He’s one of a number of directors who, in the last three decades, have taken opera from a moribund state to one of the most exciting experiences you can have in a theatre. I meet this brilliant, fast-talking man prior to the opening of his new ENO production of Janacek’s Katya Kabanova and talk about where opera currently is and how he chooses to present his work, in the light of recent ENO successes like Jenufa, Peter Grimes and Lucia di Lammermoor.
“The rehearsal process is very different now,” he tells me. “In Germany, directors like to have 10 or 12 weeks, although I don’t. I can do it in 6 or 7 at the most. In the old days singers maybe had just a couple of weeks, came in and just did their roles. They probably had more time to themselves and they didn’t travel so much. Mind you, when I started going to the opera in New York in the 60s, I found I loved the music, I was smitten, but somehow the productions just didn’t interest me at all. Now it’s all so much more exciting.”
“I’m very bad at prediction”
I ask him where he thinks opera would be if he and a few others hadn’t done the work they have in the last few decades? “Dead,” he says unhesitatingly. Is that non-existent or dead-ly in a Peter Brook sense? “The latter; it would exist but it wouldn’t be what it is now.” He’s less easy to draw on what future opera is likely to have, where it’ll be in another 30 years (“I’m very bad at prediction”) and we lapse back into the talking about the developments he’s seen in his working lifetime.
“Of course there was plenty of experimentation earlier in the century and the late 19th Century – Stanislavsky, Meyerhold, the constructivists, - but these were flashes in the dark. It really started properly after the Second World War, in Italy with people like Visconti. Then there was Callas – there had been great singing actresses before but she started something new.”
These don’t seem the most obvious references for the sort of work that developed later but Alden sees them as links in a chain that led onto what was going on in Germany in the late 60s and was to influence him enormously. “It was seen in the theatre first, and opera only later,” he says, “Something new ignited. There was a revolution in visual design; artists designed and even directed shows and there was a lot of crossover between the arts, which just didn’t happen here.”
“My favourite theatre takes place in Germany”
We talk in passing about giants of modern German drama – Peter Handke, Heiner Muller, Thomas Bernhard – playwrights hardly recognised by the English-speaking theatre establishment but part of a movement that has profoundly influenced Alden and his colleagues.
In the light of David McVicar’s recent complaint in the press that the trade between directors is a one-way process – plenty of theatre directors cross over to opera but there’s not much traffic the other way – Alden expresses a real desire to get into straight theatre. He says he’d love to do plays (“Shakespeare, Goethe, Sam Shepherd, Beckett”). The Russian background of RSC director Michael Boyd has influenced some staggeringly good work in Stratford; just imagine what Alden’s German influences might do for a cycle of Shakespeare’s histories. It’s a tantalising thought for anyone whose interests stretch across the art-forms. Mind you, Alden’s booked up for opera jobs through to 2015, leaving him little time for such departures.
We share the thought that theatre critics in this country tend not to appreciate that those of us who spend large amounts of time in the opera house are used to seeing work which is far more innovative and avant-garde than anything in the English theatre.
It explains the bewilderment among some theatre critics when their opera counterparts find the naïve doodlings of a newcomer unacceptable, as happened last year with Rupert Goold’s Turandot at ENO. The English theatre could learn so much from Alden, just as it could from a deeper exploration of contemporary European drama. “My favourite theatre takes place in Germany, even now,” Alden tells me. “It’s much more free and exciting than in England.” He says he sees more theatre even than opera and all over the world, so he knows what he’s talking about.
“I have to say what I feel in a production”
It’s invigorating to have one’s assumptions constantly challenged by a mind like Alden’s. For instance, I suggest to him that he’s following in the footsteps of Samuel Beckett when he told Billie Whitelaw to “bore the audience to tears” (not a literal instruction but one that says “hold to your vision and bring the audience to you”). I ask him if this is what he’s doing with his own highly individual vision. “Not at all,” he says, “Everything I do is totally for the audience (at least an audience in my head, an ideal audience). Nobody can accuse me of not taking the audience into consideration.”
