Messiaen and Saariaho: Operatic Underdogs Portraying God Through Chorus

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Tom Service’s interview with Kaija Saariaho reveals where the composer found the inspiration and courage to compose an opera, stating “I don’t feel like an operatic composer” (13), but “it was the same with Messiaen’s opera [St. François d’Assise] which gave me confidence to write my first opera, L’Amour de loin” (8). Likewise, Siglind Bruhn writes in book Messiaen’s Interpretations of Holiness and Trinity that Messiaen believed he would never compose an opera, and initially refused a commission for François d’Assise  in 1971 from Rolf Liebermann, manager of the Paris Opera. After some extra convincing from French president Pompidou, Messiaen reluctantly accepted the commission. Messiaen was a devout Catholic, and reportedly felt unfit to compose a dramatic work honoring such an important Catholic figure as St. Francis. Saariaho, also being somewhat insecure in her own compositional abilities, seemed to figure that if Messiaen can compose an opera and have it be so well-received, why couldn’t she? Both composers were operatic underdogs, convinced they would never be capable of such success in the opera world, and were subsequently and pleasantly proven wrong. There is one more obvious connection between these two works, however: both Saariaho and Messiaen portray the voice of god through a mixed-gender chorus. At the endings of both L’Amour de loin and François d’Assise, god is a faceless entity handing down his absolute authority to a protagonist from above, via the collective voices of the opera chorus.

Initially, it was difficult for me to make a connection between L’Amour de loin and François d’Assise more nuanced than their shared mentions of the Christian god. I thought of a handful of superficial connections, such as the fact that both operas tend to focus on three main protagonists. In L’Amour de loin we find a male protagonist, a female protagonist, and a messenger who passes between them. François d’Assise seems to focus on St. Francis, God, and the Angel figure. I could not hear many similarities in compositional style – Messiaen utilizes loud dynamics placed on highly dissonant and “crunchy-sounding” chords whose rhythms I can only describe as abrupt and banging, while Saariaho employs a drone and an abundance of legato on similarly “crunchy” clusters of dissonances. A choice of similar sonorities does not seem to convey any connection more specific than two contemporaries operating within postmodernist aesthetics. The one striking connection is the role of god in the final scenes of both operas. In L’Amour de loin we find Clémence criticizing  god’s choice to let Jaufré die. God chastises her for being ungrateful and questioning him. Clémence concedes, and vows to devote herself to him for the rest of her life, as the only other being worthy of her adoration (Jaufré) has died. In and François d’Assise, St. Francis praises god as he dies, and god responds with a description of who is and is not worthy of heaven: “Many long for my heavenly kingdom…few are willing to bear my Cross…if you are more than willing to bear the Cross, it will carry you itself and lead you to the chosen end.” We can safely assume that Francis is accepted into heaven.

In both works, the voice of god is portrayed by the chorus. Having many voices depict one deity not only creates a divine echoing effect, but emphasizes his power and authority since the more voices there are, the louder the unified voice it creates seems in comparison to the soloist. The use of chorus to portray a divine being’s voice is not new in opera, but I am curious as to why Saariaho did not make a more postmodern choice. Considering her work with electronics, it would have been interesting to see the authority and superiority of god communicated through the use of electronic instruments.




Bruhn, Siglind. Messiaen’s Interpretations of Holiness and Trinity. Hillsdale, NY: Pendragon Press, 2008.

Howell, Tim, Jon Hargreaves, Michael Rofe, Eds. Kaija Saariaho: Visions, Narratives, Dialogues. Surrey: Ashgate, 2011.

Messiaen, Olivier. Saint François D’Assise. Directed by Pierre Audi. Produced by Hans Petri. Conducted by Ingo Metzmacher. Opus Arte, 2009.

Saariaho, Kaija. L’amour de loin.  Directed by Peter Sellars. Produced by Finnish National Opera. Conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. Deutsche Grammophon, 2005.


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