Interview: Samantha Seymour, revival director of Wieler-Morabito’s Un Ballo in Maschera

Posted on January 25, 2014

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Samantha Seymour 2012-bwA British ex-pat in Munich, Samantha Seymour was well-set on an engineering career when she first caught the opera fever. It came to her fairly late in life, and thanks to an opera-loving friend who shared the tickets to the Bayerische Staatsoper. A Xerxes with Ann Murray particularly stands out as an early favourite. Many operas later, Seymour found herself downsized and out of a job in an industry of seemingly stable employment and steady career paths. She used the opportunity to turn to what she loved even more than maths and sciences: opera directing. A return to school followed, and a period of retraining. At one of the workshops she met the directors Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito, and it all started from there.

You were also the associate and revival director on another project by W & M, and that is the Rusalka in Salzburg. Do they usually rely on you for the revivals, how does this collaboration work?

We all think it’s best to have someone who knows the production from the beginning rather than getting someone who’s seen the video. And the Ballo was actually the first production I worked on with the two of them in Berlin, so I have a lot of happy memories of our time there.

Is there anything left for the associate director to decide when she’s working on the revival?

That’s the great thing about Jossi and Sergio—they give me and the artists a lot of flexibility. Which is great: artists aren’t marionettes and you don’t get them to do exactly the same thing that their predecessors in the role did. It’s my job to bring in their personality and their creativity and allow them to adapt the role in the spirit of the staging to their own personality. If they invent something that’s really nice, we keep that in. That’s great for me too because I get to make the artistic decisions with them.

Every singer already comes with an idea of the character because they learn the role and think about the words they are saying and the situation they’re in, what the character’s progression is. If there are any issues with the staging, the cast would discuss their take on the character. All that can be very useful. And I learned from Jossi and Sergio’s way of working with the singers, and then adapt that to working with the revival cast.

Do singers come with a notion of what the production is like? This one is not your typical Ballo; did singers watch a recording of it or some excerpts beforehand?

I don’t think they’ve seen the DVD this time. Sometimes they do, sometimes we say it would be good if the cast could get a DVD before they come to rehearsals, they can look at it if they want to; sometimes in a revival we work from the DVD; but here with didn’t work with the DVD at all. So it’s all – walk and talk. Sometimes it can be quite difficult [if you see the role on DVD and it looks very different from your own idea] and your reaction is Oh my god, seeing it from the outside. But with this production I found mostly when you actually walk and talk them through what they’re living and why, then it actually does make sense by the time you get through to the end.

I had a really lovely singer in Rusalka when we did it in Geneva and he was very upset by how his character in that staging. (He is Czech and the work is Czech and he grew up with the work…) He kind of freaked. For about five minutes. Then he came back, “Right, we have a job to do.” And he had hundreds of questions and by the time we got through them all, he was fine.

What is the idea behind this production? Set in 50s-60s? It looks American.

It is sort of American – it’s the Boston version, not the Swedish version of Ballo. It’s about finding the time period that is conservative enough and prejudiced enough to fit what’s happening in the opera. Riccardo is not JFK and not Bill Clinton and not Obama but he could be all of them.

If you put it in present time, it maybe too glib; you need a certain distance. For Verdi since this opera got moved its location so many times, that obviously wasn’t the most important thing, where it was set. More important was to find a setting that will show that this was social and political mechanism at work in this situation. So we have a synthetic America that looks like the 60s America but has some elements which aren’t necessarily congruent with the Sixties. (The “Bjork dress” that Oscar has in the third act, for example, which is here instantly recognizable). So it’s a composite time and place; picking up on what Verdi himself said, to copy the truth is good, but to invent the truth is better. We play with that a little bit. You’ll see with this young cast that we have, the dance style is slightly less traditional than it has been. They all got their moves and they’re showing them.

How is it to direct the chorus in a chorus-heavy opera?

Chorus staging is usually the most strenuous because you have loads of people running around – you need, like, five pairs of eyes to watch them all. But the stage management in the Anglo-American system really helps a lot. To have stage managers who know what they’re doing… and help coordinate the entrances, that’s a big help.

There’s a difference between the Continent and the rest in this regard?

The European system is slightly different. Stage managers here have many more duties and more responsibilities from the Inspizient in Europe. Part of the Assistant Director’s work in Europe is part of the Stage Manager’s work here. And obviously they look after health and safety and those kinds of things… When I first worked in Covent Garden and had proper stage management, I loved it.

Ballo1There are many crowd scenes in this opera, I take it.

