This year marks the bicentenary of Giuseppe Verdi’s birth and the 2013 Blackheath Community Opera will be his thrilling version of Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth.
Shakespeare’s ambitious general makes a dark descent into a world of witches, ghosts, refugees and soldiers as he and his wife tread a blood-soaked path to the throne. Verdi’s 1865 score ravishingly captures the clash of values at the heart of this powerful drama.
A stunning line-up of professional singers will be joined by a dedicated amateur chorus, as well as children from local schools.
Information about the project can be found on the link above.
And here’s a link to the project’s blog.
‘King Lear as alternative reality’
In what way can the story of King Lear be said to reflect contemporary politics?
It strikes me that there’s a timelessness about Shakespeare’s discussion of power in King Lear. The play is like a crystal; it reflects the energies of the period in which it is being produced and asks us to reflect on them. With the designer, Sean Crowley, we wanted to do two things. We wanted to create a modern reality in which the action could take place, but we also wanted to avoid making this reality too specific and thereby destroy the mythic dimension of the story. Shakespeare was very liberal with his use of time and place in his drama. He mixed pagan imagery with contemporary references to spectacles and Elizabethan clothing (for example). He was more interested, I think, in the symbolic nature of truth than being consistent about historical facts. I began the process of creating the production by asking the question: What is a king? Today we do not associate the sort of person who has incredible power over his realm with a monarch. The rulers of today are businessmen who successfully rule over global empires. Sean and I therefore decided to create a world in which kingship and power connects somewhere between business, mafia and technology. The first image of the production is a universe of digital figures: share prices, the internet, data, technology: these for me are the new metaphysics.
What do you want to counterpoint when keeping the original poetic language but using modern settings and costumes?
I want to test the idea that Shakespeare is, as Ben Jonson his contemporary said, not just of his age but of “all time.” I find the question interesting, though, because it contains within it a pre-supposition. The pre-supposition is that there is another, more ‘conventional’ time and place that this play could be set in. But when you seriously try to explore what this conventional time and place would be you come unstuck. Do we mean the period when Shakespeare wrote them play? Then we fall into the trap of creating a sort of museum-theatre. That route leads nowhere apart from towards a dull sort of nostalgia. When the play was first performed in London, Shakespeare’s audiences would have seen actors wearing contemporary costumes on a more-or-less bare stage. They would not have recognized an ‘Elizabethan’ style. The other solution is to set the play in another specific time in history. Maybe in the 19th or 20th centuries. There have been more than one production in the UK, for example, locating the action in 30’s Europe gripped by fascism. This period-specific approach also seems to me to lead to a collapse of imagination. The route I have taken is to find an alternative reality that has it’s own poetic coherence but with points of contact with our own world. This seems to me the best way of stimulating the audience’s imagination.
The feudal order and the Renaissance ideal of man are in conflict with each other in this story. How do you try to update this?
One word: ambition. In the feudal order a person’s character was moulded by the position they held in society, but the Renaissance came along and changed all that as concepts of self-determination and entrepreneurial individualism grew with trade and the mercantile class. This is symbolized in the figure of Edmund who’s first monologue is a sort of credo of Renaissance individualism. Shakespeare is obviously critical of this to an extent as Edmund is an opportunistically evil character. The dramaturg, Zalan Tibor and I have deliberately reduced the amount of imagery connected with astrology, superstition and gods in the play but we keep the dialogue about ambition and individualism because these seem to us the most resonant contemporary themes. In global capitalism we are encouraged to think and act as ruthless lone-agents who prize our own material and social success above social structures such as family and friendship. Shakespeare shows how this ultimately leads to its logical conclusion – a stage strewn with dead bodies and questions.
The play has (maybe) two main characters, Lear and Gloucester. In this approach will the focus be set on their efforts?
King Lear is unique among Shakespeare’s tragedies for having two protagonists – Lear and Gloucester. Their stories are symbolically parallel until they intersect in an extraordinary scene which is possibly the greatest achievement of world drama – the scene in which the blind Gloucester, led by his disguised son Edgar, meets the mad King. The scene contains everything: naturalism, the theatre of Beckett, Brecht and Grotowski. The journeys that Gloucester and Lear undergo are extreme sides of the same coin. Gloucester loses his sight and therefore his literal sense of perspective. Lear loses his wits and therefore all the paradigms and mental structures he has used to process the world. To downplay one part in a production would seem to me to diminish the other. So we have tried to tell both these characters’ stories to arrive at the larger truth.
What kind of experiences have you collected about the company and the Jokai theatre of Békéscaba? What are your impressions about the rehearsals, about the people there? How will you remember the period spent in the town?
Working at the Jokai Színház has in all honesty been one of the best experiences of my life. The theatre has a very great community spirit in which everyone, with their own expertise, is trying to create art. Peter Fékéte is someone who makes things happen through a magical combination of positive thinking, motivation and inspiration. His attitude is infectious! I felt incredibly supported by him and everyone at the theatre even though I am an ‘outsider’, relatively young, and speak hardly a word of Hungarian. It was tough at first. Doing everything via translation can be wearing, but I soon found I was able to communicate in a more visceral, physical way with the performers in which words only played one part. As for the town, I’m afraid I got very little chance to explore it or its surroundings because I was working so hard. But I intend to correct that.
