As part of the Jette Parker Young Artist Programme (and subsequently being an Associate Artist) at the prestigious Royal Opera House in London, you’ve had the opportunity to work with some incredible singers and directors. Can you tell us about a moment that took you completely out of your comfort zone?
There have been so many – but one of an assistant’s key jobs is to know the show so well that if a performer is missing from rehearsal, we can walk the role so that we don’t lose precious rehearsal time. This means that I’ve been (un)lucky enough to carry flaming barrels onstage in a performance , have a swordfight with Bryn Terfel and be ‘drunken whore #3’ in a scene with Jonas Kaufmann!
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?
It varies depending on whether I’m leading the rehearsal (as a Revival Director or Director) or whether I’m supporting the rehearsal (as an Assistant Director). In both cases, an absolute knowledge of the show is essential, which means knowing the text and the music (of course) and where every person on stage is meant to be (which can be a challenge with big chorus shows of 100 people on stage, each doing something important). Then there’s knowing the details of the production – not just ‘then that character moves downstage-left’ but why they need to do that. And also all of the other background of the piece – what the opera was based on (and having a knowledge of that particular play, novel or historical figure), what the composer was trying to say to the audience at the show’s premiere and the details of the composer’s relationship to the librettist and the subject matter. There’s a lot to get through, and for a big show I’d take several months to prepare so that I’d be comfortable leading a rehearsal with international-level singers.
What about the operatic art form keeps you engaged?
The epic scale. Unlike an Ibsen or a Chekov where the choices a character makes can have far-reaching consequences for their immediate community, most opera is about characters caught in situations where decisions have far-reaching ramifications for everyone. This is part of why I think opera is such a perfect ground for thrashing out big universal ideas, and why it continues to be such a popular form of theatre.
Next up for you is embarking on one of the biggest operatic productions of all time - Wagner’s Ring. The production is bringing you home to Australia. What excites you about being part of this large scale production?
I love the Ring – this will be the third time I’ve worked on a Ring Cycle (the first 2 being in the UK) and I really can’t wait to get started. There seems to be such a veil of snobbery around Wagner in general and the Ring in particular, and when I first got a contract to work on the Longborough Ring in 2010, I thought it was going to be too dense and difficult and lofty for me to be able to make sense of. But the truth is that it’s a masterpiece of storytelling and creates such a compelling and atmospheric world. People have said that they can’t imagine sitting through it because of its length (and I used to be one of them!) but it’s really more like binge-watching a series than watching a really long movie. I’ve totally sat down and watched 4 or 5 Game of Thrones episodes in a row, and so I think audiences are again becoming used to sitting down and investing in a world for hours at a time. And the similarities between the Ring and GoT don’t end there, either!!
What are the challenges in reworking operas that many audience members know intimately?
I think the great challenge with opera, as with other theatre forms whose stories have been around for a long time (Shakespeare, Moliere, the Greeks) is that there are 2 groups of people in an audience – those that know the stories really well and are coming to see your interpretation, and those who are there to experience the story for the first time. I think the really big challenge is in trying to tread a line between the two so that the story is clear enough for people to be able to follow while also trying to offer your own insight into the piece that doesn’t swamp (too many of) the original intentions of the playwright/librettist/composer.
You’ve been in London, and all over Europe for several years now. Does the Ring Cycle mean you’re spending a bit of time in Australia? What would you like to see happen in the next 5 years in the Australian operatic landscape?
Yes – I’m so excited to be back home for the first proper stretch in ages! This year will be my first Christmas at home in 6 years, and I can’t wait to spend it in a proper Aussie summer rather than staring miserably out of a cold, grey window! The Ring is the biggest undertaking in the operatic world (17 hours over 4 nights) and so there’s a lot of rehearsal needed! All in all, this revival starts production (staging) rehearsals in August - although there will have been months of music coaching before that – and will finish its run of performances in December, so there’ll be plenty of time for me to remember the joy of Tim Tams and Vegemite!
I think opera in Australia is on the verge of breaking into a new paradigm – there are so many very talented performers, musicians, directors and designers who are desperate to perform and so more and more I think the focus will shift to the smaller-scale works which really give cast and creatives an opportunity to tell honest and intimate stories. In the UK there has been for some little time a thriving fringe and festival scene which has helped keep opera at the forefront of the theatrical vanguard, and while there must always be a place for large-scale presentations of grand works, I hope there will be an increasing presence of smaller companies who are pushing to tell stories that the bigger companies just can’t.