Yeah, we have a lot, particularly with the gentlemen’s chorus; I know most of the men’s names but not all the ladies’ names. The ladies are in two of the scenes and the gentlemen in a lot of the scenes, and I spend a lot more time with them. I actually mixed up two of the guys and they swapped their name tags on the next rehearsal as a test, but I managed to remember! “You haven’t fooled me with your name tags! I know I need you and not him.”

And you probably know who’s baritone, who’s tenor…

To be honest: I don’t.

Then you probably don’t have to know.

We discussed it with the chorus master about who is being cast in which parts. They have the conspirators who are bass roles, and she divided up the chorus, and then we just said, this is how we’re gonna position them, is that fine, do you have the acoustic, do you want them more mixed, more grouped, she said No, mixed is good, and that’s how it went.

We put them in position, let them sing, check with the Maestro if it’s fine with him. It’s important to make sure that music is happy as well. And check at the beginning, because it’s much easier to change something at the beginning than is once you got on stage when you’re further down the line.

So the blocking… is it also called blocking when you’re directing the chorus?

Yeah, things you have to sort out, that everyone is in the right place at the right time, and that the principals aren’t obscured by the chorus and that kind of stuff. You have some blocking, you set it up, but then you let it run. I really encourage them to be inventive and to go with their instinct. There’s the scene with Riccardo where Ulrica is reading his palm and we got them set up in a semi-circle of chairs. If they feel like standing up and moving in to see what’s going on, then I’m encouraging them to go with that instinct. It makes it much more lively; they’re engaged with what’s going on and the audience is engaged with what’s going on. If they’re on the edge of their seats watching the palm being read, then the audience will be too. Or we have the scene when Riccardo says to all the gentlemen, Right, we’re gonna go to Ulrica, we’re gonna dress up. And they have this amazing energy—like, football game kind of energy—where they’re getting undressed and getting changed and disguised as sailors, and they really get into that. Throwing the sweaters like they’re footballs and that kind of thing.

I see, there’s a lot of room for them to invent their own characters.

Yeah. That’s what we want to see. There are some productions where you would want to have chorus as a uniform mass, you don’t want individuals – I don’t know, if you want to show a dictatorship or something, and you want them all to look the same and act the same, and there’d be an artistic reason for that. But here we want a group of individuals. Who maybe have a common purpose or common background but all do their own thing within the staging.

Does it ever get too lively for you, does it ever get anarchic?

Not yet! Up to now, it’s more encouraging them to actually experiment. It’s much easier to have too much and remove bits than is to want more from them and to not be getting it.

Where are you usually, do you watch from the distance, or are you among the singers?

Both. Particularly the first few times we did the scene because we have a huge set. When we’re doing the ball scene, for example, they’re in couples and dancing and then falling asleep and going down to the floor and making out. So in order to see all that properly, I would take a tour right through and check what people are doing – for the first couple of times. Then I’d pull back a bit and watch from out front but obviously in the rehearsal room it’s quite close. Now we’re on stage, I’ll be further away and getting the big picture.

The pit will be between you and the stage now?

Yes. I could go up if I wanted to, but I feel I have to be further away now – don’t know if it’s in the tenth row exactly, the desk – and pull back. And maybe also watch for the sight lines.

I have to ask you about women and the positions of artistic responsibility in the opera world. Conducting is obviously very closed to women, but I have the impression that stage direction is somewhat more open. Comparatively.

That is my impression as well. There are an increasing number of female directors, certainly in German-speaking Europe, which is the area I know. An increasing number who are becoming prominent. But still there are a lot more men doing the job. And there are more women assistants than directors, put it that way.

That was my next question. The assistant tier has probably more women.

Yeah, my impression is that there are a lot of assistant directors who are female. And I guess some of them don’t want to become directors. And some of them do.

Is that the way for a woman to become a director? By being the assistant first? I mean, I know there is no typical career, but maybe we can find some regularities.

I guess that’s what a lot of people do. Even those who studied directing, basically their first jobs are usually assistant or associate directors, there are very few who get the chance to do their own staging early on in their career. And some people—men too!—stay as associate directors and are more or less frustrated by it. Depending on what their goals are.

Maybe working on revivals gives more freedom than working together with the directors on a new production would?