“I present it very clearly for them, I’m aware of the acoustics, the singers sing out to the auditorium, not to each other or upstage. I’m completely musically aware. I know the music by heart and know it in whatever language it’s in. It’s completely presented to the audience and I push myself to the limits to make sure it’s clear. People may not like my interpretations or sub-texts but they can’t say I disregard the audience. Some people are challenged by what I do but you have to be true to yourself and it’s completely self-expression, one hundred percent. I have to say what I feel in a production.”
“a clash between the subjective and objective”
Janacek presents plenty of opportunity for the expression of feeling. We talk about the expressionistic approach he took to Jenufa, revived last year in a staging that was even more powerful than its first run in 2006. It leads on to a discussion of naturalism, a curse that so much theatre in this country finds difficult to shake off but which affects opera less (except perhaps in an overly traditional approach).
“Opera isn’t real, it’s very unnatural, dream-like and emotive,” he says. “The whole idea of combining words and music is disruptive, a clash between the subjective and objective, the rational and irrational. The tension between words and music is what opera is really about. So, it’s hard for me to think of it in a naturalistic way at all. Opera demands more freedom and daring.”
“Janacek’s best two operas”
Our conversation is peppered with constant references to his present project, the re-staging of Katya Kabanova based on a Dallas production from 10 years ago. It’s inevitable that, after the success of Jenufa, people will have high expectations. The bar was set very high with that staging. “I couldn’t choose between these two operas,” he tells me. “They’re Janacek’s best two operas. They hit you the hardest emotionally speaking. In Jenufa he was still becoming himself. The first act is a bit more in the old-fashioned Czech opera mould; in the second you start to get into the Janacek expressionistic world. Katya is a bit different; it was written 20 years later. By the time he wrote it, he was completely a master. It's more like a symphony than an opera.”
I ask him if the compact structuring, so different from the earlier work, has caused any problems. “The ending, the drowning, is precipitous but it’s brilliantly structured. People say he’s cinematic, that some of the cuts are abrupt but the structure is incredibly satisfying. Much more so than Jenufa, in fact. It’s a gift. Janacek has already cut it to his tastes. He’s eliminated extraneous detail – he gives you just enough. It’s like a monologue for one woman, who encounters certain people along the way. It’s quite amazing. This is a quite different staging from the Dallas one of about 10 years ago.”
“the great American Janacek soprano”
He talks glowingly of his leads, which include Stuart Skelton, so brilliant in Alden’s Peter Grimes last year. “I have two Janacek families – one here with Amanda Roocroft (Alden’s Jenufa, as well as Ellen Orford) and the other in America led by Patricia Racette – and it’s great to be bringing her over to do it here. She’s the great American Janacek soprano, very different from Amanda, but I think audiences here will like her."
We finish by talking about another of Alden’s passions: baroque opera. “Handel is one of the great dramatists of all time, the sharpest psychologist in theatre history,” he enthuses. “There’s a slew of treasures among baroque opera that haven’t even seen the light of day. In a way, the first 50 years of opera was the high point. The Venetian 17th Century writers were simply geniuses and it was a perfect blend of music and text. It’s incredible for directors.”
There’s a whole range of work ahead, including a lot of Verdi during the anniversary year in 2013, but for the moment it’s Janacek that’s taking his time and attention. If Alden’s Katya proves to be half as good as the double Olivier Award-winning Jenufa, the audience is in for an emotionally shattering experience.
Admirers of the director won’t be able to stay away from what promises to be one of the operatic events of the year. Anyone new to Alden’s or Janacek’s work should prepare themselves for an object lesson in 21st Century opera production.
Katya Kabanova opens at the Coliseum on 15 March 2010 and runs through to 27 March. Further information at www.eno.org