace Hall at the second intermission. By the final act, only the young and faithful were left to bear witness to the glory of the deafening C major which accompanies Saint Francis’ ascension.
Boarding my flight out of Bucharest early the following morning, I couldn’t shake the creeping sensation that, by making my pilgrimage to Europe’s more conservative east, I had somehow participated in something unbecoming, something dark. The longer I thought on it, the less sense it had made to go. Why should I, or Paul, or any of Le Balcon for that matter still feel this glorification of a faith that for centuries actively rejected our very existence is somehow worthy of the attention it selfishly requires? “Saint François d’Assise” is a technical and logistical monstrosity to produce—even more so for a single night. This particular production has been in the works for almost five years. Why should a young and overwhelmingly queer demographic play the faithful stewards for this monument to Catholicism? Which is to say: How can I possibly love this thing?
The latest from VAN, delivered straight to your inbox
In the last pages of the last volume of his Oxford History of Western Music, Richard Taruskin warned of a “New Spirituality” in modern composition. The trend, as he saw it, was a music being written to satiate the desire of an ascendent liberal middle class for transcendent spiritual experience without the burden of ideology and morals. “The essential dilemma” of the younger, progressive bourgeois, Taruskin wrote, “is that of reconciling the need for spirituality with the even more pressing need for personal autonomy and unlimited choice, since ‘real’ religion imposes obligations and demands sacrifices.” Taruskin’s targets were primarily minimalist: Henryk Górecki, John Taverner, Arvo Pärt, John Adams, Philip Glass. His central example—Adams’s “El Niño,” another oratorio-opera—lends an air of sacred practice to a distinctly contemporary message of inclusion, a compatible urban replacement to spirituality ready-made for the non-believer. (And yet here I am, a faggy non-believer rouging my cheeks before the opera with nails painted lavender to match my amethyst ring, picking Messiaen over Adams every time.)
Taruskin’s omission of Messiaen—the highest-profile modernist composer to publicly integrate his religion with his work (20th-century composers overwhelmingly tend toward atheism or agnosticism)—is deeply conspicuous. It took my seeing “Saint François” in the flesh to understand that what precludes it from “New Spirituality” is the same thing that has permitted its continued, irrational presence in modern thought. By nature of its scale, there is nothing convenient or pacifying about the opera: It steamrolls the listener for four straight hours with a musical exuberance that only increases with time. That the subject of its attention is Catholic is, in the end, utterly unimportant. The titular saint serves only as the vehicle by which the opera strives to articulate an experience for which language is ultimately insufficient. Said another way, what is moving about the opera is not its story: It is the extremity of faith demanded by the sheer breadth of the work’s execution and ingestion, even, or perhaps especially, by those for whom the Catholic Church leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.
The opera is a testament to devotion. It is devotion which animates it and devotion which speaks through it, devotion which gives it force and devotion which is its lasting impression. According to Catholic logic, God is always the greater-than, that which cannot be expressed or thought in the scale of human language. The details of any narrative would ultimately be insufficient at capturing the thing to which Messiaen is so completely devoted. And so, rather than attempt to reduce it to the limitations of humanity, he gave 11 years of his life to a work that would replicate the physical and emotional arduousness of that very surrender. Not only is the score a brutal test of endurance for performers and listeners alike; it is a dangerous exercise in rhythm, in focus, in coordination, a tightrope-walk in trust. The sheer magnanimity of several hundred musicians pressing on in submission to this mammoth, exhaustive labor is itself a crazy kind of faith, one that, contrary to Taruskin, very much imposes obligations and is impossible without sacrifice. You have to endure the storm to know the joy.
Ultimately, and somewhat by surprise, it is here that Francis becomes relevant again. The saint’s journey to the cross is one of self-reduction (Francis is canonically the patron saint of poverty), of emptying the ego in selfless humility, the better to be filled by the grace of God. Messiaen’s faith, like Francis’s, is without evangelism, absent pride. Just as the opera finds itself in awe of the boundlessness with which Saint Francis devotes himself to God, the audience is spellbound by Messiaen’s own commitment to his faith, which takes the form of an insistent and monolithic musical idiom that strips away at its audience layer by layer. On every level—narrative, compositional, and experiential—the work is more than its religion. It is an act of collected surrender.
Performance practice struggled at first to grapple with this. Sandro Sequi’s original Paris production in 1983—which interpreted the score in literal cues from classical religious iconography—was almost universally panned as flat and naive. In resting the visual language of the opera on a one-dimensional relationship to its subject, Sequi reduced the work to a representational parable that failed to communicate, precisely because the story of Saint Francis itself is not what’s moving. Following Messiaen’s death in 1992 and Peter Sellars’s production of the opera in Salzburg later the same year, stagings of the work have increasingly tended toward an abstract oceanic immensity that emphasizes the incomprehensibility of scale over details of plot and affect. Spectacle and breadth emerge as main characters, leaving Francis a pinprick on an ever-expanding horizon.
In Bucharest, Le Balcon took a semi-staged concert approach that preserved the opera’s glacial dramaturgy without truncating the work to mere oratorio. The primary addition was the continuous presence of spare projections etching hand-written Romanian translations of the French onto a huge back screen in real time (peppered with sketches of birds, of course). A tandem lighting scheme lent each character a distinct ambiance, while a sparse but effective use of space gave the impression of a live theater: the chorus washing soft angelic hums from the balcony in the second act; the angel (Elena Tsallagova, radiant) soaring from a podium at the center of the orchestra; a slow, Robert-Wilson-like extension of an arm between Francis and the Leper (played with a stand-out combination of character and lyricism by Damien Bigourdan). These small but intentional decisions gave enough local variation in visual experience to hold the audience’s attention without ever minimizing the sprawling and unutterable nature of a devotion to that which is always greater than can be conceived. Neither Saint Francis, the Angel, nor Messiaen himself can summarily describe the God toward which the whole work points its upturned head. The opera basks in the knowledge that it cannot conceive its center, replicating in the sweating and trance-filled bodies of three hundred straining musicians the joy of humility achieved only by giving oneself over to a work that is greater, purer, and beyond the singular.
This is all I can come up with, all I can say in the face of what I don’t understand. I found myself weeping in the second row of Palace Hall and I don’t know why, except that something much larger than anything I could see was taking shape in real time. The slow, devastating process by which story and affect are subsumed under a far more primal and consummating force is utterly overwhelming; the body has no choice but to submit. And not knowing, not being able to adequately explain what’s taking place inside: That’s the faith. The patience required to share space with “Saint François” forces its participants to partake of its body, to attend to its immensity, to give in. The opera is faith itself: not Catholic faith, but a belief in the boundless joy that comes from an endless, humbling work which strives without hope of success to conceive of that which is greater than itself—“la joie parfaite,” Francis says, the perfect joy. And at a time when thinking on impossible, geologic timescales is crucial to our survival as a species, devotion to the immensity of being is more prescient and contemporary than ever. This is why “Saint François” stays, why such an anachronistic work is somehow gaining in traction as it ages: It shows us how to think beyond ourselves.
In Bucharest, I thought of Paul, and how strange and terrible and beautiful it is to love another’s love. ¶
Subscribers keep VAN running!
VAN is proud to be an independent classical music magazine thanks to our subscribers. For just over 10 cents a day, you can enjoy unlimited access to over 800 articles in our archives—and get new ones delivered straight to your inbox each week.
Not ready to commit to a full year?
You can test-drive VAN for one month for the price of a coffee.