Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac
Paris, France
Until 5 January 2019


No opera / no director / no set designer / no traditional characters / but / dramaturgy-tragedy with mobile sounds that/ read discover / empty fill up space. Luigi Nono

Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac presents Prometheus, A Tragedy about Listening, an exhibition retracing one of the most important cross-disciplinary collaborations of the latter part of the 20thth century. Including ephemera, letters, musical scores, archival materials and models, the exhibition provides precious insight into the making of the project and underlines its collaborative aspect.

Prometeo, Tragedia dell’ascolto [Prometheus, A Tragedy about Listening] is an opera composed by Luigi Nono, with a libretto by philosopher Massimo Cacciari, based on a selection of texts referencing the myth of Prometheus, the Greek hero who rebelled against the Gods.

Prometeo is radically different from any other opera performance in that it challenges preconceived assumptions of what music “ought” to be. It premiered on 25 September 1984 in the secularized Church of San Lorenzo in Venice under the conduction of Claudio Abbado. Renzo Piano designed the wooden structure built in the church and Emilio Vedova participated in the elaboration of the light installations.

Nono began to work on Prometeo in the mid-1970s, amidst ideological struggles and failed revolutions around the world. A pioneer of experimental electronic music, he conceived his piece as a pure experience of sound in accordance with his concept known as spazio sentito [space heard]. The completion of the project ten years later reflects the artistic effervescence of Venice in the 1980s.

In a short note to architect Renzo Piano dated 6 December 1983, Nono wrote: “No opera/ no director/ no set designer/ no traditional characters/ but/ dramaturgy-tragedy with mobile sounds that/ read discover/ empty fill up space.” Based on those indications, Piano designed a wooden auditorium that would represent a musical space within the church. The expertise of a violinmaker combined with shipbuilding construction techniques made the creation of this large soundbox possible. The project revolutionised the concept of a traditional concert hall, as the audience (up to 400 people) would be seated at the centre, while musicians were to stand around at various heights. Live electronics were designed at the German radio SWR’s Heinrich-Strobel-Stiftung experimental studio, as was the acoustic infrastructure for “the Structure”. The orchestra had to move during the performance, walking on stairs and along walkways as if on a ship deck, while Claudio Abbado conducted with the help of a monitor. In a radically new form, it recalls the musical tradition of 16th- and 17th-century Venice, in which several groups of singers were positioned in specific places inside a church to create striking sound effects.

The stage design was considerably reduced over the creative process: no stage, no characters, no costumes, no set. The drawings presented in the exhibition show the few elements originally planned by Emilio Vedova, yet never realised. Vedova’s intervention consisted of the elaboration of light installations that would accompany soundwaves and enhance the overall experience. His project for Prometeo recalls the immersive installation he produced for Expo ’67 in Montreal, where he positioned coloured glass slabs before projectors to create beams of light that would bisect the space. Visually bare, Prometeo is also deprived of any type of classical narration. Loosely based on Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, Cacciari’s libretto combines texts by Rainer Maria Rilke, Friedrich Nietzsche and Walter Benjamin, amongst others.

Prometeo was performed in a revised version in 1985 at La Scala, Milan, and was introduced to the French public in 1987 during the Festival d’Automne. It is today considered one of the major musical achievements of the 20th century.

This exhibition has been made possible thanks to generous loans from Fondazione Archivio Luigi Nono, Fondazione Renzo Piano and Fondazione Emilio e Annabianca Vedova.

Preparation of Prometheus. A Tragedy about Listening, Venice, 1984,
Claudio Abbado, Massimo Cacciari, Emilio Vedova, Renzo Piano
Photo : Graziano Arici