At the Opera with Ian Campbell

| April 1, 2013 | 0 Comments

When preparing to direct an opera I first learn the score, the text and, where appropriate, something of the history of the characters. In the case of “Murder in the Cathedral,” the text comes from the T.S. Eliot play which touches accurately the history of Becket’s conflict with King Henry II. In both opera and play, characters such as the Herald and the Four Tempters reference true history, and use phrases traced to what Becket actually said, wrote or heard.

Does knowing that history change the way I direct the opera? Not really, since it is not a “real time” story, but it provides a backstory for the singer which assists with motivation.

With that as background, and with the set and costumes designed, I “see” much of the staging in my head. There is insufficient time when directing an opera to explore and debate every single move with the singers. There are simply too many of them when the chorus is also involved. There must be a blueprint from which to work or the goal cannot be achieved.

But rigidity has to be avoided. A director is also a “corrector,” a very important thing to recognize. In any opera I must direct to the strengths of the individual soloists and not ask them to do the impossible, nor ask for what makes them uncomfortable, musically or dramatically. Negotiation is essential. Most of it has minimal impact to my initial concept, yet, makes the artist feel he can do his job better.

Simple things: Ferruccio Furlanetto, our Becket, made his first entrance singing as he walked down the steps. I wanted him to stay at the top of the steps and move later. This was an easy change. In the same scene my concept was that the women of Canterbury fall to their knees on his arrival with heads bowed. Becket then tells the priests to stop bothering them. I thought Becket’s seeing the action earlier from the steps was enough, but Ferruccio wanted the action to happen just before he addresses the priests. We discussed it, and I gave in, requiring the priests to repeat an action I had not considered. I was reluctant to the change, but the result for Ferruccio was so much better. We did it his way. No big deal.

But it’s harder for the chorus. I “saw” them as always being observers to the action, but moving in and out of the stage focus, up and down steps, frequently rushing. In the rehearsal room without their long dresses this went well. I thought that once they were in their dresses for stage rehearsals they would be slower,and it still would look right. It didn’t. They were slower than expected. So I had to re-think the pacing, and “negotiate” with several individuals who managed well without the dress, but simply got too concerned once on stage. So re-positioning had to be done. “There goes the original concept” was my immediate reaction, and time was running out, but what we finished up with works suitably. I had to be prepared to change some of the visual flow. That was a bigger deal, since I had already lived with my images for several years.

Sometimes I just give a singer full rein. The character known as The First Chorister, sung by Susan Neves, is one of two principal singers who lead the chorus in commenting on the action. This character, a soprano, has the only truly “traditional” aria in the opera. This is where “correction” takes over from “direction.” I told Susan to begin as a curled up “lump” revealed in the middle of the stage as the female chorus moves away. She was then to uncurl like a seed beginning to sprout. She resisted the “lump” reference laughingly, and proceeded to uncurl. I asked her to move and sing ad libitum and I’d correct rather than tell her every move. What resulted was all hers. Her movements were perfect for both music and her character. I have to know when to stand back.

It is exhilarating to work with a cast of the caliber I had for “Murder in the Cathedral,” to see them take hold of my concept and develop their characters beyond what I had imagined, and pull together an opera only one had ever sung before, delivering to the audiences a story clearly told, dramatically intense and also deeply moving. There’s nothing like it.

I’ll see you at the opera.

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