Changing attitudes, changing policy

Q: How have audience attitudes and tastes changed since you took over ETO in 2002?

JC: Of course, I was working in Ireland at the time. There’s much less opera there and there was much less expectation of what it needed to be like. The availability of opera performance online and of celebrity performances in cinema have shaped people’s expectations.

People’s ideas of what’s traditional is so recent. If something happens for a few years, people decide it’s traditional. It’s not ‘traditional’ to have surtitles. Really?

In no question of making art, theatre, do I feel that there are rules, and language is part of the art. So it behoves anyone directing or conducting a show to think seriously about language, to speculate about the original intentions of the composer and the librettist, and to adapt to contemporary expectations, theatres and voices. But to just think that a moment-by-moment literal translation flashing at the top or the side of the stage is always the best answer is not considering something that is sophisticated in a sophisticated way.

Actually I think surtitles and subtitles are great, but the relation between the moment of utterance—say in a Handel opera the same text is repeated ten or twelve times in the A section, then there’s the B section with a slightly different and very short text, and then the A section comes on all over again, and there’s a da capo aria, so are you really doing someone a favour by at all times distracting them from the meaning of the movement, of the lighting? The reason that you rehearse for more than a month is that you are trying to make meaning as rich as it can be at every moment.

And sometimes that’s not about having a whole bunch of chorus coming on and doing funny things to distract you, or the set turning upside down, but quite subtle things. When someone repeats the text that often, you have to reckon it’s not about immediate comprehension but gradual apprehension, coming to know the truth over time—a bit like when you look at a painting, you don’t know everything about it right away. So you look at it over time, from different angles.

Q: It used to be ETO policy to perform everything in English. You have changed that. What’s your approach?

JC: I try to make a choice that is going to give the best performance. So for example, the last time I did Amadigi I did it in English in a good translation. And in many ways I wish I were doing it in English this time, because even though people know inside out what the Italian means, and speak Italian well, they act differently in their own language, with a kind of immediacy, particularly in recitative sections where you are trying to make the speed more naturalistic. I always rehearse with spoken recitative, usually in the mother tongue of the singer / actor.

I remember in Ireland once, we got a terribly negative review for having taken liberties with recitative—not observing those superfluous rests which are usually editorial interventions. The only singer the chap praised was a fine man, now dead, who sang the recit with such leaden inexpressiveness that I despaired at the time!

I know that more people in the audience prefer to hear a piece in what they call the original language. What many don’t know is that many composers wrote in the full expectation that their work would be translated into different languages when performed in different countries. So I get a headache from people saying Janáček can only be sung in Czech. It’s malarky. Janáček wanted it to be sung in German when it was done in Vienna and he oversaw the translation. And it was absolutely the expectation of the day that those operas should be translated. I would do Janáček in English every time because they are fine dramas. It’s a myth that they are very difficult to translate—the text is quite awkwardly set but there are excellent translations in English of all of his operas and they sing well.

And how many English people will have perfect Czech pronunciation? None, no matter how much coaching they have.