What differences did you observe between the British and Hungarian theatre? Are there any categories that can be differentiated at all?
There are lots of differences. Some large, some more subtle. In Britain we do not have an ensemble system. Each production usually brings together a team of actors who are freelance. This means that often none of them have worked with each other before. It can take some time, therefore, for actors to open up to each other and take the sorts of risks that Hungarian actors seem more readily able to take. As a nation, us Brits tend to be reserved, even cold when we express ourselves. From my experience Hungarians are passionate and quick to express their opinions. They also have a wonderfully dry sense of humour which I appreciate. Another difference is that we do not have prompters in English theatre. If an actor forgets his lines he will not get help from anyone! This means that English actors learn their text quicker than Hungarian actors. But as I rule I have loved all of the actors I have worked with. They give everything they have, heart and soul, to the stage. When all’s said and done, theatre is an international phenomenon which deals with humanity. It cuts across all cultural barriers in spite of surface differences. I like to think of it as the attempt to turn the raw material of uncertainty into art.
Rehearsals have started for my production of Shakespeare’s King Lear at the Jókai Színház theatre in Békéscsaba, Hungary. The ensemble includes a line up of some of the country’s leading actors, with Frigyes Kováks playing the king “more sinned against than sinning”. This will be a version of King Lear for our times. The premiere takes place on the 19th April.
In the category of ‘Most outstanding contribution of London’s operatic scene’ ETO was commended for “an innovative and eclectic autumn season.”
James Conway, General Director of English Touring Opera said: “I’m honoured English Touring Opera has been recognised by the readers of whatsonstage.com for these two awards. It’s particularly satisfying that both Eugene Onegin, part of our large-scale Spring tour, and the Britten, Ullmann and Maxwell Davies operas in our adventurous Autumn season, have struck a chord with the people who matter – the opera-going audience.”
Keith McDonnell, opera editor at whatsonstage.com added, “Once again the whatsonstage.com Opera Poll has caught the imagination of the opera going public, and all of us at whatsonstage.com were delighted to see that well over 1000 people voted in this year’s Poll. All the winners and runners-up more than deserve their accolades, and it’s heartening to see that the opera companies went out of their way, mostly through social media, to reach out to their audiences, and encourage the voting process.”
Many thanks to everyone who voted for us.
In 1851, Guissepe Verdi received a letter attacking him and his way of life. It was from his deceased wife’s father, Antonio Barezzi, a man who had been a great patron and supporter of his talented son-in-law.
For some time, Verdi had been living with his mistress, Giuseppina Streponni, a singer who had performed in one of his operas. The couple had settled in the Italian town of Bussetto, where Verdi threw himself fervently into his composing.
The unconventional living arrangements of the unwed couple, however, gave rise to much malicious gossip among the locals. In the late nineteenth century, couples living out of wedlock were practically unheard of; almost impossible in assertively Catholic countries like Italy.
Verdi, dedicated as he was to his work, was able to shrug the gossip off, but Giuseppina, who out of necessity had to have more contact with the townsfolk, bore the brunt of their attacks. In one letter, Verdi described how Giuseppina was “ignored in the street”, adding that in church a great show was made by the locals of refusing to sit next to her. This social bullying must have caused Streponni a lot of mental anguish.
Aware of the damage Verdi’s lifestyle was causing to his son-in-law’s reputation, Barezzi wrote a scalding letter to the composer. Didn’t he realize what a scandal he was embroiling himself in? Wouldn’t it be better for Verdi to marry the wretched girl, or at least live separately from her?
Unfortunately, Barezzi’s original letter has been lost, but we know about it because Guissepe Verdi’s response to it survives. In a letter written in 1851 that has now become famous Verdi responded to his father-in-law’s attacks point-for-point.
“You live in a town,” Verdi wrote, “that has the bad habit of meddling in the affairs of others and of disapproving of every- thing that does not conform to its ideas. I make it a rule not to interfere, uninvited, in the affairs of others; and just for this reason I insist that no one interfere in mine. From this springs gossip, whispers and disapproval.”
Terse and defensive, rather than outright attacking, the letter’s tone nonetheless fails to disguise Verdi’s strong sense of indignation, outrage even, at being so severely judged.
It should be remembered that earlier in his life Verdi had already met with much personal tragedy. In the space of less than a year he had lost his daughter followed by his son (who was still an infant). Two years later, in 1840, Verdi’s wife also passed away. He was 27. Whilst the mortality rate was far higher one hundred and fifty years ago than it is now, and death a commoner fact of life, the experience of loss can’t have been any easier to bear.
The hypocritical moral outrage of Bussetto society, compounded by the approbation of his dead wife’s father, must have come as bitter blows to the composer. Some years later, therefore, when the 40 year-old Verdi was looking for a new subject for an opera, the story of Marguerite Gautier, a celebrated courtesan dying of tuberculosis, must have struck a major chord.
