Antonio Bibalo: Drama and Music

Mama Bibalo was a determined lady. She wanted a pianist in the family and her choice fell on little Antonio. He hated piano lessons and avoided them as often as he could. Nevertheless, he won first prizes and achieved the highest grades, and the critics forecast a brilliant solo career.

Antonio Bibalo

He didn't actually see very much of his resolute mother as a child. Antonio Bibalo was born in Trieste in 1922 to a family where fiery temperamental exchanges between the generations qere commonplace and daily life was hardly more stable than Trieste's own history. Two sets of grandparents were the fixed points in his life. And his music lessons, which could gradually be called studies and which he luckily found more enjoyable with time. Toro piano concertos, a suite and several sonatas bear witness to that.

But Antonio Bibalo really wanted to study composition. Composition was his second subject at the Verdi Conservatory and, at a later stage, Elisabeth Lutyens in London made a decisive contribution to his creative career. Under her influence, he developed qualities that have made him an innovative, creative composer who also knows how to utilise tradition. As a student in the 1950s, he already aroused international attention.

Before getting this far, however, his youthful years had been anything but ordinary. He was seventeen when World War II broke out, and a year later he was a soldier in Mussolini's army. He didn't like the life and deserted twice. The second time he was taken prisoner by the German army and faced an ultimatum: a German uniform or a bullet in the chest. We know that the boy didn't choose the latter alternative, but the life he opted for took a new turn that he doesn't look back upon with undivided joy. He was forced to fight on the German side at the battle of Monte Cassino in 1944 and ended up as a prisoner of war in the USA.

Back in post-roar Trieste, he was unemployed, broke and constantly hungry. He played in bars and cafes and dreamed of studying composition in France. He didn't have a passport, so one fine day he set off on foot, arrived in Marseilles and joined a food queue. Only it wasn't a food queue but a queue in front of the Foreign Legion recruitment office! That's how he became a legionnaire in Oran, where they soon discovered his talents and he ended up playing background music in the officers' mess and teaching piano to the officers' wives. Having contracted a lung complaint, he was demobilised with a small pension. A long detour via Sydney as cruise pianist led him to London and Elisabeth Lutyens. He could finally start studying composition in earnest.

Arriving in Norway in 1957, he settled down on the rocky headlands outside Larvik on the Oslo Fjord with his Danish sculptress wife, Grethe, rapidly soaked up impressions of Norwegian and Scandinavian culture, and began to make his mark on the international scene as a musical dramatist. His Henry Miller-based opera The Smile at the Foot of the Ladder (1962) and later the ballet Pinocchio (1968) were first produced in Hamburg. For the Danish National Opera he wrote Frøken Julie (1975), based on Strindberg's play. Earlier in the 1970s, he had composed two ballets for television, Nocturne for Apollo and Flammen (The Flame), the latter inspired by the play Anne Pedersdotter. The opera Ghosts, based on Ibsen's play, had its first performance in Kiel in 1981 and the great climax of Antonio Bibalo's career in musical drama came with Macbeth, based on Shakespeare's play, commissioned by and first performed at the Norwegian National Opera in 1990. With great artistic courage, in this opera he renews the operatic form itself, breaks down the barriers between the theatrical and the musical and creates a direct musical-dramatic expression. Antonio Bibalo has played himself definitively among our most prominent musical dramatists and many people in the theatre world are impressed, not least by his ability to adapt the texts of major dramatists for the opera.

Translation: Virginia Siger ©
Printed in the music magazine Listen to Norway, Vol.3 - 1995 No. 2
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