In Conversation: Cameron Menzies, Director

In Conversation: Cameron Menzies, Director

Opera talk, with award-winning director, Cameron Menzies.

Cameron Menzies
Melbourne, Australia

In Conversation: Cameron Menzies, Director

Opera talk, with award-winning director, Cameron Menzies.

You are about to embark on directing Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte in London and you have several large-scale Mozart productions on your resume already. What are you looking forward to in this coming process? 

Yes, this is my fourth production in London over the last three years. Last year I directed Le Nozze di Figaro and Lucia di Lammermoor, and in 2014 Don Giovanni. I will also direct a new production of Die Zauberflote for a tour of China at the end of the year, so I have quite a relationship with Mozart. Embarking on a new production of Cosi Fan Tutte is very exciting as I have never directed it before. I very much enjoy working on these Mozart/Da Ponte masterpieces as they are so full of great text and music to build and shape into a performance.  We have an exciting cast including Australian Soprano Anita Watson as our Fiordiligi.  I am very much looking forward to finding the balance between humour and poignancy in this work. I see some moments in the opera as very three-dimensional, which are then, through the genius of Mozart and Da Ponte, transformed into moments of I think pure clowning. I find the process of moving between these seemingly opposing genres a wonderful treat to create. Cosi comes with its own challenges as does any piece, but finding this edge will be an exciting part of putting this production together.

What are the major steps you undertake before heading into the rehearsal room for the first time? Do you have a general method, or does it change depending on the production? 

I think there are two parts to this: the process before rehearsal and then the process during rehearsal. First of all, my own preparation needs to be undertaken. A lot of personal learning and planning needs to be done before the first day of rehearsal - I need to intimately learn the work that is being produced. I tend to learn the opera that I am directing from memory; this is just something that I personally do so that I know I am across all aspects of the piece. Then, a concept and design process happens with the creative team, which usually consists of the director, set/costume designer and lighting designer. A design or concept is created by this team and is then presented to the producing company for approval, and then the executive producer, production manager and stage management team all set about creating the
production. All of these months of work take place before the first day of rehearsal can begin.  My method of preparation is pretty much the same for any piece I direct. I like to immerse myself in the piece and then sit and learn it. I also tend to do a lot of historical research on relevant themes surrounding the work. Once rehearsals have started, my process is always slightly different depending on the work I am directing and the artists I have on the floor. I generally work through from start to finish in very broad strokes to get a feel for the shape of the piece. I find this gives the cast and the music team an idea of where we are heading. I then usually spend the rest of the time refining the production, making sure the pace is right and the storytelling is linked to the text and the music. It is a very detailed process that I slightly modify and respond to differently for each production.

Mozart continues to be a favourite on stages globally - what is it about his music that gives these operas staying power? 

You’re right, these works by Mozart do have such staying power, and I think it has to do with the beautiful marriage of the text and the music. For me, these pieces have thrived on the stages of opera all over the world because the music is so very accessible and the story lines are so very inviting. We are cleverly thrust into action from the very start of most of these works; for instance in Figaro, we find an excited couple at the start of a very important day: he is measuring a room with absolute glee and Susanna is fixing a hat for her to wear to her wedding... All very exciting to be thrust into that world. Immediately the music tells us where we are and what is happening in the world, and this focuses us from the start and takes us on the journey with a wonderful pace. Similarly in something like The Magic Flute, we are again thrust into a storm with a giant serpent attacking a man who is being defeated… No time for long introductions, just straight into exciting action. I feel like the pace of the drama and the comedy linked with the music is a big reason why these pieces continue to resonate so well with audiences.  

Cameron Menzies, courtesy of Working Management

Cameron Menzies, courtesy of Working Management

What are the challenges in reworking operas that many audience members know intimately? 

This is interesting. To rework or not to rework… I’m not sure that everything needs to be reworked. I feel that pieces definitely need to be freshly found and tailored to the cast that are performing these roles, and that the world of the production needs to be cleanly and clearly defined (be it in the original period, or set on the planet Mars as an example), but I'm not sure about the reworking of a piece. There are challenges associated with both sides of this argument; as opera audiences are diversifying, it is a challenge to pitch a production that will satisfy a long-time audience and a newcomers audience. I think my job is to remain true to the composer and the libretto, and find what I believe they were trying to say and bring it to life through my imagination and innovation. Now, that doesn’t mean all in strict period or all contemporary settings , but I do feel like some operas are reworked to breaking point.  Directors of opera repertoire with works such as Cosi need to operate as interpretive artists pulling the piece up off the page. Working on a new opera commission is a different thing altogether, but with repertoire I feel that no matter where you have set something it needs to be followed through and executed very cleverly and cleanly from the text and music.

