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Sunday, 29 November 2020 23:20

The unseen demands of playing Voltaire

Robert McDougall as Voltaire, waiting to be ‘alone’ in the garden with Émilie—but in reality he’ll be surrounded by at least five of the film crew! How do actors do it?

From my filming diary: ‘The idea of these shots is to get Rob & Julie in happy, busy moments together. A lot of the smoothness of filming is to do with the talk in between takes. For the actors to be happy they also need to be interested and able to laugh. And they seem to like to listen, too, rather than engaging themselves. Nick is good in these situations because when he chats to them he’s not giving direction at all—that’s Beth’s job. He keeps it light and good-humoured.'

Later, in the library: ‘Rob spends a lot of time sitting on the corner of the desk. He seems to like it there :). Probably helps in giving a natural look … Rob and Julie, now left alone, are discussing the coming exchange together.’

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Sunday, 29 November 2020 03:53

Opera filming 1.01: words

These people and this film equipment are at Lindesay House on Day One for the sole reason that the composer and I wanted our music and words on film. I have total confidence in his music—but when it comes to the words, I realise they are under absolutely pitiless scrutiny. And the scrutiny is mine, because composer and everyone else have their own tough job to do.

As I hear the same phrases from the speaker, time after time after time after time for each shot, I feel the very bones of the work are relentlessly laid bare. Every word—every syllable—counts. If there were a phrase that expressed nothing about the character pronouncing it, or sought no response from another in exchange, or were unreasonably difficult to sing, there would be a fracture in the body of this work that would take prodigies of effort by other people to repair. Words matter. The very concept of this concept film was first given in words!

When shooting is over on Day Three, my fathomless sense of responsibility for those words is matched only by my awe of the artists and technicians who have made them live and breathe. I must simply thank Thalia, the muse of drama, for making me work so hard on the libretto of Émilie & Voltaire.

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Brendan de la Hay, designer for the concept film, looked after (and in some cases supplied) the costumes and ‘dressed’ the sets. Here are some thoughts about costume from different moments in my diary.

First, the dress in the opening scenes: 'Julie’s dress, being a pearly colour with open floral pattern (‘parsemée de fleurs!’) in pinks and light greens (+ pink trim at bosom) is not unlike the dress in the supposed portrait of É that we used in the brochure. Funny how things cluster together.'

Later: 'Brendan and Nick showed me a lovely night-dress combination & wondered if Émilie could be wandering around in it, with Voltaire—I said sure. Reminded them of that servant of V’s who published a risqué memoir in which he claimed he’d seen É stark naked ‘comme une statue de marbre’. Probably a lie but people believed it at the time … Why not give ourselves that freedom? It gives lovely variety to the film …

Later again: 'Julie is standing near the end of the sofa in a lovely pink nightie waiting to shoot outside and upset with Nick that they’ll be shooting in the heat of the day. The cranked-up music is deafening! Last shot for Rob. Doing it once more. After a certain amount of discussion about time.'

'Lovely' was obviously my word of the day! You can see that Julie was all smiles for the very sunny shoot in the garden.

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Thursday, 26 November 2020 23:15

Creating a character--a film diary

This week has been filming 1.01 for me. I've learned about the creative collaboration of actor and director, and how the energy of each person goes into the characterisation. Here are some direct quotes from my diary about the creation of Emilie by Julie Lea Goodwin and director Beth Daly.

'They just shot the last few lines of the film on the lawn, in full sunshine. A cluster of figures (and parasols) around the camera and Julie alone on the lawn. Starts with profile towards camera then walks down the garden, followed by camera. Turns slowly and spreads her arms, then delivers the line that brings tears to my eyes every time I hear it--and it did the same to me today even though I was about 30 metres away and the sound was coming from a handheld computer (Kailesh Reitmans). Wow ... Julie looks quite anguished doing the last aria. Real feeling. Beth got as much drama as poss into it and seems to have hit all the right spots.'

The photo shows Beth and Julie together, working up to a scene in the library.

