World Premiere: "Bartleby" Opera in Liège in 2026

Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège: launch of a contemporary Opera in 2026

The Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège is set to experience a landmark event with the launch of a contemporary opera in May 2026. This special commission from Belgian composer Benoît Mernier signifies a pivotal moment in the institution’s programming, embracing new repertoires and artistic practices.

An ambitious project with a renowned team

To bring this ambitious project to life, the Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège has assembled a top-tier team. Composer Benoît Mernier, known for his exceptional vocal composition, teams up with librettist Sylvain Fort, a seasoned expert in opera and literature, and director Vincent Boussard, a regular collaborator with the institution.

Bartleby: a contemporary adaptation of a classic

The opera is inspired by Herman Melville’s short story “Bartleby,” an iconic piece of 19th-century American literature that delves into profound philosophical and political themes. This adaptation allows the Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège to offer its audience a contemporary opera that resonates with today’s concerns.

A strong commitment to creation

For Stefano Pace, General and Artistic Director of the Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège, supporting new works and expanding the operatic repertoire are fundamental to the institution’s mission. This new creation will enhance the attractiveness and position of the Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège in the European operatic landscape.

A highlight of the 2025-2026 Season

In preparation for several months, the creation of “Bartleby” will undoubtedly be one of the highlights of the 2025-2026 season. The Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège invites its audience to discover this ambitious and promising new work.

The creative team

Benoît Mernier, composer

This is my first collaboration with the Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège, and I am delighted that my third opera will be premiered here. It’s also an opportunity to make new artistic encounters.

For me, the appeal of opera as a composer is also that: teamwork. Everyone does their bit to achieve excellence. The people that work on costumes, make-up, lighting, scenery, design, technical and orchestral management, for example, and whose importance is not always appreciated by the public (because you don’t see these people on stage), are vital to the success of a production. Their work is just as decisive as that of the singers, the musicians in the pit, the director… It is this shared dynamic that gives me the energy and the joy of composing an opera.

As for Bartleby, this short story by Melville totally captivated me. What appealed to me was the strangeness of the story and, above all, the fact that Melville proposes an enigma for which no explanation is given. This enigma questions us and sends us back to ourselves. It speaks of empathy, guilt, the question of refusal, the melancholy linked to the feeling of uselessness, the world of work, the gaze of others… Faced with this enigma, we are sent back to ourselves, to our everyday and metaphysical questions. Although the story takes place on Wall Street in the middle of the 19th century, it seems totally current and close to us. We can project ourselves into each of the characters.

For this production, I’m planning a traditional orchestra, with the winds by two or three, a harp, celesta, percussion and strings. The Chorus will have an important and varied role: I imagine it representing in turn a poetic presence, a theatrical presence or an evanescent presence, a sort of aura around the character of Bartleby. Finally, as far as the soloists are concerned, we’ve planned four main roles (soprano, baritone, tenor and bass-baritone), plus a few secondary roles. At the moment, I’m at the beginning of the writing process. So everything remains to be done, even if the plot and the major dramaturgical choices have been made in close consultation with the librettist Sylvain Fort and the director Vincent Boussard. These choices were essentially determined by questions of theatrical effectiveness: how to tell this story as clearly as possible, bring it to life, and leave room for the audience to make their own interpretation. That’s really the challenge we set ourselves: an enigma can only be told effectively in a clear way.

Opera is an art of companionship. My collaboration with Sylvain Fort and Vincent Boussard is ideal in the sense that I can see that we are all pursuing the same objective, with our different sensibilities but all seeking to work together. Our common goal is to make people love the story of Bartleby, to bring it to life today. There’s a mutual listening and understanding between us that’s very reassuring and stimulating!

Sylvain Fort, librettist

I have long been very interested in Melville. I admire his insatiable literary ambition. He legitimately wanted to be read, and perhaps celebrated as a writer, but nothing in his work makes any concessions to public taste. You have to be a bit crazy to write Moby Dick, but more broadly, his entire body of work has a strange, offbeat sensibility, as if he was always looking at the world from an angle, attentive to solitude, to the singularity that sets him apart from the ordinary world. And then there’s all his poetry, historical, patriotic, lyrical, often very strange. For me, he is the father of the whole American literature of the margins, of marginality even. Bartleby is the very example of this literary aesthetic – and it’s astonishing to think that this text dates from the middle of the 19th century, so strong are the resonances with a whole body of modern literature, which is, moreover, necessarily American, whether we think of Kafka, Musil or Beckett.

