*The idea for Il Killer di parole (The killer of words) sprang out a conversation that Claudio Ambrosini had some years ago with Daniel Pennac – the two are old friends – in which the writer was musing over the difficulty of translating certain expressions typical of one language into another. From here the conversation moved on to a discussion of individual vocabulary items, whereupon Pennac offered an account of a curious figure (true or the fruit of his imagination is not to be known) who was formally charged with removing from the standard dictionary a word that had fallen into disuse every time that there was a need to make way for a new entry such as “paparazzo” or “télécopie” (the ingenious French translation of the term “fax”). A “word-sweeper”, in other words, whose official responsibility was to maintain at more or less the same level the overall number of lexical items included in the dictionary.
It immediately struck Ambrosini that this was the character that he had been searching for for years – a figure to insert into the framework of a more general problem that had intrigued him right from the time that, as a student of foreign languages at Ca’ Foscari, he had been interested in the origins and anthropology of language: the progressive disappearance of languages from the world. It is not only animals and landscapes that risk total destruction, or extinction, but also languages, the infinite variety of phonemes, constructions and expressions that mankind has been able to create over the millennia.
Languages, language itself, is a collective masterpiece created by humanity, a patrimony of inestimable value that is being pared down day after day: a certain, small number of languages become dominant with the result that, after extending their reach throughout the globe, they provoke the demise of hundreds of others - especially those of peoples who have developed only an oral culture – of which, following upon the death of the “last speaker”, no trace remains.
The opera, structured in two acts, is a “playdrama”, a neologism with which Ambrosini and Pennac wish to denote a progression that, after a playful beginning - in opera buffa style - gradually acquires tension, assuming shades that become more and more sinister. The action revolves around the experiences of a “killer”, a man who is himself sensitive and refined but who is married to a woman far more pragmatic than poetic, a woman who is convinced that numbers – and not words – are the real engine of the world. The couple have a son, who, in Act II, reveals himself to be a fervent champion of humanitarian causes – the outcomes of which, however, leave a little to be desired. Around these central characters circulate a wide range of other figures, from people of a quite realistic nature (like a colleague, a journalist, a photographer) to other surreal or imaginary ones (like the killed word, the last coastal speakers, the last cave speakers, the last speakers of the oases, of the peaks, of the flatlands, of the falls…).
Corresponding to each one of these groups, and their respective languages, is a strange “sonoric world”, marked by an innovative and extraordinarily coloured orchestration, by now a familiar trademark of this Venetian composer.
*Reprinted by kind permission of the Press Office of the Teatro La Fenice