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As the librettist on set I was a mere observer, fascinated to see how a film is shot. Here in the parterre garden at handsome Lindesay House in Darling Point, Sydney, I caught this moment after the camera had been following Émilie around the pebbled pathways as she sang her final aria. Here, as the sequence is played back on the tiny monitor, we see best boy Nathan Niguidila, focus puller Cayla Blanch, composer/executive producer Nicholas Gentile, director Beth Daly (partly obscured), and Émilie herself, Julie Lea Goodwin. In the background on the left is director of picture Aravind Shanavaz and assistant gaffer Steffanie Watson.

Starring with Julie Lea Goodwin in this short film are Rob McDougall as Voltaire and John Longmuir as Maupertuis.

I was overwhelmed by everyone's commitment. Working tirelessly alongside these troupers were producer Demi Louise, production designer Brendan de la Hay, second assistant director Britannie Shipway, gaffer Rupan Poudel, Hair and makeup team Nicola Beverly, Alysha Maree and Renee Matis, sound designer Kailesh Reitmans and stills photographer Reswin Bahas.

In the following blogs I'll share with you some of my notes from those three intense and momentous days.

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Friday, 20 November 2020 22:38

Julie Lea is Émilie

A joyful day for me: I can share our delight that the wondrously gifted Julie Lea Goodwin embodies Émilie in the concept film Émilie & Voltaire, shooting next week! I've just been replaying her new recording of Émilie's final aria in the film--heart-rendingly beautiful. To introduce the character whom Julie portrays so seamlessly, here is an extract from my notes on the libretto.

In 1733, at the age of 27, the brilliant and beautiful Émilie du Châtelet met Voltaire—at the opera—and they became lovers. She was studying hard in mathematics and physics, and Voltaire paid for her to be tutored by a friend: Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis, one of the foremost geometers in Europe. In 1734, disaster struck—a warrant was issued by King Louis XV for Voltaire’s arrest for the publication of a banned book, and he had to go into hiding. He might have fled abroad but instead Émilie offered him secret refuge at Cirey, the Châtelet mansion in the Champagne.

Voltaire decided to renovate Cirey at his own expense. He built a new wing on the building with funds that he politely designated as a ‘loan’ to the Marquis du Châtelet and got government and church permission to live as a ‘guest’ at Cirey, where he begged Émilie to join him. When she did so in June 1735, she wrote, ‘I’ve given up everything to live with the only person who has ever filled my heart and my mind.’

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Friday, 20 November 2020 02:15

Rob McDougall, the voice of Voltaire

Composer Nicholas Gentile and I are thrilled that the amazing Robert McDougall brings his deeply expressive voice to the role of Voltaire in the concept film of Émilie & Voltaire, which is being shot next week! Voltaire was a beloved and highly experienced man of the theatre, and loved to act out the parts that he wrote for tragedy and comedy on the French stage, to give the actors ideas about interpreting his characters. I think we can be sure his voice was pleasing, flexible and full of expression. He was a passionate and amusing man and his emotions were intense. There is a warmth and depth of feeling in Rob's voice that to me bring the essence of Voltaire into this drama. Here's an extract from my character notes, prepared just after I finished writing the opera libretto in 2018.

Most people recognise Voltaire’s name today and know what he stood for—freedom of speech, tolerance, compassion and social justice. In the early eighteenth-century such notions were seen as subversive, and few of his books got past the royal Censor. Born François-Marie Arouet, he gave himself a fictitious aristocratic surname, ‘de Voltaire’ and became one of the most entertaining, moving and amusing writers of his time. He believed that knowledge and reason should lead people at all levels of society to uphold human rights, and that’s what made him a key figure of the Enlightenment—and a thorn in the side of the government.

When Voltaire met the brilliant and beautiful Émilie du Châtelet in 1733, she became his scientific inspiration. From Cirey, her country mansion where they both lived, Voltaire wrote to a friend: ‘I divide my time between learning about nature and studying history. Twenty-five years are quite long enough to devote to poetry; and to all those who’ve dedicated their springtime to that difficult and delightful art, I recommend that they consecrate the autumn and the winter of their lives to simpler things, which are no less seductive, and which it’s shameful not to know.’ Of course he continued to write superlative plays, poetry and fiction (such as Candide) to the end of his days, but his pursuit of universal truths was genuine.

