Michael Boyd: 'Limitations are liberating'
The former RSC boss returns to Garsington Opera with a new production of Pelléas et Mélisande, Debussy's only full-length opera.
What are the special challenges of directing at Garsington?
The big thing is the sunlight that pours into the theatre. That's especially challenging with Pelléas et Mélisande since light and dark play a central role in a story whose characters want to escape from a dark world. Our performances will be starting when it's still daylight outside, so the designer Tom Piper and I have conspired to create the dingiest possible environment.. We're shielding the stage from some of the light in order to create that world of gloom that the characters find themselves caught within.
At first the opera felt like a world that moves from the dark to the light in a theatre that moves from the light to the dark, but actually the opera itself also gets darker and darker, so through the evening the emotional intensity will increase as we close in on Mélisande until her death.
So you're working with the encroaching darkness then.
Yes, definitely. Of course, the light comes and goes through the opera. Even early on there are moments of relief when we can allow the light in, and when it's a miserable day outside we've also got very powerful lamps to help God create that light. I think we're ready for what God throws at us. If it's gloomy we can play with that and if it's brilliantly sunny we can play with that too. The thing I remember about directing Eugene Onegin here last year was that the production shifted focus with the sun. On some days there was brilliant sunlight on stage, on others it was a dank provincial day in the rain, and that also worked for Tatyana.
Pelléas et Mélisande lacks the structural formality of many operas. Is that something that liberates you as a director?
It's one of my jobs to maintain tension within that lack of an obvious structure. I'm taking some of my inspiration from Alfred Hitchcock; but mostly it's from Debussy. How does he pull it off? This extravagance where he starts a melody, then decides ‘no', drops it and comes up with another five, none of which he resolves. And he manages to maintain our attention - with a suspense that takes us on to the next moment - in an extraordinary way. That's what I mean about Hitchcock. In his movies he keeps us hovering in uncertainty, and that is a really useful approach to Pelléas et Mélisande.
As far as I know this is only your third opera production.
Yes. Orfeo for the Royal Opera, Eugene Onegin, and now this.
All so different.
And all stunning works. I didn't choose any of them; they were chosen for me and I was invited to do them. Monteverdi was a no-brainer for me. He was and probably still is my favourite composer. And Debussy was probably my second favourite composer before I knew anything about opera. And Pushkin is one of my favourite writers, so the Tchaikovsky was a no-brainer too.
Are there more lined up for the future?
I'll be doing something more with Garsington but I can't say what. So far I've absolutely adored doing opera, so I hope I'll be able to do more. I won't stop doing theatre shows, but opera is certainly a world that I'm happy to swim in rather than just sticking my toe in.
Would you be interested in running an opera company?
I don't feel even faintly qualified to run an opera company. My knowledge of the repertoire is far too thin; and I have no ambitions whatsoever to run anything. I've done my time, starting up the Tron theatre in Glasgow and running that for 11 years, then running the RSC for ten. I think I've done my public service.
Opera is subtly different from theatre in the way it operates. Do you have a say in the casting?
At Garsington, very much so. It's one of Dougie Boyd's [Douglas Boyd, the artistic director] principles of running the company that conductor and director work in cahoots from the get-go; and that includes casting, which is terrific. With Orfeo I did have some say, but I was such a baby then that I was only too happy to follow advice. I did attend the auditions and vetoed one or two suggestions, but I was very much guided by the company. And it worked out beautifully. I'm working on Pelléas with one of the people from that company: Susan Bickley, who is singing Geneviève.
You've cast two youthful singers as leads. What has prompted you to choose younger principals rather than those with a little bit more experience?
Just as light and dark play an important part in the opera, so do youth and old age. To have such an age range is giving us a lot in rehearsal. There is a strain running through the story about the revival of the old at the expense of the young, and if you don't have that distinctive and palpable sense of youth it makes life a bit trickier,
How limiting are bar lines and tempos when you're used to establishing your own pace and pauses?
Limitations for a director are liberating, whether in opera or theatre. I hate working in utterly flexible theatre spaces because the character of a space is something you can launch from. And in opera I love the process in the rehearsal room, working with a conductor and feeling free to turn and say "would it make musical sense to have a softening of the tempo here?" And I completely trust them either to say yes, we can do that, or to say no. I like that.
Michael Boyd's production of Pelléas et Mélisande opens at Garsington Opera on the Wormsley Estate, Stokenchurch on 16 June and runs in repertory until 7 July.