Royal Opera's John Fulljames on Quartett: 'This is an immersive, visceral experience'
John Fulljames discusses The Royal Opera's forthcoming staging of ''Quartett''
What have been the highlights so far during your tenure as Associate Director of Opera for The Royal Opera?
Last year was a special one for The Royal Opera because of the Britten, Verdi and Wagner anniversaries – the combination of the new productions of works by these composers – Richard Jones's Gloriana, Stefan Herheim's Les Vêpres siciliennes and Stephen Langridge's Parsifal – will live with me for a long time. The extraordinary thing about The Royal Opera is the breadth and depth of the repertory; just this week it is wonderful to have a new production of Manon Lescaut opening with an extraordinary cast conducted by Tony Pappano, and a night later the first night of Francesconi's Quartett. I don't think there is another opera company in the world that offers such a broad range of repertory, including, of course, work for young audiences.
Why were you drawn to Luca Francesconi's opera Quartett as your second venture for the Company?
It would be an understatement to say that Luca's vision for what opera can be is ambitious. He integrates electronic sound design into an orchestra and makes extraordinary demands of singers, who have to perform using a far wider range of vocal colours than normally deployed in opera. In Quartett, he uses this language to make a work that is both intensely emotional and urgently political. Opera is an art form that has always told stories of love and death. Luca reinvents opera by working completely within its traditions.
What can audiences expect from Quartett?
A totally immersive experience. The opera involves two orchestras – a live orchestra in the pit and a pre-recorded orchestra which flies around the heads of the audience. This creates an environment within which two singers play out a game of love and death. It is visceral and darkly comic.
What are the advantages, or indeed disadvantages, of staging a work whose composer is at hand – as usually they're not?
I've worked a lot with living composers and it's a complete joy. To be able to hear directly about their intentions and the subtext between the cracks in their notation is inspiring, not only for the production team, but also for the singers. It has been wonderful to be inspired by Luca – and actually I'm not sure it would have been possible to stage Quartett here without his input, as it has required a lot of conceptual re-thinking to make it work for our Linbury Studio Theatre stage. It's so important for new operas to get second, third and fourth stagings, and to be interpreted differently if they are to enter the repertory. Also, I think it's important that when composers write a new work for an opera company, they understand something about the company and its context – and that they feel embraced by their audience during the process. We've commissioned a large-scale new opera from Luca Francesconi for the main stage, and so this has been a great way to get to know him and for him to get to know the Company.
The London Sinfonietta will play live, which will be mixed with a pre-recorded electronic soundtrack – what kind of soundscape can the audience expect?
I think of the environmental soundscape as representing life beyond humanity – from the celestial motion of planets to the transformations of cellular life forms. The soundscape creates a fertile, organic and breathing context against which the story of human love and corruption is read. There is also an intricate sound design woven into the world of the singers involving sounds ranging from roaring lions to crying babies…and everything in between. This really is a story told through sound.
Many people are scared of contemporary opera – what are the main reasons to give Quartett a try?
This is an immersive, visceral experience. Also a great love story for our times.
There are only two characters in Quartett – does that make the work easier to stage than one with a large cast of principals and chorus, or more difficult, and if so why?
It has been a real pleasure to work with two casts on this project – and to be able to develop rather different interpretations with each. One of the wonders of Heiner Muller's play, which forms the basis of the opera, is how open it is – the singers are able to bring an enormous amount of themselves to the roles. Working with a small cast, the quality of the performance is more important than ever, and we've been lucky to have an extraordinary quartet of singers, who somehow make everything they do seem easy!
Your next project on the main stage is Weill's Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny – what made you choose that work?
I don't possibly know why a work about a melting pot city built on consumption might be considered relevant in London in 2014/15…
Can you divulge anything about that staging or is it still under wraps?
It is such a wonderful score, which has been heard all too rarely in the UK. I think it demands a careful, balanced approach to find the right style, because it is both an entertainment and a criticism of the consumption of entertainment. We've got to get that balance right. I think there is something about the British theatre tradition that means we have a strong language to stage Brecht's work; it is much harder to stage it in Germany today, where the theatrical language is so often so deconstructed that his work ends up feeling simply didactic. It needs to be more seductive than that.
You staged Janáček's From the House of the Dead for Opera North in 2011, but there's been no Janáček at Covent Garden since 2010. When will he ‘be back'?
I love Janáček's operas, and indeed a lot of work from that period at the start of the twentieth century. It was a time when popular music had not yet left the opera house. There is a major Janáček project coming up at The Royal Opera, as part of a broader exploration of operas from that period; so watch this space!
Quartett opens on 18 June.