Affable, relaxed and knowledgeable, Daniel Slater may seem easy-going but his mind races when he waxes lirico about opera. Those synapses crackle with creative enthusiasm – which is just as well, given his prodigious work rate. It's mere weeks till he unveils his new production of André Messager's rarely-heard Fortunio at Grange Park Opera, yet before that there's the little matter of Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail to be despatched. It's a new production that will open this year's Garsington Opera Festival on 15 June. Daniel Slater spoke to Whatsonstage during rehearsals.
"Die Entführung is not often done. It's a piece that needs help, I think it's fair to say, because structurally it's a bit of a mess. The libretto isn't brilliant either in its composition or its tone: the clunky old dialogue means the opera lurches from seria to buffa with no middle ground, and if you're not careful it becomes a lame show about Turks and Muslims. I had to remould it.
"William Lacey, our conductor, came to see my production of Don Giovanni at Garsington Opera last summer, and we spent a day working on how to tell the story of Die Entführung. By the time I went to Francis O'Connor, our designer, I had a pretty clear idea of what we'd be doing.
"Musically we've cut Belmonte's third aria – it interrupts the narrative at a bad point – and we've moved Blonde's second aria to a bit later in Act Two so it's now a response to her seeing Osmin tied up. We've added a Mozart Contredanse to start part two and we've moved Konstanze's third aria into Act Three. The opera's balance is improved as we've taken ten minutes out of the long first half and put it in an otherwise short second half.
"As it's a Singspiel we had to decide whether or not to do the dialogue in the original language. I toyed with the idea of mixing German and English but we've ended up with something completely different – a kind of melting-pot world. Our characters aren't necessarily German: Pedrillo is English, for example, while Belmonte is American, Blonde is Swedish and Selim is Russian, with only Konstanze remaining Spanish as in the original. So while none of them have German as their first language they use it as a common channel of communication. That means we're also having dialogue in Swedish, Spanish, Italian and English.
"In our version of Die Entführung, Selim is a Russian oligarch who owns a Serie A football team and has a habit of sacking his managers. They're in the Champions League final that night; Pedrillo is a sports journalist and the current manager is on the way out. Belmonte is presented to Selim not as an architect but as an Italian Serie A football coach. We've tried to undercut his heroic status so he's certainly not conventionally brave; indeed he spends most of the opera being terrified. So he pretends to be the new manager, Roberto Belmonte from Italy, and he has to make up some Italian on the spot.
"I certainly hope it's funny and that people will see that we haven't made the changes gratuitously. I spent the best part of a month last autumn drafting these scenes, although before I got down to doing that I had strong sense of where I wanted to story to go and how the characters should be. For instance, I liked the idea of Blonde being someone who doesn't quite get the joke."
Most of Daniel Slater's work is done in the major foreign opera houses as, mystifyingly, his original and arresting visual style has not yet attracted the attention of either the Royal Opera or ENO – "although I've worked for all the regional UK companies over the years. I'm always happy to work on my own doorstep – who wouldn't be? – and next year I'll be back at Garsington for The Cunning Little Vixen while Opera North will be reviving a production of The Bartered Bride I first did for them sixteen years ago.
"This Autumn I'm directing a semi-staged production of Peter Grimes at the Royal Festival Hall with Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra (28 September, with Stuart Skelton as Grimes) and for that the whole cast will be ‘off the book'. Sometimes when you have just the singers and no set it can be the most visceral experience. There's nothing else to worry about – it's in your face and you're free to invest it with all your own imagination."
But first, Die Entführung aus dem Serail. "I had to get Garsington on board with my idea from the outset . I'm sure it helped that my take on Don Giovanni was well received last year, and anyway they are enlightened enough to accept that you sometimes have to try new things. That's a relief, because without their support we'd be scuppered."
- Mark Valencia