Vanilla Pudding

“VANILLA PUDDING” – Le Blanc-manger


(PDF available)


Concept, libretto and stage directing : MARIE-EVE SIGNEYROLE

Composition : STEFAN HANKE

Dramaturgy : KRYSTIAN LADA

With our special thanks to the Team and Staff of the Aix-en-Provence Festival


A la résidence Beau soleil, le temps est l’ennemi de tous ces voisins attachants que l’âge rassemble.
Petits bonheurs ordinaires, rituels quotidiens, récits du passé ponctuent l’attente d’une visite…

Ca s’est passé un mercredi soir. Ils attendaient, frénétiques, leur hebdomadaire crème à la vanille, quand Vanilla Pudding entra.


Not the numbers and statistics however, but a very personal motivation brought the documentary maker and opera stage director, Marie-Eve Signeyrole, to one of the French retirement houses: her grandmother, having lost her autonomy, was placed there by her children. 9 months that Marie-Eve spent there resulted in a documentary movie script that is inspired both by her personal experiences and the anecdotes and experiences of the residents of this particular retirement home – an amalgam of transcribed dialogues that took place in real life, with enough open space for merging different real characters into fictionalized figures. In the daily existence of the inhabitants, once the visitors have left, or have not even bothered to come, Marie-Eve found a deeply humanistic story. Her script I Fear For You (2013) is a meditation on the desire for intimacy regardless the age and health conditions – the basic need of being comforted by the proximity of the others. Her writing, rooted in the collected documentary materials, goes beyond the factual realm and shapes world wrapped in the scent of the magic realism as known from Gabriel García Márquez’ novels and short stories by Bruno Shulz. It is a universe where one can travel through parallel universes hidden under the bed; a place where the coordinates of time and space become liquid – a Monday can organically transform into a Thursday without any other days between. These are not drugs hallucinations but the actual way in which the sub-society created by the inhabitants of the retirement house perceives the everyday reality.Patters of the walking frames, squeaks of the wheelchairs, inarticulate cries, soliloquies, senseless repetitive conversations for the conversations sake, all that constantly reverberating orchestration of every retirement home inspired Marie-Eve to think of her film script in the context of the music theater realization. Music is often the only tool to evoke the memories of the previous life of the inhabitants. The desire to give to this underexposed generation a penetrating voice was born. Inviting the German composer Stefan Hanke and dramaturge Krystian Lada to collaborate was an organic step on Marie-Eve’s way towards her first opera creation. That’s how our artistic team was created.

The unusual and often confronting take on the generation of our grandparents that the script proposes, led us – members of the generation of 30+ – to rethink our concepts regarding the reality of the retirement houses and their inhabitants. A series of questions of different weights and calibers popped up in our discussions: What challenges do older people face, and what do they like about their age? Do they still fall in love and how their sexual life looks like? How do they experience passing of time? What words of advice on healthy ageing do they have for the younger generations of today? Do they talk about death? Do they still believe in God, even a few minutes before dying? Do they dare to keep having plans for the future? What do we as the society do for them and what could we do better? Where is the space for an exchange of experiences and expertise between the generations in the contemporary culture? Would you place your old mother in a retirement house? Are you afraid of getting old? We discussed the idea of a staging that will allow the audience of our opera to experience the proximity of the senior bodies – before and after the performance.

The documentary material collected by Marie-Eve breathes the air of the retirement house. We ‘listened’ a long time to this pre-existing textual substance with its textures and colors, internal patterns of every day conversations and their complex internal logic; to the characteristics of the elderly people speech and the dynamics of the dialogues. We didn’t find there any traces of a gray collective of living zombies, but a vivid multitude of individuals with their very particular needs, motivations and life styles. Most of the conversations don’t relate to – as one could expect – the (in)glorious collective past of the inhabitants but to their individual perception of their current reality. For instance, in their everyday conversations, they don’t share with each other the heroic memories from World War II but rather the here and now uncertainty whether the vanilla pudding, commonly regarded as the highlight of the retirement house menu, will be served tonight or not. Stretching of time – typical for this kind of establishments – is a consequence of the physical handicaps of the inhabitants that slow down every action. It puts a strong focus on the everyday activities and gives them a somewhat hyperrealistic nature. Opera as an art form, with its unique universe of vocal and instrumental sonorities, offers unlimited possibilities of expression – poetic and luminous, detached from the realm of the spoken word – turning the ordinary daily life of these octogenarians into an extraordinary voyage of discovery. In our perception, it’s not a drama, but rather a poetic and effervescent comedy.

The strength of the libretto of Vanilla Pudding lies in its characters – the point of departure for our work sessions on the opera. Not ridiculous caricatures, neither romanticized archetypes but warm-blooded people, with the breathing flesh and hunting desires, finding the essence in the mindfulness of their everyday activities. Our opera attempts to reveal the life of the retirement house from the perspective of its inhabitants, taking in consideration their thinking and acting logics. The textual material used for the monologues and dialogues is based on the transcriptions of the conversations that took place in real life. The architecture of the piece consists of many short episodes presenting different facets of the personalities of the characters. It leads the spectator from a group of anonymous inhabitants to the clearly shaped and familiar individuals in the last scenes of the opera. The movie editing technique applied to the libretto allows the multiple scenes to take place at the same time and condenses the time needed to present all characters with their complexities. Music reflects the path of the characters’ emotional development.