Remember Hansel & Gretel?

I seem to have liked that production more than any other critic, judging by the reviews I’ve read since. My own review is finally in the print issue of Opera News. And here, for my blog readers. //

IN FILMS, Toronto often plays the part of other cities, but the new Canadian Opera Company production of Engelbert Humperdinck’s classic Hänsel und Gretel, billed here as Hansel & Gretel, puts Canada’s largest city center stage, swapping the grim Brothers Grimm forest for a high-rise apartment building. The switch works a treat. Black-and-white bird’s-eye footage of the city rolls out during the melodic overture, with warm brass and irreverent woodwinds, and the video zooms in on a concrete building as the curtain goes up. The two-story set—four occupied apartments, two staircases and later a video-projected elevator—fills the entire stage. (Sets and projection design were by S. Katy Tucker.) 

We find Hänsel (Emily Fons) and Gretel (Simone Osborne) on the lower floor, playing alone in an apartment where the fridge is empty and the kitchen counters bare. When the mother (Krisztina Szabó) arrives from work, she is still wearing her uniform with the name tag, possibly from a fast-food outlet or pharmacy chain. There is activity in every apartment: the man across the landing is fixing things, the woman one floor up switching TV channels, other residents passing through the hallways. Above Hänsel and Gretel’s place is a friendly elderly hoarder whose apartment looks overstuffed and drab until the kids arrive for a visit, when the change in lighting turns it to a forest full of magic surprises. Other neighbors visit him and bring food, and this fictional Toronto high-rise looks a real, functioning community where the neighbors socialize. In Adelheid Wette’s libretto, the mother sends the children out to pick berries, while in this staging the children go floor to floor asking for food staples, in between whiling away their time and playing. Downstairs, their father (Russell Braun) comes home from work and shares the day’s spoils with his wife. 

Osborne, Fons and Szabó have voices that sound a notch too light in this opera, and each occasionally paled before the volume and the shine of the almost-Wagnerian house orchestra. But they were precise, articulate and solid actors, Osborne in particular looking uncannily like a six-year-old. Braun’s baritone was more robust and at home, as was Anna-Sophie Neher’s bold, lush soprano in the short roles of the Sandman and the Dew Fairy. The children fall asleep in the apartment of the hoarder, who reappears as the Sandman and sprinkles the magic dust of slumber. Meanwhile, the parents and the neighbors downstairs are getting the apartment ready—moving furniture, hanging drapes, preparing the cardboard cage and the closet-size pretend-oven for the play that will take place when the children wake up in the morning. The activity stops in every apartment for the lullaby-like evening-prayer duet, while for the cinematic orchestral Act II finale, all the neighbors come out as one to admire the starry sky.  

There you have it: Hänsel and Gretel getting abducted by a wily gingerbread-dwelling witch is actually part of the play put on by their parents and neighbors, which the children enjoy and go along with. The bearded next-door neighbor in disguise is the Witch (tenor Michael Colvin), and the other children rescued from captivity are the kids from the building who have been patiently waiting in the next room for their cue. 

The COC orchestra under Johannes Debus did Humperdinck’s rich score justice, but the star of the evening was Joel Ivany’s imaginative staging. In Act II, video projections take a turn for exuberant, childhood holiday psychedelia. There is something of Sean Baker’s Florida Project in this production and the way it amplifies vivacious colors and the unrelenting pursuit of joy in a low-income childhood, but this Hansel is more optimistic. Concrete high-rises can be real communities, it insists; and it’s through the play, stories and art that we expand our lives from their confines. —Lydia Perovic

 

Confinement, une conversation mondiale: Alexander Neef

French radio show Le Temps du Débat asked a number of figures in international art circles to contribute an opinion piece on how they see the current situation. Here’s what Alexander Neef wrote (translation from French mine):

What we lose when we close the performing arts venues

The worst aspect of this period of rupture is not being able to get together with others in public. Society in which we live relies on the freedom of movement for its functioning. It’s also the essence of the performing arts: coming together with other people in a designated space so we can share a collective experience and come each one of us to our own individual conclusions.

Theatre was created to identify the pressing questions of our lives, put them on stage, and create a certain distance, a mediation, so we can collectively look at those questions and perhaps put our opinion in perspective, or come to a different view of ourselves and our society.

In a world where we’re frequently expected to think in a certain way, being a performing arts audience enables us – it demands of us – to have an opinion, be free, make choices. With a video recording, somebody has already made the choices for us. In a theatre or opera house, you are your own camera, you have agency while taking in the show, you construct your own relation to it. It’s how we belong to a larger society too.

Gérard Mortier, former director of La Monnaie in Brussels and the Paris Opera, always used to say, There is no democracy without theatre. I think we can understand what he was getting at: we need to develop our capacity to make choices and to think. Reflection and decision-making are our responsibilities [as citizens of democracies]. And theatre can teach us to do that.

The entry point to performing arts is always the emotion: “I like this”, “I hate that”, but there’s another step after that, the “why” step, and if we get there, then we can have a dialogue with other people who don’t share our opinions. It’s the principle of a democratic society: we don’t have to agree on everything, as long as we agree that there is room for conversation.

