Youthful joy, unhelpful cinemas, touring secrets and hints for the future

English Touring Opera returns to the stage from 1 October 2021 after a long COVID-enforced break with Amadigi by Handel, productions of whose operas have won world renown for ETO director James Conway.

He spoke by video link from his hillside villa near Lucca in North Tuscany, looking relaxed and cool despite the searing heat outside, his voice still bearing traces of his Irish ancestry. His speech is measured, but also often moved by passion as he talks about the new production, his love of and approach to Handel, about the use of surtitles and about the differences between performing in English and the original language. He went on to describe at length the business of touring and his love of all it entails, unco-operative cinemas, and his hopes—maybe hints—for the future.

Q: You are due to tour the country again with Handel’s Amadigi? What should audiences know about it.

JC: That it will be safe, that we have taken every precaution for the sake of the artists, for the sake of the audiences. We want to bring them back to live opera with a joyful experience. This is one of the operas that makes me feel happiest, even though some sad things happen in it.

There is just an overwhelming feeling of love, as you know it when you first experience it, like that all-absorbing, life-will-end-without-it infatuation, which Handel understood so well. And the consequences of that, some of which is humour. It’s about those who persist and find out what day-to-day love is really like.

The music has a kind of youthful joy, an intensity. It won’t be about going to the theatre for a pleasant or passable evening, but for something intense.

Q: The piece has only four principals. Was that a factor in planning this piece and does the fact that these are all are high voices pose a problem for you as a director?

JC: The latter, not at all, because the castrato voice for which the two heroes were written—to me they just sound heroic. There’s nothing strange about them—actually I find tenor voices much stranger. Any man can sing in a falsetto voice and the Bee Gees are a perfect example, or Frankie Valli. Tenors are a bit freaky, really.

However, COVID did play a part in choosing an opera that had just four main protagonists. I was thinking, is this a piece we can perform with socially distancing, if necessary, and I had to think about the size of the orchestra in the pits more particularly, even more than the amount of room on stage.

Handel’s great for that because he can make a not wide-ranging orchestra sound a lot bigger than it is. The oboes also play recorders, a whole other sound world. There’s a bit of doubling but just masterful writing for the orchestra. So you feel it’s a big band, and it’s not.

Q: You took Amadigi to Buxton 25 years ago. Has your view of the piece changed since then?

JC: I think my view is deeper. Like so many young directors, I was then probably looking for a solution to each scene, to each aria, to each moment because you can have a feeling that you need to fill in. I’m less preoccupied about that now, and more interested in making sure always just that the music is speaking.

That doesn’t mean that you just come downstage and sing, and do nothing else at all. Everybody acts all the time. Having done so many Handel operas, if you get to trust Handel as a dramatist, you find out what’s there before you try to cover it up with anything else.