Frederic Wake-Walker has been on a roll since his staging of all three of Britten's Church Parables, Curlew River, The Burning Fiery Furnace and The Prodigal Son, won wide praise during the composer's centenary celebrations last year.
His diary for 2014 is overflowing with engagements, including two that have come perilously close to colliding. Not only is the young director this week launching H K Gruber's Gloria – A Pigtale, a first outing for his newly-merged opera companies The Opera Group and Mahogany Opera (now The Mahogany Opera Group), he is also in rehearsals at Glyndebourne for Mozart's La finta giardiniera, his first production for the main festival.
How have you managed to juggle your work on two near-simultaneous projects, Gloria – A Pigtale and La finta giardiniera?
They couldn't more different, which helps. Today [Wednesday 14 May] I've finished work on Gloria; tomorrow I start work at Glyndebourne. But I've been busy preparing, of course. There are about ten operas in my head at any one time but I've never worked on two at the same time before. I'll go to the première of Gloria in Hull, but after that my assistant will look after it on tour (though I'll pop in from time to time) because I'll be focusing on La finta.
What lies behind the fusion of your two companies?
I had founded Mahogany Opera in 2003 as a project based company, just coming together for individual productions and mounting them site-specific spaces. We mainly did slightly lesser-known 20th-century repertoire like Stravinsky, Walton and the Britten Parables. Then at the end of 2011 I was appointed to succeed John Fulljames as artistic director of The Opera Group, a company with a similar outlook that also likes to commission new work. So it seemed the obvious thing to pull the two companies together.
This show has presented some challenges. We've made it flexible so it can travel, but even Gloria, with its cast of five plus nine musicians, is on the large side for us. I'm particularly interested in smaller scale operas, not only for practical and financial reasons but for artistic ones too. Intimacy can be very powerful. So we've just commissioned a two-hander from Emily Hall for just two singers, electro-magnetic harp and lighting. Emily's a songwriter: she's got a lyrical, folky side to her and the opera is essentially six extended songs – like an album.
What brought you to HK Gruber's Gloria – A Pigtale?
It's a piece that was written in the 90s and first given by Opera North. Since then it's been done a few times overseas, but not much, probably because it's so very difficult to perform. The Bregenz Festival has commissioned a new work from Gruber this year and so they're recruited our Gloria as a sort of B movie!
It's a cross-genre piece – burlesque, cabaret – and much of the time it doesn't really feel like an opera at all, so that's allowed us a lot of freedom. Without dumbing down musically it appeals to a broad spectrum. We've had widely varied audiences at our two previews and there's been a pretty unanimous appreciation of it.
I'm struck by the visual style. It feels dramatically fresh, yet at the same time it's laden with consciously derivative aspects.
I was after something akin to Weimar theatre – specifically Brecht and Weill. While I didn't want it to feel as though it's set in their time, the idea of a popular cultural melting pot is a throwback to that era. And it's been a joy working with these enthusiastic, responsive singers.
What a change it will be to move on to Mozart!
I know people say that La finta giardiniera doesn't have a great story, but it's Mozart, for heaven's sake! And good Mozart too. The plot is emotionally strong, which is a contrast to Gloria. I'm in need of a bit of love after that. Yes, the story is pretty elementary, but the people in it are wonderful. They're seven clearly defined characters, all in search for love. My starting point has been to pare everything else away and let the audience see what they're thinking.
Is it daunting to be tackling your first main stage show?
I'd be lying if I said it wasn't a big deal, but of all the places to do it, Glyndebourne is the best. They've been so supportive – and it's where I cut my teeth and learnt my trade. They know me, which helps, and the facilities are second to none. We had a week-long stage fit-up for La finta in March and I spent two days playing with the set and lighting, fine-tuning details and deciding how to make it work. It's very exciting.
I imagine a lot of our readers will only get to see La finta giardiniera when it's revived for the Glyndebourne Tour this autumn. Will you be directing that yourself?
I will indeed. I may have to make a few adjustments to accommodate the different tour venues but it'll be essentially the same as the Festival version.
What can you tell me about the production?
You have to be aware of the theatrical traditions of Mozart's time. While you don't have to recreate an 18th-century opera, you do have to acknowledge the world in which he worked. The production seeks to mirror the experience of listening to the opera in its own time.
The word ‘finta' was a clue. It has subtle shades of meaning: ‘pretend', ‘fake', ‘trick', ‘beguiling'... Put all those into a theatrical context and you can consider what is real and what is pretend. I'm intrigued by that. Are you and I being real here, now? Will I be different when I talk to somebody else later?
We have a wonderful company, not only our superb singers but also Antony McDonald's exciting design work and Lucy Carter's plans for lighting it. It's going to be beautiful. And there is one very expensive idea that will consume a lot of our budget!
- Gloria – A Pigtale opens at Hull Truck on Saturday 17 May and at the Norfolk & Norwich Festival on 20 and 21 May. It will play at the Linbury Studio Theatre in the Royal Opera House from 16–19 July, at the Buxton Festival on 23 & 26 July and at the Bregenz Festival from 31 July–2 August.
- La finta giardiniera runs in repertory at the Glyndebourne Festival from 28 June–21 August, and as part of the Glyndebourne Tour in October–November it will visit Glyndebourne, Woking, Canterbury, Norwich, Milton Keynes and Plymouth.