Yeah… I tend to hold back although with Jossi and Sergio maybe now I would say more because of having revived several of their productions and maybe make more of a contribution. Some directors don’t want it. But with them—I sometimes find myself up on stage if one of the artists is not available for whatever reason and I would go up there. I “played” most of the cast of this production at some point in Berlin. My first one was Silvano, the drunken veteran marine. The first chorus rehearsal we had in Berlin—and I hadn’t acted since school, and hardly in school—I was asked, Oh can you go and give us your Silvano. (WHAT!?) But I went and did it and they really liked it. Basically every time after that when a role needed to be subbed, I was there. When we were doing scenes that require the chorus but the chorus wasn’t there yet, only the principals, I was asked to play the chorus. So there are several things that I introduced that way, and they’d go “We’re buying that!” and they would give it as a direction to the principal or to the chorus members later in the rehearsals.

They’re very open to suggestions. Like, jokey stuff too… I remember at one of the ORCAs for this production with the original cast, Piotr Beczala was singing Riccardo, and when he came into the ball, he just had a little dance with his first lady, just as a joke, and they said, “That’s it! We’re keeping it.”

Ballo2Can you tell me a bit about your other collaborations?

I’ve done workshops with young singers during their training programs with Peter Konwitschny and with Martin Kušej. But not a full-blown production with them yet. There are loads of people out there that it would be great  to work with, to see how they do things, people like Claus Guth, or Christof Loy. May come, we’ll see.

Stefan Herheim?

Yeah, I got to not work with him because I’m working on the revival of this.

That would have been Les vêpres in London?

I would have been in London, but I was in Berlin doing this.

Do you have to have an agent, as an associate director?

I don’t have one, no.

Do directors have to have an agent, even?

I think it’s a personal choice. Some people do, some people don’t. I guess it depends how tight your schedule is getting. If you’re booking 3, 4 years in advance, you need somebody to manage that.

What’s next for you, after this Ballo?

I get to have a holiday! And this summer I’ll be back with Jossi and Sergio in Stuttgart doing Tristan und Isolde. It’s a new production; we already had some pre-rehearsals in November, which was really great. Both our principals said that it was lovely for them, to have time to rehearse and think about things without the pressure of having to sing. The principal singers are Erin Caves, young American tenor and Chistiane Iven, member of the Stuttgart ensemble, who did Kundry and Ariadne. They’re both great, at singing and acting both. Erin was playing about with his Tristan doing jazz hands etc. He can move. We spent a lot of time reading the text and talking about what the text means and how to interpret it. I always like doing the spoken theatre rehearsal, so we can discus the text.

Is that how the three of you usually begin working on a new opera?

Not usually, but in the case of Tristan, we did. Especially with the second act duet, and Christiane was very keen, and kept asking, “So what does this actually mean!” Even as a German speaker, it’s really quite abstruse.

And they’re talking non-stop, the characters.

I saw a production by Claus Guth once which was the first time I actually realized that in the first act they tell the story of Isolde looking after Tristan when he was sick three times. Which they played out every single time. They told it, and they got two people to play Tristan and Isolde for each occasion.

He dramatized the monologues, essentially?

Yeah. Which is interesting, because when you listen, you don’t necessarily realize they’re telling the same scene over and over again. Then they tell it again in second act.

So it’s good to have time to read and discuss the text, and we did. It’s difficult especially because, as everyone says, “nothing happens” in this opera. This inner journey that they go through, it’s important to find a way to put that into a staging.

We do have a ship. We have a proper ship.  That’s all I can say.

This will be in Stuttgart in summer?

In July, yes.

I take it you speak fluent German.

Yes.

Other opera languages probably too?

French and Italian, yeah. I’m learning Russian. Having had this experience in Czech with Rusalka, where I had no knowledge of the language, I thought, okay, if I have to do a production in Russian, I have to at least be able to read it and pronounce it.

But you are not learning it in Cyrillic letters?

I am, actually.

Impressive!

I started learning it just to read and pronounce, but I got into it, got interested in the language. But it’s not like I can speak it or anything.

Allow me a snarky observation: there are many opera directors who don’t speak any language other than their own.

I just love the languages. But German I would know, since I lived there for twenty years.

So that explains your German accent! On top of the British one.

I lived there for too long, and just seem to keep the German accent. When I was in London, I did a lot of the rehearsals still in German, and when I spoke in English people weren’t sure where I was from. I got asked if I was from the north of England a lot. Here in Toronto, I haven’t spoken any German. We’re all speaking English.

Un Ballo in Maschera opens at the Canadian Opera Company on February 2nd at 2PM. More info.

Photos by Ruth Walz show two scenes from the Berlin Staatsoper Un Ballo in Maschera, 2008.

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