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You were born and raised in Melbourne, but have been based in the UK for many years. What are the things you miss about Australia? How has it changed since you left, in particular, the music scene?
Firstly, the weather obviously! Not just the sun but the light. And family and old friends of course. The resurgence of opera in my home town particularly with the Victorian Opera and the two Richards, Gill and now Mills, is a wonderful thing to behold. Nationally, however there seems to be a shrinking of the number of productions and performances, which is sadly in line with global trends.
Director Stephen Barlow
You have worked with some of the world's biggest opera companies – the Met, Royal Opera etc – what do you enjoy about working with opera students?
I think that I have a responsibility as a successful director to enable, mentor and equip the next generation of opera and musical theatre students – the future of the art form rests in their hands. And I feel it is important to give back to the profession what, in a sense, you have taken from it. However, it is not just about helping students – the students help me. I always love working with emerging professionals because they are so positive, so willing to try, so excited about the possibilities and it is infectious. Sometimes working at the top levels of the business, as I have done, you encounter a lot of cynicism or jaded performers who have lost what it was that inspired them to pursue this extremely difficult artistic path. Students always reconnect you with that inspiration and remind you how wonderful and lucky you are to work in this industry. It was Oscar Hammerstein II who wrote, “if you become a teacher, by your students you’ll be taught”!
The Queensland Conservatorium has a history of bringing in international guests to direct its annual opera production – last year was film director Bruce Beresford. Is it important that students are exposed to different perspectives?
Absolutely, just as they will in the profession. Every director, and conductor, will not just have their own interpretation of the material (which of course can differ vastly) but also their own idiosyncratic way of working. If every rehearsal/directing process was the same it would become very monotonous for the singers. It’s a kind of nervous fun starting a new show for both creatives and performers – you really have little or no idea what anyone is like (unless you have worked with them before) and you have to quickly use your antennae to divine a path together through the material. It keeps us all alert and open to new ways of creating.
You have directed one of the operas on the double bill – L'Enfant Prodigue – at Guildhall. Have you ever tackled Ravel's L'enfant et les sortileges? What appeals to you about working on these one-act operas?
I have never done the Ravel but have always loved it. I did the Debussy at London’s Guildhall four years ago and fell in love with it. In fact I even kept it on my ipod – I usually delete pieces after I have done them to make room for the next ones! I think it was me who suggested the piece to Nicholas Cleobury when we met in London last year to discuss possible repertoire. Putting the two together offers a wonderful opportunity.
Stephen Barlow's L'enfant prodigue at Guildhall in 2013. Photo © Clive Barda/Guildhall
From a musical point of view it becomes a fantastically visual and condensed music history lesson of French Impressionism. Debussy wrote his scène lyrique in 1884 as Impressionism was taking wing and in his L'Enfant Prodigue you hear both the last throes of French Romanticism as epitomised by Massenet but also tantalising snatches of the thrilling sound world of a new style of French music, which Debussy would make his own on the stage in Pelléas et Mélisande. Ravel's L'enfant et les sortileges was written between 1917 and 1925, about 30 years later, and you can hear how Debussy’s tentative steps towards a new music have become fully formed and taken to their zenith.
Dramatically, there are obvious parallels between the two works and not just that indicated in the titles. I want to very much knit the two pieces together so rather than a double bill (I hate that term!) of opera the audience can expect one two act opera which perhaps we can call Les Deux Enfants. Both works explore the visceral emotional and physical nexus between two mothers and two sons. In the Debussy the most rhapsodic episode of the whole cantata is the Massenet-ish duet between Mother and Son which sits at the very heart both, literally and emotionally, of the opera; in the Ravel the piece is bookended or framed with l’enfant’s relationship with his mother, at first spiteful, at the end, longing and loving. Ultimately, this is what our Les Deux Enfants is about. That most profound love and co-dependent relationship between mother and child.
As well as directing opera, you also work in musical theatre. Musical theatre seems to be going from strength to strength, while opera can be a tougher sell, particularly for younger audiences. Are there any major differences directing an opera and a musical? Is it possible to make opera more accessible, or is that not the point?
For me there are no differences between directing an opera or a musical (and there is a good overlap on the Venn diagram) – it’s storytelling with and through music. But of course there are many differences not just in say the style of music (opera tends to be much more challenging) but also the resources. The two big differences are firstly, amplification – opera has none, musical theatre since the late 1960s has always been amplified. Consequently you get two very different styles of singers, those who have to project an unamplified classically trained voice over a huge orchestra pit without any mechanical boost (which is why they tend to only do at most only three shows per week) and those who can sing in a more contemporary style eight shows a week aided by head microphones and clever sound mixing and amplification. Secondly, there are the different ‘species’ that populate each form. Opera is a music led industry from conception to opening night whereas musical theatre is always acting led. Consequently in opera I am collaborating with singers who act, in musical theatre actors who sing. But my approach to the piece, and the way I work in the room with the material does not change.
I think opera is already very accessible. I don’t believe it is an elitist entertainment. Tickets are much cheaper than for most major sporting fixtures for example. I’m very against dumbing it down to make it more ‘palatable’. It is what it is and we should celebrate the art form in all it’s crazy glory rather than apologise and compensate for it. I also find it frustrating that in Sport the term ‘elite’ is considered a compliment, an indication of something fine to aspire to, but in the Arts, particularly when applied to opera, it becomes pejorative. Opera is an elite art form but not elitist.
I have read that you got hooked on musicals through your parents' vinyl collection. Were you also exposed to opera growing up? Can you pinpoint when you decided to pursue a career directing opera? What started your love affair with opera? Can you name your favourite opera or most memorable opera experience?
I think my first experience of opera was when I was a young boy and I saw a clip on television – it was an episode of This is Your Life dedicated to Dame Joan Hammond – of a 1950s concert performance of Un bel di from Madama Butterfly. I thought it was fascinating but I remember my mother saying it was ‘too much’!! I think the first opera I ever saw live, whilst still at school, was curiously Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream which was rather like diving into the deep end of the pool having had no lessons! I still remember that production vividly. When I was travelling through Europe for the first time after leaving Australia I saw Pelléas et Mélisande at La Scala and I went back to my youth hostel that night and drew out all the scenes complete with staging in the back of my diary. I guess by then I was perhaps unconsciously thinking about storytelling visually but I didn’t commit to it as a career until another ten years when I was encouraged to do so. I’ve always loved music in most of its forms – I have very eclectic tastes – and always loved the make believe of theatre so I guess it was inevitable that I would end up putting the two together.
Favourite opera – always the one I am currently working on! You have to get obsessive about each piece once you’re inside it. I feel fortunate that I got to see Sutherland, Pavarotti and Domingo perform in operas at Covent Garden when I first arrived in London. I felt like a kid in an operatic sweet shop as they were the big household operatic superstars when I was growing up in Australia.
As a director, what is on your bucket list? Are there any projects on your wish list?
Operas: Turandot, Manon Lescaut, L’elisir d’amore, Peter Grimes, Lucia de Lammermoor and Pelléas et Mélisande. Those great pieces would keep me very busy for a long while. And I would like to round off my career, if I’m allowed, with an assault of the summit of Tristan und Isolde! Musicals – Rent, Sunset Boulevard, A Little Night Music, Brigadoon, Carousel, Evita and Sunday in the Park with George. But I love surprises!
Stephen Barlow directs Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges and Debussy’s L'enfant prodigue, at Queensland Conservatorium Theatre September 1 – 7.