In Alexandre Dumas fils’ source novel and play, La Dame aux Camélias, the heroine is persuaded by the father of her lover, Alfredo Germont, to leave his son for fear of the social scandal that will attach to his family.
The parallels between Dumas’ famous story, and his Verdi’s own experiences of losing his wife, of living with Giuseppina Streponni, and the reactions of Antonio Barezzi, and the residents of Bussetto, are clearly resonant. Verdi was to call his opera La Traviata, which roughly translates in English as ’the woman gone astray.’
I’m currently working as an assistant director on a production of La Traviata which will soon open at the English National Opera in London. The show is a co-production with the Graz Opera House and has been directed by the well-known German opera director, Peter Konwitschny.
Konwitschny has talked passionately about how his conception of the piece has been informed by his reading of this letter of Verdi’s. “At first, like most people, I thought La Traviata was a simple love story,” Konwitschny says, “but after reading Verdi’s letter to his father-in-law, I see it as something else – something much darker, more political.”
As a consequence, the Violetta figure in Konwitschny’s prodction is as far from a self-pitying victim as one could concieve – her terminal illness a harsh fact to be lived with, rather than a fate to sentimentally wallow in.
But the really sharp perspective Konwitshny’s deceptively simple production lies in its depiction of the society surrounding Violetta. Desperate for sensation and cynical as hell, they are rapacious voyeurs (not unlike the opera audience itself) in the ghoulish spectacle of a beautiful young girl being destroyed by a horrible illness in front of their eyes.
“It is not that Violetta is desperately in love with Alfredo,” Konwitschny says. “It is that she is using him, and the idea of love, to delay the inevitable. Her death. The music is full of horror and apocalypse, as well as –towards the end – deep humanity.”
It’s for this reason that Konwitschny sees Verdi’s heroine (whose name is changed to the more euphonious Violetta Valéry in the opera) as “the only human being” in the piece. The rest of the society surrounding her are hypocritical, venal, and corrupt. A product of the rules and codes that governed the social game in polite society.” (As far as game playing and social rules go, by the way, it’s interesting to note the importance of card games and gambling in Dumas’ novel and Verdi’s opera.)
In the famous letter, Verdi movingly defends of his mistress – his partner in the true sense – with the following words:
“In my house there lives a lady, free and who, like me, prefers
a solitary life and who has the means to satisfy her every need. Neither I,
nor she, must account for our actions; and who knows what our relations
are? What are our business affairs? What are the ties? What rights I have
over her and she over me? Who knows whether or not she is my wife?
And if she is, who knows what reasons or ideas there may be for not announcing
it publicly? Who knows if it is good or bad? Could it not be a
good thing? And even if it were a bad thing, who has the right to damn us?”
Perhaps, for Guiseppe Verdi, Violetta Valéry, was his young wife wrenched from him by illness at too young an age. Perhaps she represents Streponni, so harshly victimized by the hypocrites of Bussetto. One, both or neither … in the end Verdi’s heroine stands for all women who need the strength and courage to survive in a harsh world of men.
My production of Benjamin Britten’s Albert Herring opened at the Linbury Studio, Royal Opera House – Covent Garden, on the 4th October 2012, ahead of a nationwide tour for English Touring Opera
Details and reviews can be found at http://www.englishtouringopera.org.uk
* * * * * Independent on Sunday
* * * * “Rolls’s direction is sharp and keenly observed.” The Guardian
* * * * “English Touring Opera’s finely tuned production of Albert Herring … it’s something disturbingly sardonic rather than downright farcical which makes Christopher Rolls’s interpretation so striking.” The Telgraph
* * * * ”Director Christopher Rolls presides over a wonderful ensemble presentation.” Birmingham Post
“Christopher Rolls’s sensitive and fun new production.” The Stage
“A compelling production with very effective direction from Christopher Rolls.” www.theartsdesk.com
“Time and again one laughed out loud at the sheer excellence of this production. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant!” www.classicalsource.com
by Jean Anouilh
Translated by Christopher Fry
East 15 – Clifftown Theatre
The life and trial of Joan of Arc in a thrilling, modern re-telling.
A group of international performers brings the phenomenon of Joan to life using live and recorded media. ”The sooner she is found guilty and burned, the better.”
East 15 Acting School
Clifftown Theatre booking
2,3,4 Feb, 2012
Chris Rolls’ production of Les Parents Terribles has been nominated for a 2011 Olivier Award. The category is Outstanding Achievement for an Affiliate Theatre.
The production was part of the Donmar Warehouse’s season to promote the work of its young directors (RADs).
Les Parents Terribles by Jean Cocteau in a new version by Jeremy Sams
Director: Chris Rolls
Set & Costume Design: Andrew D Edwards
Lighting Design: Richard Howell
Sound Design & Composers: Ben & Max Ringham
Cast: Frances Barber, Tom Byam Shaw, Anthony Calf, Elaine Cassidy, Sylvestra Le Touzel