Being without performing arts – while we understand why everything had to be closed down – means being deprived of something that taps directly into our capacity to be with other people in a society. Now we have to make do with what we have. Watching performances on screen, perhaps so we can keep alive the memory of the real thing…

 

2019 in rearview mirror

The Pite-Young Revisor was the hightlight of the year. It’s probably harder to be moved by it than by Betroffenheit – which may explain some of the puzzled reviews by Toronto dance critics – but it’s a larger work of art in every sense of the word. The work has multiple co-producers from around the world, so if it comes anywhere near you in 2020, do not miss it. I saw it (twice… and the tickets weren’t cheap) at the Canadian Stage.

Now on to the usual classification.

OPERA

Tim Albery-directed Giulio Cesare in Egitto by Opera North which I watched in Leeds, was the standout. Completely unknown (to me) singers all impressed, and the set was some sort of golden multi-purpose edifice that revolves (by  Leslie Travers) – absolutely the most was made of it.  Christian Curnyn conducted what turned out to be a spritely, cohesive, gleaming performance.

Lucie Chartin (Cleopatra) and Maria Sanner (Giulio Cesare) in a photo by Alastair Muir

Locally, the COC’s Elektra revival with Christine Goerke wasn’t too shabby either. I also saw an oldie Rosenkavalier production in Leipzig with the gorgeous-looking and sounding Wallis Giunta, but though musical side of it all was lush, more actual acting by some of the principals would not have gone amiss. The Little Opera That Could award this year goes to Pomegranate, which I hope to see re-mounted with a different cast. Dud of the Year? The ENO Orphée, which I abandoned at the intermission. Torture. Granted, Alice Coote will never be my cuppa, but even so: had the production been different, I’d have soldiered on.

Via Met in HD, I saw Nico Muhly’s Marnie and I’m glad I did. I read the novel soon after and enjoyed being able to compare the Hitchcock film with the novel with the opera. While in both the movie and the novel, Marnie’s husband rapes her – which in the movie slooowly results in her getting used to her situation and male sexuality, and in the novel things end on the status quo, she’s resigned to her life – the opera removes the rape from the story. Marnie’s husband in the opera accepts her refusal and doesn’t force himself on her. Why the Met-commissioned team made that decision, and whether the opera is better work of art or a less truthful one for it, I’ll leave to you to ponder.

IN CONCERT

Gemma New conducting Hamilton Philharmonic in Mahler 5
Vesuvius Ensemble’s The Plucking Opera
Agnela Hewitt playing Goldberg Variations
The Happenstencers give Bach a re-do, via Vivier, Southam, Dusapin et al.
Barbara Hannigan conducting the TSO

MUSEUMS, GALLERIES

Sir John Soanes Museum (London, UK) all the way! It had a big Hogarth exhibit when I visited, but the museum’s permanent collection is a Disneyworld for anybody interested in the 18th century.
Fondation Luis Vuitton (Paris, France) for Charlotte Perriand: Inventing a New World.

THEATRE

The Piaf/Dietrich musical was very pleasant (and has been recently extended into January).
Michael Healey’s 1979 has some incredibly accomplished scenes but it relied too much on text projections to let the audience know what’s going on and the cross-sex casting didn’t quite work.
Robert Lepage’s take on Coriolanus was good fun. This I saw in cinema via Stratford in HD.
And that is where I draw a blank. I’ve seen some atrocious Toronto theatre last year – The Cherry Orchard at Crow’s Theatre, Four Sisters at Theatre Centre – which put me off theatre altogether.

CINEMA

A good year. It opened with Paweł Pawlikowski’s Cold War, which though eeever so slightly sexist, is a work of art quand même. Icelandic film Woman at War about an eco-terrorist who applies to adopt a child from Ukraine has everything a film needs. Olivier Assayas’ Non-Fiction and Mike Leigh’s Peterloo are fine but I won’t remember them in a few years. Johanna Hogg’s The Souvenir on the other hand is ah-mazing, as is her entire opus (I’ve finally seen Exhibition, thanks to a Tiff retrospective, the only remaining film of hers that I hadn’t and… she’s a fecking genius, no ifs or buts). Madeleine Olnek’s Wild Nights with Emily was a riot. Patricia Rozema’s Mouthpiece is Patricia Rozema’s best film. What to say of Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire that the raving critics and the adoring audiences already haven’t? (Which I saw at the London Film Festival, where it was much easier for me to get a ticket than at my local international festival. Tiff is a lost cause. Don’t even bother trying.) The 2019 Palm D’or, Parasite, was good and the Berlin winner, Synonyms, even better, I thought. Official Secrets with Keira Knightly was a decently done whistleblower drama. Chanya Button’s Vita & Virginia (based on Eileen Atkins’ play) was a very smart delight. Sophie Deraspe’s Antigone, which puts the Greek heroine in an immigrant family in Quebec, is a sophisticated brain bon-bon, if perhaps not as engaging as one might expect. And 63 Up and Knock Down the House stand out among the documentaries.

I shall return for the 2019 in Books. Till tomorrow!

When a woman thinks of man, her thinking is praised

I watched the streaming of Olga Neuwirth’s new opera Orlando (libretto Catherine Filloux and Olga Neuwirth) today and have a few thoughts – mostly on the libretto.