You have a background as both an actor and a musician, meaning an understanding of many genres. What strikes you about opera, and keeps you coming back? 

Yes, I trained firstly as an actor and then as a musician through the Victorian College of the Arts. This does give me a unique understanding of genres and has allowed me to work across opera, music theatre, theatre, film, and even into documentary film-making. However, opera keeps calling me back because for me it is the most heightened form of storytelling that I have access to. I very much enjoy working with the musical and emotional blueprint that a composer delivers to a story, and I love playing with the sense of time in opera, i.e. are we in real time or poetic time? The stories as well in opera need to be condensed in a way that they become so juicy that it is a joy to create them. There is also the collaborative nature in opera between so many artists that I find very appealing. Working with the insights from the conductor, music staff, designers, singers, orchestral players and artisans on a piece and being able to pull all these ideas into the service of one production is a thrilling thing. It takes a small city to create an opera on any level, and I enjoy working with a team very much in this way. 

Tell me about your first experience with opera. 

My first operatic experience was probably through my father playing LP’s on the record player at home. However, my first live operatic experience was at about age 12, when my father took me to see a production of Australian Opera’s Lucia di Lammermoor at the Sydney Opera house - this was part of a subscription that he bought for us. That year we also saw Il Trovatore and The Magic Flute. I loved these productions very much, they were wonderful and a world I have never seen. I probably always knew I was headed into the arts (apart from a few years where I was going to be a vet), but I never thought opera would be a part of my career. I am so happy that I have been able to bring opera into my life, and to make it my career both here in Australia and overseas is such a blessing.   

Does practical knowledge in acting and singing help shape your understanding of the artists you direct? Are you better equipped to understand operatic characters? 

The very short answer to this question is undoubtedly… Yes! I was trained by Hayes Gordon, a highly skilled actor, teacher and mentor, over four years at the Ensemble Theatre in Sydney.  Hayes trained directly with, and was a great colleague to, acting giants such as Lee Strasberg and Sandford Meisner. My acting training allows me to break down acting into its smallest parts to help singers meld their acting into the music. My acting training also provided me with a way of diagnostically looking at someone’s work, and finding ways of tailoring it towards stronger choices to bring it into line with the production we are creating. Similarly, my musical knowledge and ability to read and analyse a score puts me in a strong position to not only justify and communicate my decisions dramatically but musically as well. My knowledge and experience as a performer gives me a rare insight into what a performer is going through, and helps me to guide them through rehearsals. I think it also gives me a clear insight into operatic characters, helping me to find their motivations and flaws.

How can young people go about being involved in the production side of opera? What skills are essential to a young director?

There are many outlets for young people wanting to be involved in production. I think that it is wise to approach youth theatre companies or amateur and pro/am companies that will take on young people to give them a taste and experience for what it is like. There are a lot of youth programs attached to opera companies now as well - it would serve people looking into this type of experience to write to companies and very politely put yourself forward to observe or even second or intern. Sometimes companies reserve these positions for people studying at a tertiary full-time level, but it can't hurt to ask. I think it never hurts to politely express an interest in something and ask to see what might be available or on offer; they can only say no, and they know you for next time. But tread humbly in these instances.  

Young directors of opera need a huge understanding of a lot of things: languages, music, acting, operatic hierarchy, protocol and etiquette in the rehearsal room, what different rehearsals are designed for, how to work with a chorus as opposed to working with principal artists, history and varied periods both musically and dramatically, and theatre style to name a few. I also as a young director set out to find out about what each part of a company does and how they work and what vocabulary they use. For example, wardrobe use very specific language, as does the production team and music staff. I’m definitely not saying I can do each and every one of these highly skilled jobs, but I tried to learn their language so I was able to communicate with them quickly and clearly, and have an understanding and a respect for each element of an opera production and company.

As with all roles in the arts, productions come with good and bad reviews. How do you deal with feedback, whether positive or negative?

I have a very healthy relationship with feedback and press. I believe everyone is entitled to an opinion. It doesn’t sway me much either way to be honest. It's nice if you get a good review, but if you start to believe the press or reviews I think you’re in trouble.

REHEARSALmagazine is site for developing artists. What advice would you have loved to receive during your first directorial position? 

Hmmm this is a tricky one... I'm reminded of an article that I read in a German magazine when I was working at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin in 2008, that talked about the craziness of the ‘Regietheatre’ in Germany over the last two or so decades. Loosely quoted it said: “These young directors have to remember that the real genius in the room is actually Wagner, Puccini, Mozart, Strauss or Verdi…”

Image: Jeff Busby/Victorian Opera