I take on the role of librettist for the first time: it’s very intimidating and very exciting at the same time. Benoît’s and Vincent’s incomparable artistic experience and their kindness carry me along. I didn’t know them before: it was our mutual friend Camille De Rijck who put us in touch. From the very first working meetings, we agreed on the purpose of this opera, its aesthetic options, and our idea of the libretto. From then on, everything happened in perfect harmony: the exchange of ideas is always in the service of the work, we share the same passion for this joint project and we are equally enthusiastic about the idea of giving birth to a strong and memorable work.

We have chosen to work with a libretto in English. The libretto is not a translation but an adaptation. The aim is to remain faithful to Melville’s language, which is so singular. Nevertheless, Bartleby is not a theatrical text. Its dramaturgy is very linear. The challenge is to create a succession of scenes that give life to a theatrical message, and to do so without betraying the text. Hence all the work on the story and the text itself, twisting it in the direction of a libretto without distorting or caricaturing it. Added to this is the fact that the music is also a narrative instance. So the doors to the composer’s imagination have to be constantly open. To achieve this, the libretto must not be overloaded, and must not be a constraint but rather a musical stimulus. It’s real literary work, which no other type of exercise allows.

Vincent Boussard, director

As a stage director, it is unfortunately rare to have the opportunity to work with contemporary repertoire, and even rarer to create new works. Working with Benoît Mernier (this is the second time, after Frühlings Erwachen created at La Monnaie in 2007) is particularly rewarding and unique because he wanted to involve me from the outset. Every decision affecting the writing, the characters and the dramaturgy in the broadest sense is taken jointly, while respecting the fields of expression of each of us, composer, director and librettist. It’s an organic creative commitment, step by step, which makes each decision implicit and shared; it’s only after several months (or years) of maturation that the rehearsal work will finally begin.

Bartleby will be my third collaboration with the Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège, in a new format. I am particularly grateful to the ORW and its director for taking the preparation and programming of a new work so seriously, giving its production the same opportunities, resources and ambitions as a title from the operatic repertoire. It’s a particularly bold move in the current gloomy climate!

My intention is to stage Bartleby with the clarity of an open language, which makes it possible for everyone, regardless of background, age or social origin, to accept or react to it. The story, which takes place in a Wall Street law firm, seems at first sight to be tinged with realism and invites us to probe the work from a rather psychological angle. But a strictly realistic and psychological approach is a dead end when it comes to capturing the enigmatic side of Bartleby, which is characterised by being ‘unexplained’ and inexplicable. That is its power, and that is Melville’s intention, as he – genially – makes a point of never revealing anything about the reasons that lead Bartleby to pretend not to act as he does. Sylvain Fort’s libretto, based on Melville’s text, makes light of this initial realism, distorting it with alliterations, rhythmic games, cross-references, etc. to assert its burlesque, playful and poetic side. He also chose to make incursions outside the novel in the form of borrowings from Melville’s poetry, offering the character Bartleby a possible interior narrative without in any way initiating the beginning of a psychological explanation. In this way, he opens the way for the composer to write in a playful and poetic way.

The stage dramaturgy will necessarily follow these multiple paths. At this stage of the work, my intuition is that, as much as the exercise, the subject imposes an impactful, limpid and very direct scenic writing, which distances itself from any “enigmatism” or entre-soi of language: the play rests on the unfathomability of a pivotal character (on whom any rational explanation slips), whose very consistency seems to be questioned. Here the enigma is subject, not language. It’s up to a limpid, sensitive and penetrating scenic and musical writing to restore all its singularity and complexity.

The literary source

Bartleby the Scrivener, a short story by Herman Melville published in 1853, features a clerk in a Wall Street law firm who gradually, and without ever justifying it, refuses to work and then to leave his office. The story explores themes of alienation, isolation and passive resistance. Bartleby’s enigmatic behaviour, expressed in his mythical line I would prefer not to, raises questions about human nature and the social condition. Now a classic of American literature, the story has been hailed for its psychological complexity and its commentary on 19th-century urban life. Its main character has become emblematic, embodying a stubborn refusal to accept social conformity. Bartleby the Scrivener remains a powerful, timeless and fascinating work, captivating readers with the unsolved mystery of its hero’s unyielding determination.