How can young people go about being involved in the production side of opera? What skills are essential to a young director?
The most important thing for me before I began pursuing a professional career as a director was to see as many things as I could. While I was at university I worked as an usher at the Arts Centre Melbourne, which has 3 indoor theatres as well as serving the Myer Music Bowl and over the 5 years I was there I would have seen in excess of 1000 performances from ballet, contemporary dance, opera and theatre to rock concerts, comedy events and festival pieces that were amalgams of several disciplines. And each one –whether I loved it or hated it – taught me a little bit more about my craft, about why a certain lighting state worked and why another didn’t, why a pause made an audience laugh one night and not the next, why a stage shape worked brilliantly on a large stage and why a bit of set just didn’t quite work in a smaller theatre. I also think that the most important asset to a young director is the ability to observe. I’ve assisted many directors – good, bad and indifferent – and for each of them my method was the same: I tried to ascertain what they wanted (from the performer, conductor, designer) and then observe how they set about achieving it. That taught me such a lot about how to interact with people and, crucially, the things that I would put my foot down about in my own productions.
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 think there’s a big difference between reviews and real feedback. Reviews are a double-edged sword – some of them can absolutely provide you with feedback, but only if you know and trust the expertise of the person making the comments. The rise of the blogger-reviewer has led to a vast number of sites where people of varying degrees of experience, knowledge and understanding have free reign to say whatever they like and it lives as a permanent archive of a critique of your work. I’m certainly all for discussions about works and interpretations, but there are very few people I think are truly qualified to call themselves ‘critics’ in the truest sense of the word. Feedback from people I trust is one of the most important things in my professional life and feedback from people whose expertise I question is one of the least.
When you are involved in a casting process for a production you are directing, what do you look for in an audition? What stands out to you?
In the big houses, directors are rarely involved in casting as it takes place several years ahead. When I do attend auditions, I try as much as I can to make them a workshop rather than a stand-and-deliver. Not only do I get tremendously bored in those situations, but I think the real test of whether someone is right for the part comes when I work with them to see how open they are to new ideas, how excited they are to play, how capable they are when I throw different things at them rather than them just presenting their one ‘good’ audition aria or monologue. It’s usually someone’s attitude when we start to play rather than their technical ability that I remember (…and here’s a big secret – I’m really terrible with names, so I tend to draw a caricature of people on their audition forms so I can remember who they are … my contributions in casting meetings tend to be ‘I really loved Moustache Face but I was concerned that Flower Dress was a bit too hesitant’..!!)
REHEARSALmagazine is site for developing artists. What advice would you have loved to receive during your first directorial position?
I wish someone had told me that the director doesn’t have to do everything. I had this idea in my head that directing a show meant leading the production from the front in all areas, but the biggest lesson has been that collaboration is essential. That means finding the right design team, the right stage management, the right company management to support both the project and the way I like to work. Once I have these elements in place, the trust is already established and when I delegate things I can be secure that everything will be cared about. I think the hardest thing was that on my first shows I felt that I had to love the show the most, whereas now I’ve found that if everyone is on board for the right reasons, we’ll all care equally about every part of the show that falls within our responsibility.
What differences have you found between working with European opera companies and Australian opera companies? For young singers and directors planning to study and work overseas, what should the be prepared for?
There’s certainly a lot more work around in Europe, mainly because there’s a stronger operatic tradition both in mainland Europe and the UK. One of the great disadvantages in Australia is that we’re so far away and so it’s harder to get an immediate appreciation of references and situations in operas that are second-nature to Europeans. Anyone can sing ‘O mio babbino caro’ beautifully, but it wasn’t until I went to Florence and walked along the Ponte Vecchio that I really understood the imagery that was being used. The flip-side is that all of the Australians I know who are enjoying careers in Europe (and there are many) are routinely celebrated for their work ethic.
It’s a super-hard business to get into and requires massive sacrifices both from you as the artist and your loved ones. I sometimes give talks to groups of young directors in the UK, and one of the things I tell every session is that it’s important to find the ‘mafia’ that will best support you wherever you go. In my case, I was able to use the ‘Australian-mafia’ to club together with other Australians and we’d all look out for each other and help each other along with everything from finding houses to getting jobs. Just like directing, working with a good team is going to help you get further faster than slogging through by yourself!
Photographs: (c) ROH / Signe Roderik