Interview with João MacDowell

The Brazilian Theater Group – Interview with João MacDowell.

Composer João MacDowell adopted New York as his home from his native Brazil in 2002. Grown-up inside the futuristic architecture of the capital Brasilia, the musician is also deeply immersed in theater, and was responsible for the adaptation of the iconic classic film The Seventh Seal by Ingmar Bergman, from cinema to opera.

RM – I understand that you are launching the International Brazilian Theater Group, please tell us about it.

João – It is a workgroup inside IBOC’s greater umbrella. We are working to bring Antonio Negreiros from Brazil to work with us as a director and help to develop the group. Antonio is a great asset a fantastic dancer, choreographer, and actor, he will bring a whole new set of skills and leadership to the group.

RM – What is the goal of this new project?

The goal is to experiment with spoken word and develop a repertoire that translates the Brazilian Theater artistic experience, while also creating opportunities for international collaboration. IBTG represents an effort to focus on a certain type of performance and to give our artists a chance to develop a new set of productions that may not be perceived as “Operatic” in a narrow sense. In a broad sense, everything that we present at IBOC is indeed theater, even when we present formal concert recitals, with no elaborate costumes or scenery, there is always a dramatic ritual going on. It is a pact between the audience and the artists that enables the evocation of an ancient ritualistic practice, while we are in a performance mode of interaction and creating a communion of living souls. Hopefully, that communion will trigger an initiation experience, where one is allowed to be touched and changed at some level by the ritual itself.

RM – Is this something new or unique?

João – It is not new in that it has represented a tendency in performance art for a long time. It is nice to open the books from the great thinkers about theater and realize that the perspective is generally unifying through history. We look at Stanislavsky, Grotovsky, Artaud, Boal, Brecht, Becket, Aristotle, Kant, and up to our times with someone like Robert Wilson, and it is always a perspective that brings together the arts that prevails at the highest level of thinking. The compartmentalized perspective that separates theater, dance, music, and visual arts, is a way of thinking that is in fact very limited to a short historic period in the Western mind. It is part of the mental trash that we inherit from a recent past and that we need to shed in order to move on. This need to separate and classify, to label things in different folders, has to do with the Western scientificity and the encyclopedists, they thought they could separate and explain all aspects of reality. It is a very arrogant concept if you think about it, but it was useful for a moment. Nowadays people go to Wikipedia, which is fine for what it is, but it cannot be a source of knowledge at a deeper level. I doubt that one could achieve wisdom from Google. Instead, I believe in looking at the actual books and then maybe editing the Wiki, to make it more reliable and comprehensive. In “The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” Joyce dedicates a long chapter to his Aesthetic theory, he picks it up from Thomas Aquinas and develops it a degree further. It is not a theory for literature, it is a theory for art in the broader sense. He talks about Integritas, Emanitas, and then Claritas, from which emanates the mark of Beauty: “A sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something.” That brings him to the concept of Epiphany: the experience of perceiving something that one was not aware of before,  I relate Epiphany to the Initiation Ritual, where one is expected to change as the basic assumption of the work. For me, if there is no Epiphany it becomes Entertainment, and I ann not very interested in Entertainment, except maybe from a craftsmanship perspective.

RM – Most people see you as a composer. Please tell us about your theater experience.

João – I came to music from a theater and literature perspective. My first play was performed in 1984, it was a text called “Plin.” It was about a family dinner going slightly insane as the youngest child plays with a glass cup, ringing at irregular intervals.  In a way, it was a musical text also, although there is no proper music in it.

I was a student at the dramatic college of Dulcina de Moraes. She represented an older school of theater that was already dying when I met her, and for many, she was the best Brazilian Theater artist ever. I had the privilege of being her pupil before she passed. She asked me to prepare Hamlet and I remember she would never let me go beyond the first few lines of text – she would take over and start doing the text. There was so much life in each of her words, that it was impossible not to be mesmerized. It was a way of acting that had a lot to do with how opera is still presented, due to the supremacy of the written intonation in the music. She delivered each line as a musical phrase, full of drama and meaning. Nowadays most actors have a more naturalistic delivery, which is heavily influenced by cinema, it is a different school, and it implies a certain type of aesthetic philosophy. It is interesting to see how the modern becomes old and the very old becomes contemporary.

RM – Tell us more about your vision for contemporary theater.

