My production for the Jokai Szinhaz in Bekescaba, Hungary, will be performed at the Vig Szinhaz on the 24th April, 19:00
From the 8th to the 23rd February 2014, I will be leading an ‘Acting for the Screen’ workshop at Srinakharinwirot University, Bangkok.
The course is being hosted by the College of Social Communication & Innovation.
From the 2011 production at RWCMD.
We’ve had a wonderful reaction to our touring production of Handel’s Rodelinda for Scottish Opera. Many of the audiences we’ve taken the show to have never heard a baroque piece before, some have never seen an opera.
The cast tell me that in each place they feel a vibrant connection with the audience. They seem engaged by Handel’s exquisite score, as well as the human interest of the characters as they fight to survive in a harsh political world.
As this is a small-scale tour, it’s unfortunate we can’t take a full baroque orchestra with us to give our audiences ‘the real deal’. But Derek Clark’s clever arrangement for harpsichord, violin, and cello gives a strong flavour of the piece, and I’ve been really impressed by the connection between the singers and the musicians, led by the very talented Susannah Wapshott from the keyboard.
Some people think, of course, that Handel shouldn’t be reduced in this way, but none of our audiences seem to agree. From Stornaway to Wick, Dumfries to Ullapool, it’s a privilege to perform for them. It gets opera out of the opera house, and presents it to fresh ears and eyes.
A trailer for the Jokai Szinhaz (Hungary) production of King Lear. Directed by Chris Rolls, designed by Sean Crowley, dramaturgy by Tibor Zalán.
Is the theatre dead? Isn’t it just entertainment? What can you really do with it? Wouldn’t it be preferable to write a book, a newspaper article, a film, than stage an opera? Why is theatre not film and what can it do that film cannot do? Why is theatre so expensive? Why should we care? What has theatre or opera got do with politics really? Isn’t it just a middle class obsession for middle class people? Is a theatre audience a hive mind: collectively more intelligent than a single person, or is it plain dumb? Does being in an audience make you think differently? Isn’t everything on the stage just a distraction from real life? Is it just masturbation? What is still not permissible on the stage? Is the theatre now a niche pastime for consumers? Why should we fund theatre when there are hospitals and schools to be maintained and built? Are we good audience members? How many Artistic Directors use political language simply to justify their funding? Wouldn’t we rather be Tweeting or playing X-Box? Who is an ideal audience member? How are we supposed to react? Do we have a right to be entertained? What are our consumer rights? What do we hand over with the price of a ticket? ‘Astonish me,’ or, ‘don’t disturb my prejudices?’
What no Handel opera can claim is a simple storyline. There is usually a scheming monarch or several, some convoluted mistaken identities, the odd bout of madness or hocus pocus.
The themes tend to be obvious enough (love, loyalty, revenge, vice, virtue) but with characters whose names all sound roughly the same and whose family trees look like tangly creepers, even the hardiest opera-goer can easily lose the plot, so to speak.
And that makes it doubly intriguing that the director of Scottish Opera’s new touring production of Handel’s Rodelinda is a self-proclaimed ‘story junkie’. Chris Rolls – a sharp-minded, soft-spoken young director from Lichfield, Staffordshire – describes his priority as “a decent case of what-happens-next”; that’s what keeps audiences hooked, he says, more than concept, more than moral message.
Luckily, Rodelinda is one of Handel’s more straight-forward operas, as well as one of his greatest – it’s up there with Tamerlano and Giulio Cesare, all written in 1724/25.
The plot goes roughly like this: everyone thinks Bertarido, king of Milan, is dead, including his wife Rodelinda. However, he is in hiding while the evil Grimoaldo (who is engaged to Bertarido’s sister Eduige) tries to overthrow the throne and force Rodelinda to marry him while he is at it.
There are dodgy dealings by a court counsellor called Garibaldo, some near misses with daggers in dark dungeons, but, ultimately, the faith and ingenuity of the long-suffering lady wins through and rightful order is restored.
Rolls insists it is possible to tell it straight. “I think all great storytelling comes from character,” he says. “I am addicted to TV series The Killing at the moment. The first series is 20 hours long, yet you really, really want to know what is going to happen next. How is it possible to hold someone’s interest for 20 hours? Only by making them care about the characters.
“In opera there is often a gap between what the music is expressing and what the words are saying. Character can exist in that gap.” Think of it like life, he says: what we say is not always what we really mean. In opera the words and music can both be disingenuous to varying and conflicting degrees – so much for straightforward, but it is a lot to play with.
So why do Handelian characters often end up acting as archetypes? Rodelinda stands for love and loyalty; Grimoaldo stands for malice, and so on, without much everyday human fine-print. For Rolls that approach is a cop-out.
“On day one of rehearsals we decided to investigate these characters as if they are real people. There is always an aria or a recitative that reveals them. Garibaldo is pretty Machiavellian, but there are fleeting glimpses where he is also screwed up and vulnerable. Those are the moments we have to hone in on.”
The fact this is an up-close production is helpful here, he says, “because it’s especially important to be detailed and truthful. It’s all about convincing relationships.”
But there won’t be a full orchestra (Scottish Opera has cut the score to a bare-bones trio of cello, violin and harpsichord) so that makes Rolls’s job even harder: often it is Handel’s colourful instrumental writing that gives away the unspoken emotional narrative.
Rolls came to opera via theatre. He studied English at Edinburgh, where he spent most of his time acting and directing at the Bedlam. “I’m not a musician,” he says. “I can make my way through a vocal score, but mostly I treat an opera as I would a play.”
He has spent enough time in opera houses to know what works, though; he assisted David McVicar on Scottish Opera’s Cosi fan tutte in 2009, Barrie Kosky on English National Opera’s Castor and Pollux in 2011, and recently directed a community production of Verdi’s Macbeth at Blackheath Halls in London.
“That really made me appreciate what opera can be. To get people who might not otherwise connect singing together, experiencing the same emotional power at the same moment, is amazing.”
He likes the idea that much of the audience for this tour might be “experiencing this kind of music for the first time,” and hates the idea of creating work for people who have already seen the same opera in a hundred different productions – “that seems a really arrogant approach”. Ultimately, he says, what the audience takes away is whether they felt empathy with a character.
“Don’t get me wrong: I love concept, and working with Kosky taught me it is possible to do both. As long as you are taking people somewhere where they are desperate to know what happens next, then you can be as wilfully conceptual as you like. Maybe it is Shakespeare’s fault that in this country we are such story junkies and we tend to switch off if the narrative is unclear.”
Which brings us back to Handel. What about all those da capo arias, where a character reflects on their feelings by singing a melody through once then repeating a great chunk of it again? In Handel’s day they were all the rage because they showed off star singers (the repeat would be loaded up with trills and frills).
These days, directors often stumble over a form that, dramatically speaking, can be deathly stagnant.
“You’re telling me! Basically I’m trying to treat these arias as if they are continuously unfolding scenes of action. A repeat is never a repeat in terms of intention. This is our chance to get to know the character, to really see beyond the public persona and into their deepest feelings. In terms of character-building, these are the most insightful moments.”
Failing that, the tunes are great.
Handel’s 1725 masterpiece, Rodelinda, opens in Greenock for Scottish Opera next week. The tour takes in venues throughout Scotland. A fabulous cast brings a tale of betrayal, corruption, passion, and love to vivid life. Set and costumes by Oliver Townsend, lighting by Mark Howland.