Director freedom vs audience resistance?
Q: Does the fact that there’s no unbroken tradition of Handel performance make it easier for a director today, rather than those works that have never been out of the repertoire?
JC: Yes, it’s certainly freeing, because you are not worrying too much about a performance tradition. Even though I’ve spent a lot of time with music directors trying to discern what authentic performance practice actually means. There are some experts who talk about that, and of course none of them commune with the composer on their pillows at night, so they are to a certain extent making it up. None of us knows what it sounded or looked like. There are some contemporary accounts, and I’ve read them all, but frankly recreation of some historical experiment while interesting is not the same business as making something that will captivate audiences now.
So there is an amount of freedom in it, but you still spend your time listening, studying the score and the text, and trying to be true to it.
I get a lot of directors coming to me with full-scale concepts, feeling that they have solved the problems of the piece, setting it in 1920 or 1815, or deciding that all the men were women or all the women were men, or trying to relate it to now. Of course one relates it to now, but that kind of athleticism from a director I think is not the right starting place.
Q: Is the choice of repertoire principally down to you, or is the musical director involved in the initial stage?
JC: I choose the repertoire for English Touring Opera, as I did for Opera Theatre Company in my many years in Ireland. Naturally I take advice from very many people, not least the Music Director—but I reckon I am the person who most consistently listens to audience members, as I seek out those precious conversations in the foyers, and correspond with many people who choose to write. The overriding principle of selection is: can ETO do this opera with particular excellence and with British artists in the theatres to which we tour? I am a great believer that aspiration to excellence—and its regular achievement—results in a loyal audience, the kind of audience that spreads the word and multiplies.
Q: In most of your pieces, you seem to maintain some visual reference, even if just in the cut of a coat, to the time in which the piece was written. Is this something you particularly consider?
JC: Yes, it has to have reference. I don’t know that it’s always on stage and visual. I’m a student of history, particularly of cultural history. I’m thinking back to a production I did of Tolomeo, another Handel opera that’s almost never performed. I don’t think there were any visual signifiers of the first half of the eighteenth century. I don’t always use what people call ‘period costumes’. I don’t understand that because in the theatre, when Handel was writing, very often the costumes were contemporary, just dressed up a bit, because that was what was modest.
I think it’s a bit naïve that in order to make points about today, you have to put it in (modern) contemporary dress. I love working with contemporary dress, it’s really about character, and about poetry, the relationship between what people wear and the setting which is almost always a psychological landscape.
I am conscious of what I know the audience enjoys because some opera audiences can be very fixed in their views, and if you irritate them in the first few minutes, you may have lost them.