João – We could call it “Total Theater” or “Ritual Theater” or “Contemporary Opera.” Labels are always problematic because the true artist navigates the borderline of the label. Audiences need the label, in order to classify and dismiss the work in a category that has already been explained. The advantage of using “Opera” as a classifier is that historically “Opera” has stood for this all-embracing art form. Wagner calls it “Gesamtkunstwerk,” the total work of art. It is drama, music, literature, and visual art, but it should not be just a piling up of different disciplines, as much as a unified experience that embraces all senses. That is why I like to think in terms of an initiation ritual. When Opera started the Renascence Florentines wanted to revive Greek Drama, except they did not know much about ancient Greek culture, so they invented a new style of musical theater. Apparently, Greek drama was also sung throughout. But Greek Drama was itself a reinvention of older ancient rituals, fem a time when music, dance, theater, magic, and medicine were one and only. In contemporary performance art, we are back in that space, the classification is obsolete. Gerald Thomas, who is another Brazilian theater director developing a fantastic work at La Mama, likes to call his work “Dry Opera.” When we watch Robert Wilson’s work, “Einstein on the Beach” for example, it is hard to say if it is dance, theater, or opera in any traditional sense. For the true artist, these categories are irrelevant, it is only the narrow-minded critic that seems to care. Gerald Thomas and Robert Wilson are living artists that still inspire us in many ways – they are noir trying to achieve the easy success of repetitive formulas, but taking the risk to look forward to where the theatrical experience may go.

“It is interesting to see how the modern becomes old and the very old becomes contemporary.”

RM – How does this aesthetic differ from established “modern theater”?

João – It is a question of how we approach the narrative inside the ritual experience. In the early XX Century, we experienced a crisis in traditional forms of narrative. In its origin, the mythic narrative served the ritual as a means to transport the listener into a shamanic journey of self-realization and ultimately a narrative that was a catalyst for a cure.  By the XIX Century, the narrative had become very sophisticated and emptied of its healing function. We still see that today in most movies and TV shows, it is all well-crafted entertainment that keeps the mind occupied, yet it does not even try to take the soul on a voyage of discovery of some sort. So it made sense for modern artists to disrupt and deconstruct the narrative. The stream of consciousness in the form of non-linear narrative is most characteristic of the great modern artists, we find books that can be read in different order of chapters, we find circular novels, dream plays… These narrative forms were also prophetic of the hypertext and the low attention span of our contemporary world immersed in the excess of information online. All the information is accessible but it is also rendered meaningless because it is disconnected.   Thus, we need to find a new form of theater that is no longer embedded in the traditional romantic narrative but lies beyond the disintegration of the plot. We want a ritual that brings the community together and condenses the information into a meaningful experience. A ritual that enables the mind to focus in a society that has lost the capacity to focus on the most relevant issues. A ritual that may also be a transformative experience for the soul. That is the goal.

BT – And now you also have a separate division on IBOC that is dedicated to physical and spoken theater.

João – That is true. I believe we felt the need to explore a specific aspect of the dramatic technique. We have been focusing on immersive theater for some time, we did not classify it as such, also because the label has become somewhat overused. It is a specific approach that aims to develop new works within a certain limitation of technical resources. As artists, we often need to separate aspects of the technique in order to improve and deepen the relationship with the craft. The final work should still be experienced as a unified experience, but the path that leads to it may be through a certain limitation that allows us to explore a greater depth in that specific aspect, in this case, it is the spoken word. Traditionally when we think of opera we think the music has to prevail, when we think of theater the spoken word has supremacy. The actual frontier is foggy at best, but there is a technical limitation that implies a different type of ritual. The group comes to life as a necessity expressed by the very artists who are at the core team of IBOC. I have always been a theater person and I am proud to have watched some great talent blossom under our umbrella. Laudiceia Calixto is one of them. She worked with me on the first concert of my first opera: “Tamanduá.” When we first met I was deeply touched by her personality and felt so much dramatic potential in her stage presence, later she went on to star in the theater production of “The maids’ The Maids” which has been extensively reviewed by the New York Times, not a small feat for many artists with a longer career.

RM – Any other developments that our readers should be aware?

João – We are also launching the International Brazilian Dance Group, led by Antonio Negreiros, who is himself a legend as a dancer and choreographer. We are looking for more dancers to join the group. We continue recruiting singers for the New York Brazilian Chorus. IBOC is Brazilian in spirit and international in collaboration. We are very proud of the great variety of nationalities represented in all our productions.


More about the International Brazilian Opera – IBOC:

Laudiceia Calixto and Rita Oliveira

“The Maids’ The Maids – NY Times review:

Other expressions of Brazilian Theater in New York:

Gustavo Pace, a Brazilian actor, and dramaturge that has been gaining a lot of attention in New York:

Gerald Thomas and the Dry Opera Theater company:

Group BR – a Brazilian theater group that has been presenting the work of writers such as Clarice Lispector and Vinicius de Moraes to New York audiences: