“Disloyalty is something we will not tolerate.”

How the artists’s collective La Fura dels Baus developed from Catalan street theater into a global cultural benchmark

What processes, what pent-up energy, what motivations fuel artists’ collectives? In fact, isn’t the concept of an artists’ collective an oxymoron, given that the traditional image of the artist is that of the genius who walks alone? The Furistas, Spain’s passionate theater-makers, subscribe to that definition, yet over the past few years, they have concentrated increasingly on opera – the very genre considered to be the last bulwark of the bourgeois establishment. But the ‘family business’ the Furistas represent has no time for such clichés even though, for them, music is the highest art form of them all. The ties that have bound this ‘family,’ with its origins in the theater of street brawls, for over thirty years remain a unique experiment in the art world – and perhaps one of its best-kept secrets. Carlus Padrissa, one of the creative forces behind the Furistas, offers a rare insight.

IT’S A TYPICAL, swelteringly hot July day in the Catalonian town of Peralada. “Water?” asks Carlus Padrissa, quite unnecessarily. Apart from his brown exercise sandals, he is – as befits a purist – dressed entirely in black. He reaches for the water bottle and, in theatrical slow motion, empties it over his bald head, for all the world as if this were a solemn baptism. Perhaps, though, the gesture is more like the showman’s prologue to a dazzling self-dramatization. Then again, it could be just the primitive reflex of a hot and thirsty man. Or it could be all of these things and more: With his head bowed, his eyes half-closed and his mouth half-open, the sighing figure of Padrissa could well have stepped straight out of the pages of a Greek tragedy or an avant-garde mystery play.

Here we are, then, with the master craftsman and spiritus rector of La Fura dels Baus; or, as Padrissa might put it, estamos aquí. The setting is a modest sports hall next door to the renowned late medieval Peralada Castle, the voices of singers and actors from across the world ringing in our ears. Yet regardless of the language being spoken or sung, it is immediately obvious that wherever Carlus Padrissa is in charge, communication is channeled through images as well as through the exhilaration of music in a multi-media, cross-disciplinary blend. So, before everything gets turned upside down, jumbled up and made into something new, and while we still have control over our senses, let’s set the scene. There are just a few days to go until the premiere of Orpheus and Eurydice, with the Georgian mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili, who is singing one of the title roles, having to compete for attention with the cutting-edge interactive multi-media technology used in the production – not to mention the storks nesting in the castle’s ancient walls. People attending one of La Fura dels Baus’s performances are no ordinary opera-goers; they are pilgrims to the domain of the Furistas, and where the Furistas are, there is always a promise of spectacle.

In fact, Peralada is itself has become a place of pilgrimage, with its castle hosting an international music festival from mid-July to mid-August each year. The festival is the acknowledged climax of Spain’s summer cultural offering. But the involvement of La Fura dels Baus has lent this embodiment of Spanish – or, to be more accurate, Catalan – culture iconic status.

So who exactly are the Furistas? Since the late 1970s, the group has been behaving like a fractious but inseparable family, occupying the streets first of Barcelona and then of the rest of Spain and conquering its theaters before going on, with unstoppable momentum, to storm the bastions of European and international theater and opera. And not just that: over the years, they have also managed to turn our definition of ‘culture’ upside down. Thirty years ago, no-one could have imagined that these street-brawlers would one day conquer the Bavarian Staatsoper – perhaps the ultimate stronghold of bourgeois opera-going culture. Yet that, in December 2011, is where Padrissa will be producing Turandot under the musical direction of Zubin Mehta.

Mehta and Padrissa are, in fact, an established partnership. To huge public acclaim, they collaborated on the Ring of the Nibelung for Valencia’s new opera house, the first Spanish production of the Ring cycle for many years. The production – a light-footed and modern take on the world of classical music as a cross between Star Wars and Harry Potter – was the result of Padrissa’s intensive reflection on Wagner’s universe. Observers testify to the iron discipline with which he approaches works but also to the benevolent paternal authority with which he directs his team. Is this combination perhaps part of the secret of his success? Be that as it may, the Furistas have come a long way on their journey from the dusty streets of Catalonia to the cultural Mount Olympus they occupy today.

A family without parents

Their story has little of the divine about it, though. It all began in a tiny, one-horse town in Catalonia, near Barcelona, with the melodious name of Moià. A dried-up river-bed ran through it, every bit as useless as the old donkey the mad street theater boys were offered as local transport. “To start with, there were just five of us, but once we got our VW bus, that grew to nine.” Why nine? They couldn’t get more on the bus.

Thirty-three years later, the glue that holds this small dramatic clan together is as strong as ever. “We are a creative collective, a family, and each member has his own part to play,” says Padrissa. But it would be quite wrong to see the group as a cozy nuclear family. Quite the opposite, in fact: Carlus Padrissa tells us they feel more like a bunch of orphaned brothers and sisters, a little lost and, perhaps, a touch neglected, like circus kids who have always known that “together, we are stronger.” And suddenly, the conversation turns to wolves, who can die of fear when isolated but who inspire that same fear from the safety of the pack.

“We are a creative collective, a family, and each member has his own part to play.”

Homo homini lupus: Man is a wolf to his fellow Man. So is Man his own worst enemy? In the 1970s, this toxic philosophy was undoubtedly the life-blood flowing through Spanish society. And who better to have experienced first-hand what that meant than the founders of La Fura dels Baus, who all grew up under Franco? They came of age just as the Generalíssimo died, but the repression a country suffers when it has been suffocated for so long lingered on. So was it just a natural reaction when La Fura dels Baus burst on to the scene, using all their pent-up energy to consolidate freedom? Padrissa recalls their destructive approach to the work they presented: It was all smashed-up cars and actors hanging from meat-hooks. “Repression was a trigger,” he muses, “but drama was just a pretext, really. What we really wanted was adventure, some excitement in our lives.”

