“Turn and face the strange”, which we could loosely translate as “turn around and face the unknown”, is not just a line taken from Changes by David Bowie – manifesto of the 2022-2023 season of Emilia Romagna Teatro ERT/Teatro Nazionale – is also what Manuel Agnelli does every time he seems to be taking a safe road, now downhill. From leaving the indie world, in which he was an icon, to goodbyes that often look like goodbyes to X Factor, where he had managed to use the TV while remaining all in all himself, as well as with the Afterhours which, he explained to us, are «a project of artists with a wealth of very different experiences who occasionally get together and do things». And one could go on for a long time scrolling through his biography.
Perhaps also for this attitude, rather than for his notoriety, the director of ERT Valter Malosti, who plays the role of director in this regard, chose him as the protagonist of Lazarus, the opera considered «David Bowie’s farewell gift to the world» which will be staged for the first time in Italy at the Teatro Bonci in Cesena from 22 to 26 March (and again Modena and Bologna to continue on a long tour). . And Agnelli, despite having never worked in the theater as an actor, couldn’t help but accept, just to keep turning around and facing the unknown.
We met him on the sidelines of the presentation conference, and he explained his relationship with Bowie (“which passes through energy”), as well as much else: from the independent scene that today “has become stuff for stamp collectors” to the current music which, unlike Francesco Guccini, he does not consider useless (“his is an old man’s opinion”), passing through Sanremo (“he has returned to representing the music market”) to the relationship with his daughter Emma (“it makes me relive certain experiences, but it is also a trap”), to the point of confessing a crude synthesis of each question: “Whoever wins writes history, even if he is not always right”.
Manuel, during the presentation of the show you said: «It’s the first time I’ve acted in the theatre, whereas in my life I always do it». What did you mean?
It’s a joke, but it’s true that we all happen to play roles in life. From when we go to the bank manager to ask for a mortgage to when we are interrogated at school or we have to charm a girl we like. In these cases we are more or less effective. When instead they tell us what we are forced to interpret, it is much more difficult. Now at 57 I’m used to playing different parts in my life, but in the theater for me it’s yet another sport.
Also with respect to the cinema, which in some way did you attend?
Definitely more difficult than cinema. In the theater it cannot be redone or corrected. It’s even harder than life where, if you’re lucky, sometimes they let you.
There has been talk of how Bowie faced death, that is, sublimating it with art. You with the Afterhours album Folfiri or Folfox, released in 2016, you did something similar inspired by your father’s disappearance. This was also a point of union with Lazarus?
Something that unites us is definitely energy. Bowie was the protagonist of the songs he wrote, while on the record the protagonist is my father, a third person, not me. Surely the desire to experience death, even if it seems a contradiction, is what unites us. That is, not letting yourself be passively crushed by what happens, which is Bowie’s great message. For me it was inevitable, it wasn’t me who died and therefore I had to experience that passage in an obligatory way, however I believe that reactive energy can be our common factor.
In music we have witnessed the near disappearance of the indie scene. Is it good or bad?
Whether it is good or bad is indefinable. It’s good that there are no more fences, but it’s also bad because there are no more filters. Today we can access everything but this has not improved the quality of the music we listen to. Kids have access to a lot of material that I didn’t have access to, but it killed the mystery surrounding certain artists. There are pros and cons. What is better? It’s not for me to say, but certainly for future generations.
On March 13 you turned 57, how does an artist who has reached your maturity deal with this transition?
In the past I have experienced recognizing myself in a social group very well, it helped me to define my personality, what I really wanted and then also to free myself from that social group, that is, independence, when it became a cage with increasingly more restrictive. But I can’t deny that it helped me a lot to develop my personality and my idea of music. At the same time I am sorry that there is no longer an alternative reality to the global market and to a certain type of society. Today there are no longer those who claim to belong to the underground and the current one has become a fashion scene, where it is important to play in a certain way, listen to a certain type of record, which produces silly and stupid contents, especially for a adult. It has turned into stuff for stamp collectors, with all due respect to stamp collectors.
Broadening the discussion, recently Francesco Guccini defined the music he feels today useless rather than ugly. Do you agree?
No, this is an old man’s opinion! From someone who rightly claimed his great epic, because he was great, but who forgets that when punk came along, many adults thought the same thing: disgusting, nonsensical, can’t sing or play. But we came from years of prog, so if you didn’t have incredible technical skills on the instrument you couldn’t play and punk freed up a series of energies. It was necessary, just like today’s music. We may not like it, but it needs to be there.
In 2009 with the Afterhours you participated in Sanremo portanndo The country is real. How much has today’s Festival changed in just over a decade?
It has changed a lot. Today, although it may not express the highest musical quality, it has returned to represent what is happening on the market in Italy. It represents Italian music. Does it suck? But it represents it very well. When it was created it was a song festival, then for years it became a television event, in my opinion failing to achieve its objective and becoming vulgar. Now we may not like what it represents, but it is a photograph. Even if not beautiful, it is and therefore makes sense.
Thanks to your work with them a X Factor and then in Sanremo and at Eurovision the Måneskin exploded all over the world. How do you imagine them in ten years?
Gorgeous thirty year olds…
What about the Afterhours in ten years?
Gorgeous almost seventy-year-olds…
But how can the Afterhours be defined today?
A musical project of artists with a large baggage of very different experiences who occasionally get together and do things that only in this context could they do. From an expressive point of view it is a very lively project. Of course, they are very far from a band of students who live the same experiences 24/7. It hasn’t been like this for us for many years.
It will certainly have been a strong experience collaborating with your daughter Emma, who duetted with you on the song The groom on the cake.
First of all I have to be careful as a father not to live his experiences as if they were mine, but to let him live them directly. There is a border to maintain. It is very inviting to see that my daughter is experiencing some of the experiences that I have had, but paradoxically with more awareness. She makes me relive them too, she refreshes them for me, but it’s also a trap. I don’t want to be the one to direct it and then relive them. She is special to me, being my daughter, but lately I’m very proud that even those who weren’t in my teams a X Factor you are looking for me to collaborate, from Casadilego to gIANMARIA. For me it’s beautiful, it means that, even if they are very young, they have recognized that I can be useful for them to grow.
David Bowie said: “It’s the last thing I want to be safe. I want to go to bed every night saying “if I never wake up again, I can at least say that I have lived alive”. Is this your attitude to the art forms that you try to frequent even risking, most recently the theatre?
Yes, I made music to do what I wanted in life, not to do it in music. For me there is life first and then music. I’m not an artist in this sense. I don’t live for art, I use art for life. But it’s also a heavy deal, because I depend on the artistic forms that are vital to me.
In Lazarus Bowie sings: “Just like the bluebird / Now isn’t he just like me? / Oh, I’ll be free / Just like those little birds / Oh, I’ll be free / Isn’t it just like me?” It’s a bit like Cyrano’s plume. What is your symbol of freedom, if you have one?
I don’t have any, because it would end up becoming a flag and when it does, it turns into a cage. I am against flags. So I don’t want to have any, at least so exhibited.
I close with a Marzullian question, but one that could generate a valid answer for every question: whoever wins is always right, whoever loses is always wrong?
For me whoever wins writes history, even if they are not always right. So whoever loses has to suffer the story of the winner.