Which is based on Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando, though the story here continues past the end of WW2 and into our own era. The early scenes follow the novel relatively closely. The events at the court of Elizabeth I when the young and dashing page Orlando catches her eye and is granted a title and land, is followed by him meeting the Russian princess Sasha on the coldest winter in living memory, having his heart broken, and withdrawing to his country pile. Waking up from the stupor, he declares I will become a poet! which leads to his messy aspirational sponsorship of the Prominent Poet Mr. Greene who patronizes him (but whose patron he is) and who eventually writes a parody of Orlando’s long work-in-progress poem The Oak Tree. Dispirited, Orlando cheers himself up by furnishing and learning how to appreciate his ancestral home.

While in Constantinople as the ambassador for the King Charles II, Orlando falls in deep sleep and wakes up a woman. His persistent suitor from previous life, a duchess, continues the pursuit once Orlando as a woman is back home in England, but she is revealed to be a man. This character as far as I can tell was excised in the opera (correct me if I missed her). She (Orlando) continues wanting to write and hosts the great writers of the era, including Pope, Dryden and Addison. Critic Nick Greene still lives (and is getting uglier and uglier features as the opera progresses – he is the ugliest in our own age). While male Orlando’s poetic efforts were mocked because he was an aristocrat, female Orlando’s right to write anything in the first place are questioned because she’s a woman. Still, she presses on – it helps that she’s a wealthy aristocrat — publishes The Oak Tree, gets an award for it, wins a legal dispute over her country mansion (this is fiction after all), meets a feminine male sea captain campily named Mermeduke Shelmerdine. The masculine woman is attracted to the feminine in the man, and he by her butchness, and they marry. The novel ends there, which is the day it was supposed to be published in Oct 1928. The opera aims to continue until the day of the performance, Dec 2019.

There are some very effective scenes in this, novel-based part of the opera. The narrator is initially a very good MC (played by Anna Clementi; the originally scheduled Fiona Shaw bailed out, and I don’t blame her). Throughout the opera she could be the narrator of Orlando, maaybe for a second here and there Virginia Woolf herself, but as the story continues, she’s a narrator who definitely lives today and uses some very contemporary vernacular. In the Elizabethan era, she reads the probably most famous quote attributed to the queen “I may have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king”, which was great: I thought, okay, this libretto gets it, this is a good sign. 

The three fairies of Modesty, Purity and Chastity fussing over the sleeping Orlando’s bed before she wakes up as a woman is fine touch, and the narrator and Orlando are given some good lines about this unfortunate outcome. Visit to a hairdresser now takes an hour… skirts are nothing but a bother… but do I really be chaste year in year out?… etc. The female Orlando is at first clad in a ridiculous pink dress adorned with gajillion flowers – fine, the contrast is the point, sure. The chorus is singing Woman: fold upon fold which is accompanied by appropriately sensuous imagery. Narrator then lists all that Orlando won’t be able to do anymore – and it’s a long list. All she’ll be able to do is pour tea to the lords and ask Do you like it. Next scene: Orlando as she offers Pope, Dryden and Addison sugar cubes for their tea, which quickly leads to a scene of one of the men proposing, propositioning and pestering.

Did I mention, there’s a countertenor singing some sort of Guardian Angel role throughout. That doesn’t exist in the book, and there is no need for it in the opera either. Yet here we are. Even in Orlando, an opera based on a book written by Virginia Woolf for and about her former lover Vita Sackville West, a man has to be cast in a prominent role. Whenever a scene would complete itself, there he’d go, commenting AGAIN as if he mattered.

Because let us remember the basics. Woolf wrote this fanciful multi-century ‘biography’ as her affair with Vita was ending. Both women were roughly what we’d now call female homosexuals – Vita very actively so, and her devastating previous relationships with Violet Trefusis lives on in a number of extraordinary cultural creations, including the Sasha-Orlando story – and both were married to men who they loved (asexually) and who loved them back (same). (While Leonard was as far as anybody knows hetero, Harold Nicolson had numerous affairs with men – while also remaining in a fairly good marriage with Vita. It’s possible that Marmaduke is based on him). But let us not get bogged down in Bloomsbury promiscuity: the point is, lesbianism and any kind of homosexuality was then considered an ‘inversion‘ of sorts, an innate reversal of sex and sexual preference – your inner male desire for the female sex makes you a female invert – and this is probably in part what’s behind the story of the changing of the sex through the centuries. What it also comes from, and this more directly, is Vita’s inability to inherit the ancestral home Knole (look this castle up, will you) due to her sex. It went to some male cousin instead. As far as I know, women still can’t inherit most of the hereditary peerage titles in England, not even if they become trans men.

So potentially, Orlando the opera could have tapped into this and have been indeed an opera about the freedom of the female sex to do whatever it damn well pleases – write and publish, inherit property, become ambassador or soldier, in addition to the more traditionally gendered activities and choices. But this opera is that only up to a point – when it dissipates into I’m not sure what. There is a streak of that, I can’t deny it – Orlando’s struggle to have his/her artistic creation taken seriously does appear at a few key places, and the Mr Greene figure stands for all cultural gate-keepers and powerful critics, and I am guessing some of his features comes from the composer’s and librettist’s own experience with gatekeepers. The Knole business is completely removed from the story. In fact Vita and Virginia are both cast aside about half way in, as the opera moves to some more bizarre areas.

