It is sometimes claimed that there is a fine line between sanity and madness, between reality and dreams. But when you throw yourself into the art of Salvador Dalí, and especially into his incredible but rarely known opera-poem Être Dieu – or Être Dieu: opéra-poème, audiovisuel et cathare en six parties (Being God: an audiovisual and cathare opera-poem in six parts) to give it its full title – you begin to see just how all-encompassing that space really is. Être Dieu is a piece of surrealist theatre literature with music by French avant-garde composer Igor Wakhévitch in which the world is recreated by Dalí into a place where disorder, madness, perversion and illogic reign. It’s a place where all the elements of a once familiar world are rearranged into a new, sometimes alluring, sometimes terrifying, sometimes comical absurdity.
There is certainly a story to Être Dieu, just as there is a story to most dreams, and to most madness. But it doesn’t have a linear, logical narrative and that, really, is its point. There is Dalí creating the world but becoming bored with it; there is Brigitte Bardot dressed as an artichoke; there is Catherine the Great and Marilyn Monroe doing a striptease; there is Mao ruling the world from a united China and USA; there’s a Divine Dalí, an androgynous male Dalí and an androgynous female Dalí; there’s an angel destroying millions of religious paintings; there’s Santa Claus as a beggar and Niagara Falls invading the Vatican and the cardinals turning into sea fish.
The music of Être Dieu very much fits with all of this. Everything is thrown into the mix – banal tunes from musicals, electronic noise punctuated with improvised percussion, operatic melodrama, rock riffs, Gregorian chant: everything displaced and disconnected but then replaced and reconnected into the new world of Dalí’s dreams, delusions and designs.
You have to really immerse yourself in Être Dieu – much of it is spoken word, and much of that by Dalí himself, and almost all of it in French, with the music integrating itself into the world created by the poetry. It helps to follow the words, and their translation, but then it helps even more to then let them wash into you, whatever they say and mean.
The music, like the poetry, shifts into every corner of imagined reality, moving from era to era, a collage of Western music, scrambled and delivered to you on an oddly shaped platter by a waiter who looks like an orchestra conductor one minute, a rock lead the next, and an eccentric avant-garde experimentalist the next after that. And you haven’t even finished the entrée yet.
Être Dieu has never been staged. In a sense, it never could be because its theatre is really in the mind rather than on the stage and yet, in another sense, that is exactly what would make it so sensational, so fascinating, to see – that special, amazing privilege of glimpsing into a mind not fettered by the strictures of logic or reason or sense and yet still somehow connecting with something that each of us can relate to, even hold onto.
To create a musical expression of Dalí’s creation is an amazing feat. Igor Wakhévitch achieves it here, remarkably. The job was first offered to Krzysztof Penderecki, who knocked it back. I suspect he probably wouldn’t have captured the spirit, the mish-mashed mind, of Dalí in the way that Wakhévitch has – the kaleidoscope of concepts, the smorgasbord of styles, the surrealism of the senses. And all of it feeling, even when it's banal and trivial, that something great is happening. Just as dreams do.
The whole thing goes for about 145 minutes. It is spread over three CDs or, if you are lucky enough to be able to get you hands on a copy of the original, three LPs. But that’s a short stretch of time in which to capture so well, to crystallize so perfectly, the bold, bizarre, barmy world of Salvador Dalí – a world which, thanks to Être Dieu, we can see is a whole lot bigger than what the sane and the rational would have us believe.