Wasn’t this, though, a little over-the-top, just for a bit of fun? “Making theater was also a kind of therapy for us, something we had to do to fight against what the Spanish call vergüenza,” says Padrissa – the word means inhibition, or perhaps prudery.“ And then we wanted to reinvent ourselves.” It goes without saying that large amounts of testosterone were involved, too: The founders of La Fura dels Baus were all angry young men, “so it was really all about physicality, youth, and narcissism – all the things that we’ve now stopped being so obsessed with.”

Even the company’s name is something of a manifesto. “The word Fura is related to ‘furore,’ to the passion of creativity, and that sums up our identity. Fura is something that we all carry inside ourselves, an unbridled part of our ego. Fura means ‘anger,’ and that’s something else we try to do – to release the anger inside ourselves.” The collective still includes six of the original nine angry young men on that VW bus. One of them is Germany’s Jürgen Müller. Inevitably, the nature of the group has changed, but, says Carlus Padrissa, there has been an organic pace to that change. And he has an accessible metaphor for it: “Thirty years ago, we were on peak form. And then we faced what every professional footballer faces. You can play as a forward in your twenties, as a defender till you’re 35, and as a goalkeeper until you turn 40. But from then on, you’re well advised to become a coach. And that’s what we’ve done.” These particular coaches, though, haven’t exactly set the bar low in terms of their creative ambition: They want to “create a Gesamtkunstwerk,” a synthesis of all the arts. Yet while their goal is ambitious, their sense of their own identity is firmly grounded: “We’re flexible and we regard ourselves as learners.”

The creative collective has become a collective of creative individuals. La Fura dels Baus is now the only theater company that has not one but six directors. And those directors operate as a global ‘culture factory,’ with special local productions and local partnerships. Along with Carlus Padrissa and Jürgen Müller, the artistic directors today are Àlex Ollé, Miki Espuma, Pep Gatell and Pera Tantiña. Four out of every five productions are staged abroad, throughout Europe but also in Asia and even in the USA, where audiences for mainstream culture tend to be nervous about sudden outbreaks of primitivism. The huge wave of popularity that La Fura dels Baus is currently riding began with The Damnation of Faust, its production of Berlioz’s setting of part I of Goethe’s Faust. The production won critical acclaim at Salzburg in 1999 and was followed by an equally celebrated production of The Magic Flute for the Recklinghausen Ruhrfestspiele. Then La Fura dels Baus wowed audiences in Valencia with its Ring cycle and staged its acclaimed productions of Carmina Burana, and Stockhausen’s Licht opera cycle. The former anarchist group was turning into a thoroughly professional company. In an interview with the Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia, Jürgen Müller has argued that it is now “a collective of individuals who respect each other more than they did 15 years ago because we are now surer of ourselves. We’ve grown, we’ve had lots of successful partnerships with other artists, but we’ve also given each other the freedom to put on our own individual productions.”

“We are all as hard as nails, and what has kept us together for so long is the freedom to stay together.”

Art is, of course, also part of the economy, as Padrissa bluntly acknowledges: “We’re a family business and we’re constantly on the move.” But what exactly is the place of the individual in this small but globally active artistic concern? Each member is a headstrong character, he says: “We are all as hard as nails, and what has kept us together for so long is the freedom to stay together.”

Freedom, of course, also means committing to the complex discussions and decision-making processes that the group regularly engages in, particularly when the phone rings in manager Rosa’s office or the post brings an invitation to stage a production. Is anyone willing and able to take on a particular challenge? Or do two people want to do it? Then it will be a two- or even three-man project. The only condition is that everyone knows what’s going on, that nothing is done behind the backs of the others, and that everyone is happy with the project.

The discussions around the concept for any particular production are often so long and hard-fought that it is not unusual for them to involve tears. Each member has to express his opinion, even when – especially when – he doesn’t like an idea. The balance between artistic individuality and the group is constantly being recalibrated. Nothing is considered irrelevant and all ideas are articulated, even where the result is chaos. Says Padrissa, “The way we do things reflects a rather anarchistic view of the world.” But on one thing the group is agreed – that music is “the highest of all the arts” and subordinates all other disciplines to itself. And the way the Furistas interact with each other and with members of other groups throughout the world is based firmly on respect: “We start from the principle that every artist is a genius and must be given the opportunity to demonstrate that.”

The boys who founded the group – all now grown men with a wealth of experience – have virtually all known each other since they were six years old, so “We are family” is more than just a cliché here. And their decision not to accept any new members, despite their self-professed openness, is easy to understand. Building a street theater company into an iconic global brand in mainstream cultural life is a unique achievement. But while individual freedom remains essential, there is one vital condition without which the group’s usually impeccable teamwork would break down, and that is loyalty to the group – to the family: “Disloyalty is something we will not tolerate.”

RESUMÉ Carlus Padrissa

The street theater company La Fura dels Baus was founded in 1979 and includes three members who have been friends since childhood. Carlus Padrissa was from the outset, and remains, one of its leading figures, despite the group’s collective nature in which everyone has equal status. Roughly translated from Catalan, La Fura dels Baus means ‘the sewer rats.’ The name recalls Dada, the Bauhaus and Pina Bausch, resonances that the members of the group – known as the Furistas – are entirely happy with. In over three decades of shared project work, the group has grown into something akin to a family. Its members jointly discuss all new productions, working through emotions and rivalries. The group’s language is uncompromising and direct: There is no beating about the bush. And everything is negotiable bar one thing: Each individual must be absolutely loyal to the group.

PHOTOS: MICHAEL HUDLER