When the history reaches the Victorians the narrator suddenly changes tone to a very different, didactic, humourless, contemporary one. “Patriarchal family was considered ideal family, but there is significant increase in child abuse in the Victorian era,” she declaims while the femininely dressed Orlando observes a chorus of children in pyjamas and the video projects an image of an adult man at a door and a child looking from the pillow. Increase in child abuse, compared to what? Or is it increase in the reporting of child abuse? Middle classes or all classes? Child labour is not of interest, I take it? “Children need care and protection” is an actual line that Lindsey was given to sing in this scene. The narrator goes for some time about the victims of incest feeling guilt and the family members’ inability to stop abuse, and it’s all rather puzzling and feels parachuted. Wise of Fiona Shaw to dodge it. (The production has also lost the original director, Karoline Gruber, and ended up being finalized by Polly Graham, the artistic director of Longborough Festival Opera.) “From now on, Orlando will be committed to rewriting the history from the point of view of the victim and outsider”, says the Narrator, to which I say, sure, let’s go.

But then we get the video sequences that rush us through the milestones of the century. The POV is roughly Anglo-European with the inevitable excursion to some US and Vietnam War imagery and the selection is fairly narrow, whole bunch of Europe (not to mention the world events) ignored. We are rushed to 1980s, back in England it seems, and punk is happening, there’s a girl in plaid suit who Orlando ends up kissing for a long time, but she is soon gone from the proceedings.

The party segment, which is meant to show that all kinds of desires and loves and bodies are allowed to flourish now… is a lucklustre affair. The dominant voice is the performer Justin Vivian Bond, who is meant to be Orlando’s ‘child’ in our own era. Really? You couldn’t find a gender-non-conforming female like dunno any number of living writers or filmmakers or someone like Megan Rapinoe or Kara Swisher or some modern equivalent of Storme DeLarverie or even some of the male drag performers from the RuPaul school of sashaying? The statements declaimed during the party are feeble too. There’s a lot of “born this way” Lady Gaga parroting and yet “it’s glorious to be a they”. “Fuck the patriarchy”: is that the most eloquent that “Orlando’s child” can get?

Justin Vivian Bond is one of those people who insist they be called a “they” and claims s/he is “non-binary”. Everybody else is happy to live the life of a gender stereotype, the classification suggests, except for the “they” people. They have stepped out of sex and gender by fiat, you know! And yet women can’t self-identify out of oppression: women are oppressed because of what their bodies are, what their reproductive function is, what their height and strength is (most women can be easily overpowered by most men), and yes also what gender roles awaits them upon birth. The world will still correctly sex the women who will be raped or who need to gestate offspring, the exploitation will proceed undeterred however we decide to ‘identify’. Plus, any male should be allowed to wear dresses and look like JVB, without having to do anything about their pronouns or body. That is the more radical thing, that is what the Orlando children would do, people like David Bowie, Robert Smith, Boy George, Quentin Crisp, Grayson Perry, Russell Kane.

The inability to inherit, become a writer and other obstacles shown in this opera that Orlando faces are actually relatively lucky ones. In Western Balkans and other parts of the world, this thing still exists which is called selective abortions: early detection of a child’s sex – there’s science for that, you only need to find your way to a private clinic in another jurisdiction – leads to the getting rid of female fetuses. So those girls had no chance to “identify” in any way. As soon as the material reality of their sex was determined, they were doomed. I don’t need to hammer on about the femicide (every two or three days anywhere in the world a woman is killed by a man she knows, often an ex or current partner) and various other things that happen to women that have nothing to do with how individuals declare themselves but with their sex.

So… trans activists are Orlando’s children? Not really. Defiant, non-conforming women who overcome societal limitations posed on them are Orlando’s children,  as well as women who *survive* – there are so many of us now who are surviving and were never meant to, who are finally finding poetry and pleasure in our lives, wrote Audre Lorde. This should never be forgotten.

I conclude that sadly the second half of Orlando the opera which paradoxically aims to step out of the charmed life of the high classes that populate the first part – is somewhat uninformed, oblivious of the current lgbt conversations, massively bourgeois (you have to adore the scene in which the haute couture Comme des garçons-clad chorus and extras shouted WE ARE THE PEOPLE) and rather purposeless. Is it about liberation of women or is it about every single thing under the sun, climate change, the liberation of men from their own gender yokes, exploitation of workers in Amazon dot com depots? (There’s a brief scene showing workers in a huge warehouse filled with goods, packing and shipping things: good idea, but underdeveloped, because this scene quickly ends, as does the contemplation of working conditions in low-wage jobs.) You could make an argument that all that is connected to the liberation of the female sex, but 1) the libretto doesn’t do a good job of it, and 2) opera should have a focus of some kind.

At least there is Kate Lindsey’s vocal stamina (and legs) to hold it all together, just about. We’ll always have that.

