Thomas Adès burst onto the classical music scene in the mid-1990s as the twenty-something composer of the much-talked-about opera Powder Her Face, inspired by a real-life 1960s British sex scandal—and featuring an operatic rarity: onstage oral sex. For his second opera, he turned to the arguably more genteel world of Shakespeare with his adaptation of The Tempest, which had its Met premiere in 2012 with Adès conducting. Now this gifted composer—whose work runs the gamut from chamber music to choral pieces to large-scale orchestral works—is back with his third opera, The Exterminating Angel, a Met commission inspired by the surrealist film of the same title by the great Spanish director Luis Buñuel. The story of an aristocratic dinner party from which the guests inexplicably cannot leave (and which gradually descends into chaos, complete with live sheep on stage), The Exterminating Angel was a sensation at its 2016 world premiere in Salzburg, with the New York Times hailing the work as “inventive and audacious … A major event.” Adès spoke with the Met about his gripping new work—and its unlikely parallels to reality TV.
When did you first encounter the film The Exterminating Angel, and what made you want to turn it into an opera?
I first would have seen The Exterminating Angel, along with a lot of other Buñuel films, when I was in my early teens, I expect—I’m sure the BBC had a season of his films. I was immediately drawn to the playful surrealism of it. And actually, it’s ideal for a teenager in some ways because it’s so subtly subversive. It’s quite close to Monty Python. So it was there in the back of my mind for some time—the seed was planted decades ago. Operatic ideas for me are not as frequent as jet planes. They’re quite rare. For something to actually happen, it has to really fertilize.
What made the film a good fit for your artistic sensibility?
I think that the film has a highly tuned sense of the absurd. I mean, it’s on one level a fairy tale, and that’s very good for any composer, especially me. I like that world. It’s also kind of a horror story as well. There are elements of the macabre, the dreamlike, and all of this feeds into music very naturally for me. Also, it feels extremely modern. One of the stars of the film, Silvia Pinal, gave a brilliant interview much later, where she said Buñuel anticipated Big Brother, reality TV, and that is completely right. It’s exactly the same thing—this group of people randomly brought together and not leaving a room for absolutely no reason. And we watch it. In these Big Brother shows, they always deteriorate spectacularly as the weeks grind down. Buñuel saw that coming. And I think he also saw that we, as a human race, would want to watch this.
How would you characterize your musical language for this piece?
Well, it is difficult to describe one’s own music. It’s a little like trying to describe your own face. All the characters on the stage think they’re at an elegant party, so the music needs to allow them to enjoy the party. There are waltzes, there’s melody. There should be a feeling of elegance—it’s supposed to be glittering. But at the same time, the audience has a sense that they’ve entered a kind of vortex of horror, without knowing it, so the music also has these undertows and distortions. It should be enjoyable but also disconcerting. There’s a lot of variety in the orchestral music, and also unusual instruments that aren’t a part of the normal orchestral lineup—the ondes Martenot, which is an early electronic instrument, has a solo role. There’s a guitar part. Then you have miniature children’s-sized violins that have to be played at one point to create this kind of eerie elf sound. In the percussion, you have a door that gets slammed. Occasionally, you have gunfire.
The opera was a sensation at the Salzburg premiere. Some of the words used to describe it were “audacious,” “inventive,” and “explosive.” Does that sound about right to you?
Well, this opera lived for so many years only inside my head and on scraps of paper. The moment when something that is completely created in your mind becomes a thing that other people hear is always a very strange, exciting, but weird moment. So, what I’m glad about is when people have gone into the opera as one person and come out as a different person. If that happens, I think it shows that I have done my job.