Interview with Christopher Alden

Posted on October 2, 2011

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The new production Rigoletto premiered at the Canadian Opera Company on September 29, 2011. The morning after, I spoke with the director Christopher Alden. A version of this interview also appeared in Tandem, the weekend edition of Corriere Canadese (link).

First of all, thanks for doing a production of Rigoletto that doesn’t ignore that the oppression of women is at the centre of this work.

That’s hard to ignore!

How did you decide on this approach? Is this your first Rigoletto?

Not exactly. First time Michael Levine and I worked on this was about twelve or thirteen years ago in Chicago. We were looking for a way to portray a strong power structure that the audience would  immediately recognize, and we felt that setting the opera in its original period, in Renaissance, wouldn’t work for this purpose. The costumes of the renaissance era look all alike to us today and we tend to romanticize them, so it becomes hard to identify the power differentials among the characters. We wanted to have a somewhat drier, more modern period, but not completely modern, so we decided to settle on the period the piece was written in. The people who wrote the piece were talking about their time as much as anything else. Verdi had strong feelings about the society he was living in — the societal set up he witnessed and what it does to people. The contrast between your societal role and your private role at home and how the two things bleed in and out of each other and inform each other is very much what this piece is about. Michael Levine and I tried to find an era that would make this obvious to the audience, and not have people observe a lot of singers in fancy clothes.

At what point was a more contemporary set up ruled out?

That had to do with the company we did this for first, the Chicago Lyric. I was told, We want you to do the kind of thing that you do, but also something that we can revive here. But this is also important to me – whenever I work on a new production of an opera from the past, I always try to see if there’s a way to do it other than in modern clothes. That’s been such a successful fall-back way to strip away some of the fantasy elements and to get down to what’s timeless about a particular piece, or what’s modern about it. But I always feel that if I can do it without doing it in modern clothes, I’m happy to not do modern clothes. Another fall-back solution is setting it in the era when it was written. In this case, it was really obvious to us that Verdi’s Rigoletto was Verdi’s response to his own time, so we took the latter approach.

So what exactly happened in Chicago? That story preceded you here, as I’m sure you know. The subscribers of the Chicago Lyric thought the production was disrespectful to Verdi?

I guess… No, but it was an exciting opening night. There was a big response. There was a lot of booing but also a lot of people who loved the show. We had a strong production there. People running the company said after the opening night, We really support this production, we love it, we feel so positive about it that we’re going to revive it in a few years. And it was scheduled to be revived about four years later. Maybe a year before it was going to happen, I got a telephone call from the guy running the company. “I know I told you at the time how much we support this production, but the times have changed economically…” — this was not too long after 9/11, when things went wonky and it was a dodgy time for arts organizations. As it is now. So I completely sympathize. He also said, “We don’t want to offend some of our major donors so we’re not going to revive this production after all.”

That became something of a red flag about opera in the US, art in the US. There is a different kind of environment for arts organizations that are funded through corporate and private donations than for those subsidized by the state, which can afford to be more adventurous and not just do art which flatters the patrons but which challenges and maybe disturbs.

How long was the research process for this Rigoletto?

One tends to work on these productions for a long time. You find out you’ll be working on a production a couple of years or more before the opening date, and that gives you plenty of time to dig in and delve and explore different aspects and to come to terms with the piece. Then Michael Levine and I worked on it over a period of a year, easily. First part of the process is talking about the piece, figuring out how our different feelings about the piece could coincide. We imagined a number of different scenarios – at first we had four or five extremely different ways of doing it until we decided the final one. I think we took one early on to the Chicago Lyric and they sort of rejected it… can’t remember what the reason was. We also told them about other ideas, and they said, Oh, umm, maybe try some of the other ones, and we did, and that’s when we really started to zero in on the definite version.

The production looks as if the creative team read all the right Victorian studies books… When the first scene opened, I thought, Look, there’s Gubar and Gilbert’s the madwoman from the attic.

Ha — she could be, yes. But that’s Monterone’s daughter. The most recent girl rejected by the Duke who is still stuck on him and stalking him and is quite deranged.

Another great twist is this character of the governess, who is something of a procuress for the Duke. Though her, you also highlight the lack of solidarity among women. You have these three female characters that undermine each other in pursuit of Duke’s attention.

Yes, that’s definitely there. And the governess is a sort of a made character. Originally, she is Giovanna, the woman working for Rigoletto and taking care of his daughter. In this production we expanded the role. The whole production really takes place within the Duke’s patriarchal realm, and the other side of this woman is that she ultimately really works for the Duke. In the same vein, what Rigoletto sees as his private life and his ‘job’ have a nightmare-ish quality of occupying the same place. The idea that you can compartmentalize and be ruthless in the public sphere and loving and protective of innocence in private is bound to crash.

