The UK, RegieOper & VoiceArc
There was a general assumption (I might even say terror) in the early 2010’s that RegieOper was taking over the UK opera stage. This was largely hailed as being at best unsettling for the purists and the majority of critics and at worst accused of destroying and disrespecting the entire art form. There has subsequently been so much backtracking to traditional production that very few UK companies now offer it as a directing style at all. We tend to be presented with a re-working of the concept if we are lucky with a very linear and conventional staged narrative. UK audiences appear to display a definite preference for period production and grudgingly tolerate productions that may have a reimagining of concept in terms of place or period as long as they then proceed to follow a conventional unfolding. This has always been different in the UK theatre world where director-lead work is alive and well and attracting decently sized audiences who on the whole embrace the uniqueness of the director-lead vision. Opera lovers have a much more precious attitude when it comes to changing and adapting accepted interpretations of their beloved genre. There seems to be no consideration of the fact that in order for art to progress it must evolve. We cannot move from Purcell to Mozart to Strauss through to Weir and beyond without change and innovation. The story-lines in operas tell of all life from conception to death and from the pauper to the palace not forgetting the bestial as well as the celestial. Surely we should present these stories in a way to engage people from all backgrounds and walks of life who are used to more accessible forms of media. Turning against change will only stifle and curtail the widening of acceptance for opera and maintain its elitist reputation. This striving for new audience members to stop our current and mostly ageing audiences eventually dying out is one of the reasons that I believe a resurgence of RegieOper and other newer innovations in interpretive style is vital.
RegieOper in the UK has never seemed to me to be entirely complete in its unfolding. Reconceptualisation is and has been a popular stamp for the director to make a work their own and I for one am glad of it! What is lacking is one of the trade marks, for me, of RegieOper and that is symbolic abstract movement and physical metaphor within the direction of the actors. The beauty of a balanced pageant of movement is a visual delight and can enhance the ability of an audience to understand a complicated subtext or increase their awareness and understanding of a character’s internal motivation if the observer is open to and understands the purpose of the movement and it’s meaning. This is where the rot can often set in. The general UK opera-goer and in my experience many critics, though not all, have very little experience of this sort of visual cueing in opera performance and even less of the understanding to decode it. This is not a criticism as they cannot be expected to process information they are wholly unused to or ready for, but I would suggest that if they opened themselves up a little to learning about it they would truly enrich their understanding and enjoyment of RegieOper. I do however realise that learning means change and that change can be very unsettling and therefore easier to put off than to embrace.
VoiceArc, the small fringe opera company I founded and direct, was set up to give emerging and early in their career professional singers a chance to experience performance and professional direction and a platform to learn and perform roles. We set out from the beginning never to change the libretto or the music and to strive for excellent singing while vowing to modernise the concept and to make RegieOper the centre of our performance strategy. My director training was in Berlin in the early 90’s and abstract movement was at its core. As I stated earlier I believe that to attract new audiences we need to offer an alternative to the traditional period production route so entrenched in UK opera and offer a staging that is fresh, nearer to the movement and busyness of musical theatre, a genre much better known and more normalised within everyday society and utilise settings more readily found in popular media to lure them in. Herein lies the rub: the majority of our existing audience and many of the critics do not like and do not understand or want to understand RegieOper thus effectively we are, by choosing to be different, cutting out around two thirds of our potential audience. The plus side is that although I’m told many of our new audience members don’t understand my directorial approach I find many others will approach me directly after a performance and tell me it was their first time at an opera and they found it approachable, enjoyable and many say that the busyness and movement in the production meant they were not bored for a moment. We always include surtitles which give a translation into English or Scots language that follows the concept and helps to contextualise the movement and action on stage. We never sing in translation and we never stray from the libretto but we do bend the surtitles to aid understanding.
I think our abstract movement truly does enhance the work performed and to me is one of the necessary aspects of true RegieOper. Our production of Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte is set in a poorly performing Scottish Airport while the identity deception is facilitated by an online dating app. Within the virtual environment parts of the production lots of abstract movement and physical metaphor is used to display the “otherness” of this dimension. Part of this movement was a section where I felt that a visual demonstration of the cross manipulation between the four young lovers and their tormentors Don Alfonso and Despina was called for. Not only are the lovers lives manipulated but also the manipulators’ lives are similarly designed by their drive to manipulate. I chose to create an organic machine to display this on stage where the men are moved by Don Alfonso into a shape that joins with the women similarly compelled by Despina. This shape becomes a wheel-like conjunction (symbolic of the cycle of life; the machinations of the manipulators; the daily grind etc.) of the men and women which is turned by Don Alfonso and Despina. A centrifugal force compels the manipulators to be forced to become part of the machine and the machine eventually breaks forming a catapult which throws a terrified Despina across the stage into the arms of Don Alfonso. The machine re-groups and continues but I think this example is enough to demonstrate the use of movement and metaphor in our productions. A much loved moment of this production was our choreographing the In-flight Safety Demonstration to the singing of Soave sia il vento. One of my favourite production moments and a healthy demonstration of our next point!
RegieOper should also create an interesting global visual. In our most recent production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, set in space using an extrapolation of Kabuki make-up to signpost the emotional state of the character, I used the visual beauty of movement form as an attempt to clothe our stage. We are a small company with no outside funding and our set has to be extremely minimal if any at all. RegieOper should be able to stand alone if the audience is open to seeing the movement and form as a dressing for the stage. I prefer, if possible, which is sadly not often the case due to funds, to work in a completely white or black space where form and movement coupled with strong acting from the singers are the only set needed. The movements and placement of the characters changed as their stories and emotional and moral states both evolved and deteriorated. The formation in the wonderful Act II sextette also reinforced the transition taking place in Leporello where the other five characters surrounded him and formed into a flower shape both opening and closing themselves around him as they worked some of their morality into his soul.
You might be asking where’s the sex? Isn’t RegieOper all about sex? I know the detractors like to say we directors of RegieOper only bring out the sexual aspect of everything which I would counter by saying most operas are about sex and therefore we are completely within context! However sex and gender are only one aspect of RegieOper and in Don Giovanni it was definitely there at the end. We had a couples line up at the end which saw Donna Anna finally find her inner strength and break away from male containment and domination by tentatively reaching out to the male-brutalised Donna Elvira for love, Don Ottavio decided to break free from convention and start a relationship adventure with a Leporello traumatised by his former Master’s treatment of women and a very happy conventional couple in Zerlina and Masetto. The audience were mixed in their understanding but profuse with their applause while the critic definitely did not understand RegieOper as he did not enjoy the performance apart from the singing. I’m not sure he fully understood the director’s role however while paying me a back-handed compliment of sorts in intimating that part of what saved the production were the movements made by the singers! He also hated the light-sabres which brings me to one of the most important tenets of RegieOper: opera should be something we love and enjoy and when appropriate, immense fun!
This blog post was originally posted on The Opera Stage