The official description of Orlando by the Vienna State Opera

Interview: David McVicar

Stills from the documentary David McVicar’s Salome, A work in progress: Backstage in Covent Garden, ITV Productions, 2008.

“You are my only interview,” says the director David McVicar as he joins me in the boardroom that has been reserved for us for this purpose at the COC’s Front Street HQ, and I presume he implies “so make it good.” Fifty minutes later, it looks like both of us could very much go on, but the Rusalka rehearsal is about to start down the hallway and he is needed there.

In person, McVicar has a punk, no-bs attitude and the gruff, butch energy of a character from one of the fast-paced Patrice Chéreau movies. He fully invests himself in the conversation, though, and doesn’t hesitate to reveal his vulnerabilities. He often makes long pauses and here’s a tip for the next interviewer: there’s usually good stuff coming at the end of each.

Now, I was going to write that he is one of my favourite opera directors, but that is not quite it, because in his shtick, McVicar is unsurpassed. That shtick is human intimacy, the way we are with each other behind closed doors, and that entire ugly to sublime gamut of the human psyche. I’ve adored productions by Herheim, C. Alden, Albery, Kosky, Mitchell, but I don’t obsessively replay any bits of them the way I (and many opera lovers that I know) do with for ex. the McVicar Cesare, or Clemenza. While the Konzept school of opera directing is top-down, McVicar, in the best tradition of British liberalism, starts pointilistically, from the individual character, from the ground up.

There is a lot left that I still want to ask him. As somebody who’s refused the obligatory Bible in his Desert Island Discs episode on Radio 4, what does he make of the Christian eschatology at the end of The Rape of Lucretia? Does he really re-read Thackeray’s Vanity Fair with regularity? Do film and TV influence him to any extent? That will have to wait for the next time. Here’s what we did manage to cover.

I.

What a lot of your productions have in common, I think…

What have you seen?

Let’s see… Enführung on DVD, Figaro in cinema, Giulio Cesare live and DVD… Some Donizetti thing on the Met in HD, but I don’t really care about that opera so didn’t really get much out of the production…

I probably didn’t like it either.

…I watched the Ariodante from Vienna online, and I thought was exceptionally coherent. It’s hard to make that opera cohere. Also seen The Rape of Lucretia. There’s probably more.

That’s a good number.

So what I often find in your productions is… this coherence. And depth of characterization. People behave as they would actually behave in life. How do you get to that point?

That’s probably because of my training as an actor. I didn’t go to university [Ed: He attended to the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama] so my solution to directing an opera is to approach it as an actor, and my solution to directing a singer is: How would I play this. I’m weak on concept. Though there is always a conceptual foundation to everything I’m doing – there’s always a reason why things are happening. But the conceptual interpretation is not the overriding thing for me: it’s how the performers perform it, that’s the primary concern. How the performers invest in the character and tell the story, and is the story clear to the audience. That’s really important. Anything that I do that obfuscates the story, that gets in the way is something that I try to edit out. Because at the end of the day people are sitting in the theatre and watching the performance. It’s sort of immaterial whether I was there or not. The relationship is between the people on the stage and the audience.

I watched the documentary about the making of your Salome at Covent Garden, and took from it that every minute of a production is fussed over and thought through.

It is thought through. Even when I did a title like Il Trovatore, which I absolutely don’t like – I’ve learned a big lesson doing it: never take on something you don’t fundamentally believe in – but even with that, I thought, OK, we’re going to make this work somehow. We’re gonna damn try and make this coherent and hang together and make the audience believe in it.

That was the Met production?

Yes. But I don’t like Trovatore and I don’t think I did a good job. I don’t like it. It’s such a retrograde step, after Traviata and Rigoletto, to tell that kind of story in that kind of way. And also, you’ve got a tenor with absolutely zero psychological interest. Every time Manrico’s on stage, I’m like, that’s 12 minutes of my life I’m not getting back.

But you try. You latch on to other things, in Manrico’s case his mother and his lover and their reactions to him, to try to generate some interest.

I’ve read somewhere that you much prefer the eighteenth century to the nineteenth?

I feel really at home doing eighteenth-century opera, whether it’s Mozartian Classical period or whether it’s the baroque period. I find opera, especially Italian opera, in the first 40 years of the nineteenth century very problematic. The forms, that is. I’ve done some but I’m not doing another bel canto opera. I’ve done enough.

Ross…

I hate Rossini, oh my god! I listen to Rossini and think, How did you get away with this. You just repeat the same bar fifteen times? I’ve been asked to do Barber about four times and I’ve always said no.

What about I Capuletti?

I don’t want to do that.

But you really get the trouser role. In fact, your trouser roles, with Sarah Connolly in particular, I don’t know if you know this, have a huge lesbian fan base from all over the world. How do you know so well what happens between two women?

