Terry Gilliam talks about his next project:
The Damnation of Faust

by Phil Stubbs

Terry Gilliam is preparing to direct an opera. He's been asked to direct The Damnation of Faust, by Berlioz, for English National Opera for performances in Spring 2011. Note that this is not Gounod's Faust, which ENO has scheduled for September 2010.

Berlioz's piece, first performed in 1846, is based on Goethe's Faust. It is often performed in concert, but rarely as a fully-conceived opera production. In fact, the first opera production was in 1893, 47 years after its concert premiere.

There's a synopsis at the Wikipedia page for La Damnation de Faust

The Faust legend has featured in Gilliam's work recently: in The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus, the eponymous hero found it difficult to resist making deals with the devil, and paid the price for it!

In an interview this summer, the filmmaker said the following about his forthcoming project:

I have foolishly decided to do an opera. I have been asked by the English National Opera to direct The Damnation of Faust. I've been asked to direct operas before - but I have wisely turned them down. My escape route - my defence mechanism - is that it is an opera that has never been successful… so if it doesn't work, it is Berlioz's fault… not mine. It's actually driving me crazy because I'm moving to a territory that I'm a complete novice in. I'm constantly thinking: I can do it on film easily; I know how to do this. But on stage it's a different world. In six months' time I will be 70 years old! This is terrifying. I thought maybe opera is something I can deal with in my dotage. If it doesn't work, I guess I'll be starving in my dotage!

I'm actually terrified because when I first heard it, I thought this is nonsense, this is impossible. Because basically Berlioz had written eight symphonic pieces. And then one day he decided to do an opera, but he wanted to incorporate his eight symphonic pieces in it. So the narrative is bouncing along happily, but suddenly it stops, and we have six to eight minutes of a musical interlude. And then we're back to the story. I thought: this is madness. So I decided to invent a story that would carry us through, so we'd all know where we are going. I was laughing at a lot of it, it was stupid, I didn't like the character of Faust at all. So I approached it with a rather negative attitude. But now, the more I'm into it, I can't fight the music, it's beautiful. Now I'm finding I've got myself into many traps here. It's very clear what I'm doing in my mind, but the music overwhelms me. I can't basically take the piss out of it. I've got to be serious about this. You can't fight the music.

So it's this terrible battle between me and Berlioz. He's long dead but his shadow's over everything. His music is covering everything and I'm just this kid at 70 coming in to try to learn how to do this new art form. In my world, it's a new art form.

Faust - it's the deal you do. It's the devil inside you. You are always tempted - you want to be successful. We all want to be famous, we all want to be rich. But the price of all of those things can be horrible. I keep saying the worst thing that happens to most filmmakers I know is to become successful. It's terrible because then you want more of it. Once you have tasted and smelled it, you just want more. It's terrible. Actually I need a subtitle, because I'm turning Mephistopheles into the main character. Is it The Damnation of Faust or the Mischief of Mephistopheles? I want Mephistopheles to have all the fun in this one. Faust will be punished for many things.

Delacroix created a series of lithographs to illustrate the text of Goethe's Faust - these are available to view at the Wesleyan University website. Like Gilliam, Delacroix appeared to find more interest in the character of Mephistopheles than Faust. Delacroix's Mephistopheles in the Air is below:

Gilliam was talking to Kirsty Lang on BBC Radio 4's Front Row arts magazine show. While he was in the Front Row studio, Gilliam was asked to sketch out Radio 4. This was captured on video and is available to view below:

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