Torsten Rasch on his opera 'The Duchess of Malfi'

© Rob Greig
Posted: Tue Jul 6 2010

The innovative Punchdrunk theatre company's new work for ENO is an operatic interpretation of 'The Duchess of Malfi'.Time Out talks to its German composer, Torsten Rasch, about the fall of the Wall, getting out of the GDR and the influence of Alban Berg.

Torsten Rasch is man of uncertain provenance - a situation thrown into relief one Sunday afternoon a couple of weeks ago when his family (wife Michiko and four-year-old daughter Helena) stopped off for refreshment at a London pub. It was eerily quiet when he went to the bar; on the television England were in the late stages of playing Germany in the last 16 of the World Cup finals. It occurred to him that he ought not to sound too German.

But Rasch doesn't support Germany - it is not his country. Born in Dresden in 1965, with the dissolution of the German Democratic Republic in 1990 his country (and football team) disappeared. In the turmoil that followed the collapse of the Berlin Wall and Reunification, he took the opportunity to get as far away from his homeland as possible - Japan! (And it is that team he was supporting in the competition.) He subsequently spent the next 14 years living in Tokyo, where he met his wife, initially teaching German, then composing music for films and adverts. In 2003 he sprang to fame with 'Mein Hertz Brennt', an orchestral song-cycle in a Mahlerian style, setting the words of the song by German heavy metal band Rammstein. Describing himself as 'a very late Romantic composer', the work reflects his continuing love of the music of the 1920s and '30s; the avant-garde of the past 50 years he describes as 'a cul-de-sac' that took us nowhere'.

His home has been Berlin for the past five years, but for the moment he is in London overseeing the final production stage of his opera 'The Duchess of Malfi', an ENO commission directed by the acclaimed site-specific theatre company Punchdrunk. It is a setting of John Webster's bloody Jacobean tragedy of revenge and murder, which is being staged in a former office building in Docklands. There is a great deal of hush-hush about the project, but Rasch is able to elucidate a little on the musical aspects of the production.

So you are not supporting Germany in the World Cup?
'I am not a great fan of football, and not of the German team. It is not my country; my country doesn't exist any more. I don't care if they win or lose.'

Were there different social values in the German Democratic Republic?
'Yes, although that is kind of clichéd, people were much closer to each other - you didn't have to be a rival to achieve something because there weren't that many things to achieve. So you could live on rather a small amount of money and have a pleasant life. Of course, you didn't get all those glittering things the West offered, but no one was starving in East Germany.'

Why did you move to Japan?
'Because I knew somebody there - if I had known somebody in South America I probably would have gone there.'

Who is your greatest musical influence?
'Alban Berg appeals to me because he is the perfect example of someone who was writing music for the brain and for the heart. If you study his scores they are full of hidden messages. It is a revelation to read it, but you don't hear it - it goes straight to the heart, which is the most important thing for me.'

Did you choose 'The Duchess of Malfi' as the subject for this opera?
'No that was suggested by ENO and Punchdrunk when I was commissioned. I had not read it
before; I then read it in English and in German and it intrigued me.'

What were the problems composing for different and moving ensembles?
'Punchdrunk do this kind of promenade theatre, and because you cannot move an orchestra around easily, we had to concoct a way of dividing the orchestra into certain groups, so that while some are moving around, others are playing. Then you get to see the full orchestra, too, at some point. There are five singers and a lot of other dancers and actors. In the first scene, for instance, there are three singers, and when it is finished the characters go their different ways. As an audience member you wonder: Who am I going to follow? And depending on who you follow, you experience a different thing because each of them goes on to a different scene.'

Did you compose it linearly?
'Yes, from start to finish. Actually, it is a normal opera and with a few changes could be performed on a normal opera stage. It has nine scenes and I thought about which instrumentation I should use - of course there is some logistical limitation here because if I use a bass in one scene, I can't use it in the next because it is heavy; and so the player must rest for one scene - before he moves on to the third scene.'

Do the characters have leitmotifs?
'Usually I compose a tone row [a pre-decided fixed ordering of notes] and from that row I derive the themes or melodies for the character. There is one main row from which these three main characters' rows are derived and that is how I find my musical material. For me, musically, rows are the greatest invention since the well-tempered piano - it doesn't have to be squeaky.
If you listen to Bach, it sounds like E major but it is all rows.'

Are you pleased with 'The Duchess of Malfi'?
'Yes, based on what I have seen them do with it so far, this will be an experience that is unique. The only sad thing is that it is sold out and one must go two or three times because you won't see everything in just one go.'

'The Duchess of Malfi' is performed at Great Eastern Quay, July 13-24, 2010