There are some dramatic scenes in this production that mirror the temperament of the music. As the music is building to a crescendo, for example, the action on stage picks up and ends with something highly dramatic and unexpected. How closely do you follow the music in individual scenes? Not all directors do it necessarily.

I follow it very closely. Opera for me is music, above everything else. And directing operas is a lot closer to choreography than to directing a realistic play. It’s all dictated by the music, and that doesn’t necessarily mean that everything you do will follow the orchestral tempo. Often it’s about creating an interesting tension between what’s happening visually and what’s happening in the music. But the visuals are always in relationship to the music.

What do you do with such wildly known and popular but in fact, given the context, vicious and somewhat ridiculous arias such as “La donna è mobile”? Do you ever have the urge to make fun of that moment and make fun of the character?

Oh yes. And I do in this production.

There’s that silent applause by the courtiers at the end of the aria, after the actual audience is done clapping.

To me, “La donna è mobile” is a fascinating thing. It’s the Duke’s credo about women and a somewhat misogynistic statement. It’s the credo of the powerful men who build their power on the disenfranchisement and subjugation of women in the dog-eat-dog world. The artists of the 19th century began to realize the world was changing, that the value system was changing rapidly in a very negative way after the industrialization and that humans were rapidly being turned into commodities. That’s what this play I think was talking about, that’s what Verdi was talking about. And they were right, they saw the way the world was going.

What is your take on why so many women are killed off in the operas by Verdi and Puccini?

In the 19th century, opera became the glorification of the female voice and the audience worship concentrated on the soprano as the true avatar of opera. But! At the same time opera developed a funny relationship to its female characters. It was all about putting them on a pedestal and adoring them, and at the same time fearing them and needing to feel superior to them and controlling one’s feelings towards them. So we have operas that are essentially about the pleasure of watching the woman suffer and die, or sacrifice herself, or lose her mind. Opera does become a convenient venue to express a whole spectrum of male ambivalence and anxiety over women.

Let’s talk about some of your other productions. Can you tell me more about your 2002 Tosca? I think it was set in contemporary time.

Yes, it was set in a dreamy, contemporary, and slightly futuristic Italy. Everything takes place in a church basement in Rome, and on the walls of the basement are posters from Berlusconi’s regime.

Scarpia as a supporter of Forza Italia?

It was sort of suggested where something like that can potentially go; we had something of a quasi-fascistic set-up. The production was revived a couple of times, most recently in Sydney, Australia, where it made a lot of waves. Many people were upset by it, and many people were excited by it.

I came upon an article recently in which you wrote that the early silent film was very much influenced by the operatic verismo.

Movies as an art form came straight out of opera. Some of the earliest directors of films were opera directors. The latest composers of opera in its traditional form, Puccini and the verismo tradition, came as close to writing music in the cinematic style as you possibly could. Movies emerged right after.  The aesthetic verismo really led right into the aesthetic of the early filmmaking.

Can you talk about your Turandot? The photos don’t indicate a very Chinese production.

Some of its Chinese character was kept, though. We set the production in the era that Puccini wrote the piece in. He wrote it just as Mussolini was coming to power and to me Turandot was in a way a subliminal response to living in an era of the rise of crowd mentality and tribalism. We set it in an unspecified place, and also gave it some dreamy elements of a mythical China mixed in with the elements of the 20th-century fascism. Turandot herself was an Eva Peron figure. So you see, it was a mix of different ideas of totalitarianism. And that is what the opera is about. It is a dark fairytale, yes, but it also relates both to Puccini’s time and his own personal life. His wife was a powerful, domineering woman who was obsessed with the imagined relationship between her husband and their maid. She hounded the maid and drove her to commit suicide. His wife was put in prison for that, and it was proven that the maid was still a virgin when she died. To me, there’s some of that in Turandot as well.

Puccini couldn’t finish the opera. He was unable to give it a happy ending, in which the monstrous ice princess supposedly melts and confesses her love for a man. It all probably sounded too absurd to Puccini. It was probably easier for him to die than to end the opera in that way.

So that’s the one Puccini opera in which a woman has the power.

I think he was trying to break out of the mould of writing about victimized women. That didn’t go very well, so he added the character of Liu, the secondary soprano character which is a much more stock Puccini character who sacrifices herself for the man she loves, and the character that the audience appreciate much more than Turandot.

How did you approach Madama Butterfly?

I focused on the clash between those two cultures, and the dangers of imperialism and how it victimizes the people that are being controlled by another power but also the people in control. We placed it in Lieutenant Pinkerton’s home back in America, after he and his wife brought the child from Japan to live with them. You first saw this half-American, half-Japanese child sitting at dinner and the ghost or the memory of Madama Butterfly drifting in and out of this American home. In the first half, the room is the late 19th-century California, Frank Lloyd Wright-ish architecture which was influenced by Asian aesthetic. And later on it seemed like it’s Madama Butterfly’s house, or her dream of what it would be like to live in an American home with her American husband. It was at the same time the Americans looking back at what happened in Japan, and the Japanese woman’s fantasy of being in an American home.