I can imagine it and I can guess. And because I’m coming into it with an actor’s background and I’m always observing people. And I’m fascinated by what I can observe and the interactions that people have in real life and things we’re not even conscious of and don’t even think about. Sometimes with an opera singer, you just have to make them aware of the simplest things to unlock them. Imagine this is a glass of wine [he’s pointing at the bottle of mineral water on the table between us]. How would I pass this glass of wine with intent? [Grabs the bottle and takes a sip inattentively and places it in front of me while carrying the conversation] …anyway we’re talking about this and that and I’m not even looking at you and you won’t notice I took a sip because we’re talking about something else. But if I want to do it with intent, I’d go like this [he makes direct eye contact and slowly draws the bottle toward me in a straight line]. It’s really good to ground singers and make them think about little details of life like that. And then you can get somebody to act if you can get them focused. Focused, and having thoughts.

Of course some people are lost cases and some are not interested and some of them don’t know what’s going on when they’re not singing. You’d be surprised how many people don’t know what’s going on when it’s not their music.

Sarah Connolly said in an interview that she started really acting in opera since she started working with you. From your first Alcina, and her first Ruggiero. Do you remember that production?

Yes, of course. It was at the ENO in London.

How do you unlock people? Do you… antagonize them?

Noooooooo!

Some film directors do that.

Noooooo. I never have an antagonistic relationship with the singers. Never, there’s no point. You’ll never get anything out of them.

Sarah really has got it by the dress rehearsal. Early in the process she needs my help because I need to tease out the strands which are useful to her. Otherwise stuff which isn’t necessarily useful will distract her. And then something just happens to her. Normally I would do the piano dress before we move onto the stage and at that transfer point she locks it in the place, she gets it. And with the stage and the orchestra it just gets better and better.

She trusts me and I trust her. It’s a good relationship. There’s several ladies with whom I have a strong relationship of trust. We don’t have to say very much to each other when we’re working together. We hardly say things explicitly very much. Sarah follows my body language. She watches me a great deal. Sometimes when we’re doing an aria, I’ll be acting it for her, and she watches me and then she gets into her own body.

I remember watching parts of your La Clemenza from Aix-en-Provence where she’s a Byron-like Sesto and watching those long arias like Parto, parto, and how she and Vitellia interact and how she walks – and thinking, you filled every moment of that aria, nothing’s random or loose, everything holds together.

Well, yes, but Mozart filled every moment of it. I’m just paying attention to what Mozart wrote.

II.

I’ve noticed that your first instinct isn’t to transfer the opera you’re working on to another setting, or to present day.

I’ll do it if it tells the story.

Like, I don’t think we can do Agrippina in togas anymore. Yours isn’t in togas either.

You could do Agrippina in togas. I, Claudius is in togas so it can still work. I think the sense of humour in Agrippina is so extraordinarily modern to us, though. The premise of it is, just imagine a world where the Roman Empire never came to an end. Which, in a way, it never did. And what would that world be like. And would it be a lot like contemporary America.

You also transposed Salome, to a sort of Pasolinian Salò setting.

Yes, Salò was a big influence. To understand Salome, you have to understand the world in which she lives. I wanted to correct a misapprehension about Salome that she’s this monstrous virago – it’s actually a story about a woman who’s obsessed with virginity and with not being touch. It’s very important to her. All the characters in Salome are lusting after each other and wanting something from the other person, but no one ever obtains what they want. The fascist era helps to tell the story but it’s even more important that it’s all set in this sterile kitchen/bathroom area with sinks and urinals and tiles everywhere. I wanted to find a very sterile place to tell the story; I didn’t want to make it sensuous and lush, I wanted it quite brutal. It’s a place where people are washing all the time.

From David McVicar-directed Marriage of Figaro (Royal Opera House)

But your ROH Figaro stays in its own time. What intrigued me about the production is that it full-on centres the servants. We can see their living quarters well, and their labour is out in the open, not hidden away.

Figaro is about servants! It’s from their perspective. And that whole production is all about them. The aristocrats are almost interlopers into that world. That’s the way I saw it. It would be like if you do Downton Abbey but only from the perspective of the servants. But Figaro was interesting… I’ve done Figaro quite a few times now. I actually did a different production of it in Australia, and the battle is always getting the cast to understand master-servant relationships, because it’s something that they haven’t experienced and don’t understand. Getting the singers who sing Susanna to understand the sexual politics around her character. When she’s trapped in that room with the Count, I always say to them, what are your options. Where are you going to go, what are you  going to do, how are you going to manage this man who wants something from you. Your options are so limited. You can’t walk out, you can’t slap him, you can’t say no. And that unlocks the scene.

That opera, like Don Giovanni, needs to be in a period where the female characters’ options are more limited than they would be today because it makes their actions so much more understandable, and also dignifies them. Whenever I see a modern-dress Giovanni, and most of them today are, Zerlina makes no sense to me. I think it puts a misogynist gloss on her character. Whereas if she’s in a feudal society and an aristocrat comes to her wedding, he has the authority to send the bridegroom away and say I want to marry you. What are her options?

Would you agree that Figaro and Don Giovanni kinda have different politics? In Figaro, we’re all in this together against the tyrant; and in Don Giovanni, well: this newly emerging community will demand conformity for greater good.

There’s no question in Don Giovanni that society is going to change. But you never feel that Masetto and Leporello and Zerlina are going to be besties at the end of Giovanni. The societal order re-establishes itself after this lord of misrule has been consigned to hell. I think the sexual politics in Don Giovani is as intense as in Figaro, but has a different aspect to it. The female characters are fascinating.