Theirs was a ‘marriage’ of minds, but there were differences between them. She was a grand lady; he was bourgeois. The riches and luxuries that he lavished on her derived not from noble landholdings but from vulgar commerce. She was a lovely woman in the prime of life; at 44 he was twelve years older than her. And he could not forget the way she had delayed coming to Cirey for an entire year. In Paris and at Versailles she gambled at cards, attended the opera with friends and spent time with her mathematics tutor, Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis. In a typical spirit of self-ridicule, Voltaire wrote to a friend, ‘I wait for her with the patience of a cuckold.’

In 1738, with the sudden appearance of Maupertuis at Cirey, it is natural for Voltaire to feel again the fears, misery and jealousy that assailed him during that long year when he lived and worked there alone, waiting for Émilie.

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Saturday, 14 November 2020 21:17

Voltaire to Willem ’s Gravesande, 1737

Voltaire is back at Cirey—what a relief for Émilie! Ah, but can their troubles really be over? Here, Voltaire is struggling to quash fake news following his association with ‘s Gravesande and other Dutch physicists. I usually give you extracts from his correspondence—but this is the whole urgent letter.

You remember, monsieur, the absurd calumny that was going the rounds during my stay in Holland. You know whether our supposed debates over Spinoza and matters of religion have the slightest foundation in fact. You were so indignant about this lie that you deigned to refute it in public: but the calumny has penetrated as far as the court of France, and your refutation has not. Evil has wings, while the good moves at tortoise pace. You wouldn’t believe how people have blackened my reputation to Cardinal de Fleury [the Chancellor] on paper and in person. Everything I possess is in France and I’m forced into demolishing a falsehood that in your country I would be content to despise, just as you have.

Please, beloved and respected philosopher, I beg you to instantly help me make the truth known. I haven’t yet written to the cardinal in my own justification. Nothing can be more humiliating than the position of a man who has to argue his own case; but he plays a fine role who takes up the defence of an innocent man. That worthy role is yours, and I suggest it to you as a man who has a heart worthy of his head. Write to the cardinal: I assure you that two words from you, and your name, will do a great deal—he will believe a man whose custom it is to demonstrate truths. I thank you and I will always remember those that you’ve taught me.

I have only one regret: that I can no longer study under you. However, while I cannot hear you, at least I can read you. Love and truth led me to Leyden; friendship alone tore me away. Wherever I am, I shall always retain the most tender attachment to you, and the most perfect esteem.

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We will soon be shooting the concept film of our opera Émilie & Voltaire. Over the next three weeks I’d like to give you a glance at my character notes, beginning with the brilliant characterisation of Maupertuis by tenor John Longmuir. His magnificent voice and his gift for passionate operatic roles make him the perfect Maupertuis for the concept film.

1736-7 was the time of Maupertuis’s great expedition, when he became famous in France and throughout the scientific world as ‘the man who flattened the Earth’. He led a team beyond the Arctic Circle, under royal commission, to prove Isaac Newton’s theory that the Earth is relatively flatter at the Poles. In a letter to Émilie, he explained that when measuring the surface of an icy river, he drank cognac, because it was the only liquid that didn’t freeze!

Maupertuis is energetic, decisive, and dedicated to science for its own sake. He’s on a bit of a high when he arrives at Cirey, Émilie’s country mansion. As a member of the French Academy of Sciences, he knows the results of an essay competition that Voltaire and Émilie both entered—and he also knows Émilie’s secret before Voltaire hears of it.

He claims to be a great mate of Voltaire. And how does he feel about Émilie? When she was in Paris, they had a brief affair, but he didn’t let it become too intense because he knew she was extremely demanding. When she chose Voltaire over him, he thought the dangerous dalliance was over. But she has been begging him to visit Cirey—there’s just a chance that she’s tired of living with Voltaire in rural solitude!

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