Tell me about your Aida, which opened at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin in 2008.

Aida was Verdi’s strong statement about religion. The opera is set in Ancient Egypt, in a state under the thumb of a religious caste. To me, the opera was a direct expression of how Verdi felt about Catholicism. When I started working on it six or seven years ago, the rise of religious fundamentalisms and the gaining of political power by religious leaders was of concern. The production was set in an unspecific religious cult, maybe Scientology, maybe evangelical, we didn’t make it obvious. The Triumphal March scene was staged as a Sunday picnic in a Baptist religion. The entertainment was a group of little girls doing cheer-leading and acrobatic dances, while the major event was a pie-eating contest. The little boys took their places at the long table and dug into their cherry pies, their faces covered in colour of blood.

Did anybody declare the production anti-American?

Mmmmno. But there was another issue around its perceived American references. People in Berlin said, We understand what this is about, but it’s hard for us to relate to this because we don’t have something like that over here. Which I thought was an odd thing to say if you went, say, a few decades back in history. But there was this feeling in Berlin that, while they understood what all that meant to an American, it had nothing to do with them.

And what are some of the ideas behind Il Trovatore for the Flemish Opera?

Azucena was central. It was a nightmare about matriarchy, set in a cave of the great matriarch, a voodoo-esque place where this gypsy woman dwells. At one point in the opera, this space was invaded by the soldiers, the dominant males… The action continued in this the matriarchal cave that is occupied by the militaristic men but which still remained under the frightening sway of the Great Mother that they were all hunting down and fearing.

Did you ever give up on an opera, thinking, this is just too weird, no contemporary audience will recognize themselves in this?

Probably not… That’s why I do opera as opposed to other, more naturalistic art forms. I love the insane, dreamy, fairy tale nature of it. In a way there’s nothing more unreal than opera but actually its reality is of a different order: there are things in human nature that you can only get at through these more subliminal tools that opera operates in.

What will you work on next?

My next opera will be Norma, for Opera North in the UK. It’s a tricky piece – one of those iconic operas that everyone has strong feelings about. All right, I’ll concede, maybe it’s a bit more dangerous to sing the title role than to direct the opera, since the singers are always compared to Callas. But people have strong ideas about how it should be staged. We won’t be having any Druid costumes, but it will be about imperialism and clash of cultures. There’s also of course the interesting gender angle to it, with the two women against the imperial male. We’re setting it in a remote, rural, quasi-Druid cult that’s rebelling against a foreign rule. It’s similar to Scotland vs. British unification, but not that specific and recognizable.

When you start work on a new opera, how is the staging concept developed?

Opera is hugely collaborative, of course. I love when I have really strong ideas about a piece, but then I’m just as excited about what everybody else involved in the production brings to the table.  Although my primary relationship is with the designers. We work a long time developing ideas and working on the specifics and the style of the production etc., long before the rehearsal process with the singers, which is the last stage. But even then, I feel that the more open I can be to everything that they also bring to the table, the happier I am about a show. Their ideas about the characters and the story also come into the play and make me come up with ideas which I never would have dreamed about. They sometimes make me see things in new and surprising ways.

Are there any composers and operas that are less close to you than others?

These days I feel like I have more trouble with the 19th century operas. The particular aesthetic of that time in opera history may be further away from me and what interests me about art and theatre than the operas from the 18th, 17th or the 20th century. In some ways a Handel opera is much closer to my sensibility than a Verdi opera, the kind of cooler, more rational, intelligent, more perhaps cynical, satirical point of you of a Handel opera is closer to how I feel about the world than the heart-on-sleeve, emotional Verdi opera.

What I like about Rigoletto is that it has this bizarre, perverse irony – layers of it. That’s a little harder to find in Nabucco or even Aida.

But you often hear directors complaining about the difficulty of staging da capo arias in baroque operas.

Not me. I love nine-minute arias where you get to sit inside one emotion or one thought, and examine it from different angles over a long period of time. It’s like a piece of abstract visual art, or like a Dadaist work. You’re not looking at something from a dead-on, naturalistic perspective but you’re seeing from six different angles all at the same time. A Handel aria for me is like a distorted Picasso face.

There’s that distorted perspective again… Do you read a lot of psychoanalysis?

I am currently, since I’ll be using Freud and his female patients in a production of an Austro-Hungarian operetta next year.

I wish I can see that.

I can’t say much about it but let’s put it this way: it’s very likely that you will.

Thank you, Christopher Alden.

Thanks. I could talk about opera all day.

Lydia Perović