Isn’t Don Giovanni the most interesting character of Don Giovanni?

Except that he doesn’t exist as a character. He only exists by the effect he has on other people. He doesn’t have a single moment of self-reflection. Which is interesting because that’s what psychopaths and sociopaths are like. Not a moment of self reflection is an interesting thing to play. There are few baritones who can do it – who can actually anchor it to anything in their lives. The baritone has to think: I can do anything and I can get away with it. And I am always pushing the boundaries of what I can get away with. But what if. What if retribution is real. What if those things which we’ve decided are not real turn out to be real. That’s why this opera bridges the Classical world and the Romantic world.

Goldoni’s Don Giovanni for example is the ultimate rational eighteenth century version coz he’s despatched by a bolt of lightening which may or may not be the judgment of God. And Mozart and Da Ponte explicitly gives us heavenly retribution, don’t they.

Yes but the ‘community’ kills Don Giovanni.

Does it though? Does it?

He wouldn’t conform. He would be free, and is punished for it.

When you say the community kills him, you mean the order that the others believe in that crushes him?

Yes, that’s it.

It’s the cosmic order that he subverts and that they want to cling to and that ultimately is the thing that crumbles Giovanni. It is a seminal Romantic piece.

Does it glamourize evil?

Of course it does.

That’s one of my favourite operas and the uncomfortable truth is that, like another favourite, L’Incoronazione, it totally glams up evil.

Of course. But L’Incoronazione is about life. Shits get away with it, don’t they.

Why do we cling to this – well, partly eighteenth-century – idea of what stage representation should be? That it should be morally enlightening, and that we should see evil punished, we should always get a happy end, when actually we don’t.

You know there’s a big fashion right now with productions of Carmen where she doesn’t die at the end. But if she doesn’t die, you’ve written politics out of it. We’re not celebrating that she’s dead; women are killed by their partners, and if she doesn’t die and walks away, then you’ve ripped all the meaning and all the political power out of Carmen. So get over yourselves.

Yes. Every few days, anywhere in the world that we want to look, a woman is killed by either a male partner, an ex or a male family member. Why suddenly decide to hide this?

We shouldn’t, and one of the great things about Carmen is the truthfulness of the depiction of that relationship. And how she fails to pick up the warning signals. From Flower Song even, after which she should be saying, ‘Right, so nice knowing you’, but she doesn’t, she chooses the other course. She decides to pursue the relationships. And he’s the biggest mistake of her life. I don’t think Carmen is about a “tragically doomed romantic passion”. It’s a piece about a relationship which was fucked up from the very beginning and goes horribly wrong. And he has this unusual attachment to the mother…

He also has a criminal record I think?

He’s a murderer.

Let’s stay with Mozart for a moment longer, because I wanted to ask you about Die Entführung. You didn’t update at all. You took it at face value, and made it work. Were you ever worried about a potential charge of ‘Orientalism’ and criticism of that kind?

Of course. But my version really wanted to bring out the Ottoman Empire side of the story. We really researched it. We were interested in that extraordinary clash of cultures, the Ottoman Empire beating at the doors of the Holy Roman Empire.

If you think that Entführung is an Arabian Nights-like fairly tale, which it too often can be, then I think that you are getting into a really tricky territory with cultural appropriation. If you say, no, this is set in a real political climate and a real place, these people’s lives are being defined from this clash of two opposing worldviews – it’s defining the story, the way these people behave towards each other – then it becomes a more serious piece.

We kept a lot of the dialogue. OK, it’s not Shakespeare, but you’ve got a lot of really great information and a lot of acting opportunity. And certainly the relationship between Konstanze and Bassa has so many more colours.

You put the negotiation scene in the bedroom.

I put “Martern aller Arten” in the bedroom. What does that aria mean? What does the extremity of the coloratura writing mean? So I had to put her in a situation where every single line of that coloratura is imbued with meaning. It’s a situation of so much danger but also in a situation of mutual attraction which can hardly be contained – my goodness, I’ll never forget rehearsing that for the first time. Everyone in the room was alert. And it helped that the actor who played the Bassa had learned all her music. It was a duet, he knew everything that she was going to sing to him. He’s as much part of the music as she is.

Then there’s the tense scene between Blonde and Osmin. In the production, both Osmin and Bassa are honourable characters in that they don’t force themselves on the women, but ask for consent and ultimately back off when they don’t get it. Where were Blonde and Osmin having a fight, in the kitchen was it?

I thought, what is Blonde doing in a crisis? She bakes. It’s a crisis because she’s been given as a slave to this man who wants to have sex with her, and how will she keep him at bay? She’s angry when Pedrillo questions her fidelity. That’s their domestic situation: Osmin tries something, and she has to wreck things to get him off her. She has to work so hard and be assertive, and hurt his feelings to keep him at bay. It was important to show how she manipulates him – it’s important for her character, and for Osmin’s, to show how he’s frustrated in his desire. There’s nothing more interesting than watching a big scary macho man who finds himself in a relationship with a woman who treats him like a kid. And he accepts that.

Tobias Kehrer and Mari Eriksmoen in the Serail (2015). Photo by Richard Hubert Smith

III.

Your Vienna Staatsoper debut was last year in Ariodante?

Ariodante for me is a piece about how easy it is for the forces of chaos to subvert society if we take our eyes off the ball. And how deceitful those forces will be and how someone like Polinesso can obtain so much power based on lies. He’s becoming the de facto ruler of Scotland.

What was new about your Ariodante is how strong you made the character. Usually he’s a hapless young man mindlessly following where other people’s action takes him; somehow in this Vienna production he is assertive.

But his flaw is Othello’s flaw. That’s what sends him off deep end. He should learn how to trust. He should never have doubted Ginevra in the first place. And Dalinda is fascinating – what a dark little character. All of her crazy coloratura is there for a reason. Her realization that this man that she’s obsessed with doesn’t give a shit about her. And the revenge that she then takes. It’s… They’re all real to me. All the characters in all the operas – well, most of them; some of them, like Manrico, are a lost cause. But they’re very real to me. In opera plots you find yourself in extraordinary situations; but then just think, if I was in that extraordinary situation, how would I behave, what would be my objective, how would I get out of it.

The Glyndebourne Cesare is today the best know and most popular Cesare that exists. So the directors pretty much save the operatic works with productions that strongly resonate in their own era. They carry the opera over, past our lifetimes, like a relay.

Oh but Cesare‘s been saved before. There have been productions… John Copley’s now…

Productions with staying power, though?

John Copley’s now looks very outdated, okay, but at the time it was extraordinary. Because he treated it seriously. He did it in a certain style, he drew on the paintings of Tiepolo for the visual world, and it’s all very statuesque – it’s a serious piece of work.

Then Peter Sellars comes along and does his version. With Cesar that’s a Reagan-esque figure.

I’ve never seen that one. There have been some other ones lately, like the Salzburg one with Bartoli, but I’m not sure that we will treat them as reference pieces in 10 years.

Our version is about colonialism, and about the British Empire. It was my idea to do it. Gus Christie’s dad George, who was running things at that point, told me [assumes posh British baritone] I’ve got to plan the season, David, what’d you want to do? I said, let’s do Julius Cesar, please. And some time passes and next time we meet he says: I’ve spoken to Bill Christie about it and… yeah. Let’s do it.

I also had casting control over that one; Bill was quite happy for me to take care of it. And then the final thing was, at the last second, Dani (Ed: Danielle de Niese) came. We had somebody else but she had to drop out due to surgery and 10 days before we were due to start we got Dani. And I didn’t know anything about her. Absolutely nothing, and was like, Fingers crossed.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

It’s been revived various places, Chicago…

…and at the Met, which I wasn’t very happy with. The place is just too big.

And a countertenor sang it, alas.

Yeah, he was good. [whispers] But Sarah was… magnificent.

 OMFG where to start.

She is magnificent in it. It’s a career-defining role for her. And you never question it – it’s a thing of beauty, you absolutely accept that it doesn’t matter that it is a woman playing a man.

Welllll… We know there’s a female body there. (My ilk certainly does.)

Yes we know there’s a female body there but it’s the way she plays it. She believes that she is that man. And she carries it off.

I was passionate about Giulio Cesare from the word go, I just love it so much. And I’ve seen that our production has been imitated — for example in how far you can take the choreography in opera productions. And I’ve seen productions that are just aria after aria after aria. And productions where Cleopatra’s scenes are just plain tacky. But somehow we found the right way, we pulled it off. We did it, somehow.

I know you have to go, so this will be my last question. What the everlasting tuck is happening with the UK?

I moved back from London to Scotland last year because I couldn’t stand it anymore. Brexit ripped the lid off Pandora’s Box and things have emerged that we’ll never to be able to get back in there. One of the ugliest things was that English nationalism found a cause and a voice. And it’s a very ugly thing. And what the Leavers understood, and us Remainers it took a while to understand, is that this was an existential vote about identity. It’s now clear that that’s what it was about. The country is so split and the atmosphere is so hostile… and now we have our very own pound store Trump in Boris Johnson, who is learning the lessons of his master well. Is that going to play well in Britain, we won’t find out till the general election, but it’s scary.

Is there going to be another independence vote for Scotland?

There’ll have to be. What’s also coming out loud and clear is the total disregard for other parts of the union from the English parliament. Ian Blackford, who’s one of the SNP representatives at Westminster, every time he stands up to make what are actually intelligent speeches, the Tory backbenchers shout Go back home, Go back home. That’s the rhetoric that Trump’s using. They should be ashamed of themselves. They’re the Conservative and Unionist party and they should be listening to our voices and the voices of Northern Ireland which is not just their devilish friends, the DUP. And this whole process has made it abundantly clear that in the thinking of Westminster Parliament, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales are colonies. I didn’t live in Scotland when the last referendum happened so I didn’t vote because I didn’t feel I should. Now I do live there and would vote for independence. I moved back to Glasgow for some sanity. It’s the best thing I ever did.

Rusalka opens at the COC on October 12th. Torontonians can watch several David McVicar productions, including Cesare, Troyens and the Meistersinger, on Medici.tv for free by logging on with a Toronto Public Library card via tpl.ca/medici.