David Pountney is one of the most prolific directors of all time. His Janáček cycle for The Scottish Opera is still considered one of the major landmarks in the history of opera. A Chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, a Commander of the Order of the British Empire, and a recipient of Cavalier’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland, Pountney received a Knighthood in 2019. He has repeatedly revolutionised opera, notably during his decade-long run as the Intendant of The Bregenz Festival and as Artistic Director of the Welsh National Opera from 2011 until last year.
In March, Pountney’s long-awaited staging of the complete Ring Cycle for the Lyric Opera in Chicago was cancelled when the global pandemic struck just before the opening of the final work in Wagner’s tetralogy, Götterdämmerung. In what was going to be one of his busiest years, Pountney did not let the lockdown get the better of him. In fact, he remained as prolific as ever. Not only did he write an ecologically themed fairy-tale for his grandson, but he also created the librettos for two new operas, the first of which is titled A Feast in the Time of Plague. Jansson J. Antmann talks to Pountney before its world premiere this weekend.
David Pountney. Photograph © Emli Bendixen
On September 12 and 13, the opera world will get its first look at a brand-new opera on the stage of Grange Park Opera’s Theatre in the Woods in Surrey. David Pountney wrote the libretto as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic and it has been set to music by the 25-year-old composer Alex Woolf. The BBC Young Composer of the Year in 2012 and recipient of the Royal Philharmonic Society Composition Prize in 2018, Woolf has written works for the Tallis Scholars, the Choir of St John’s College in Cambridge, and the London Symphony Orchestra.
Pountney is amazed by the speed at which the opera was completed, and he is full of praise for the young composer. “It’s a quick business to write a libretto,” he says. “It was during lockdown, so it took me about two weeks and probably not even quite as long as that. I certainly wasn’t at it eight hours a day. But to compose a 90-minute piece, even just for piano and 12 singers – that’s a lot of dots on paper! It was a fantastic achievement by Alex. Not only has he done a great job with the composition, but he did it incredibly fast – you know, ‘Mozart speed’. I wrote it in April and here we are in September. It’s happening and that’s kind of unprecedented.”
It is also amazing to note that the libretto has remained unchanged throughout the process.
“I left Alex the freedom to change stuff if he found it irritating to set. Sometimes it doesn’t fall right for a composer, but he changed virtually nothing. Usually I’m quite picky about how words are set. If you miss-set them, people can’t understand them. However, I had virtually no corrections to make. He did it really, really well,” Pountney says.
Dubbed “the only new opera to have been commissioned during lockdown”, Pountney insists that credit for getting A Feast in the Time of Plague off the ground should go to Wasfi Kani, the founder and CEO of Grange Park Opera. Kani made headlines in 2017 by building a new opera house in less than a year – a feat described by The Times Arts Awards as the “fastest construction of an opera house in history”.
“She’s a remarkable lady,” Pountney says. “So many people are sitting on their hands or weeping into their handkerchiefs at the moment. It’s great to have somebody who says, ‘Let’s do it!’”
And that’s precisely what happened when Kani read Pountney’s libretto earlier this year. They had been talking about contributions she’d been receiving for another project and Pountney suggested that he could read his new libretto. After he sent it to her, Kani emailed him back the same day saying that she wanted to produce it.
Grange Park Opera’s Theatre in the Woods
Pountney first got the idea for the piece while setting up his company Creative Juices, which he conceived as both an incubator and producer of new work. It was during a meeting of the people involved that someone suggested he should write an adaptation of the play La Peste by Albert Camus.
“I replied that I’d rather base it on the Pushkin, because it reminded me of a fragment by him – A Feast in the time of plague, which is such a nice title,” Pountney laughs. “This was just a trigger for me really. In effect, the fragment is pretty perfunctory. It’s based on a Scottish text by a completely unknown writer of the early 19th century, John Wilson. I didn’t try to follow the Pushkin at all. I invented a completely different set of characters and it just sort of grew from that.”
The resulting libretto features 12 characters recalling the Last Supper. They arrive to feast of their own free will, but most will leave rather involuntarily to die. In spite of the seemingly dark subject matter, Pountney’s libretto is unashamedly funny.
“I literally just wrote it down as it came to me. I didn’t have time to think about whether I should be careful,” he says. “I think I was pretty irritated by a lot of aspects of what was going on. I do think we’ve made the most enormous cock-up and it reflects an inability of our politicians to speak honestly, openly and in a grown-up way. It made me adopt not only a slightly hostile tone in regard to all the piety about the crisis, but also that thing about laughing at death. We laugh at him – the Old Chum. It goes back to Wilfred Owen and soldiers’ humour during the First World War.”
He continues, “I was also partly inspired by Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover. You know, that idea of people recklessly feasting in a moment of crisis, yet not put down by it, and somehow maintaining their pride, their spirit and their ability to laugh.”
Simon Keenlyside as Antoine the playboy in A Feast in the Time of Plague. Photograph © Richard Lewisohn
Pountney enjoyed writing A Feast in the Time of Plague so much, that he has already written a companion piece as well.
“It’s titled The Plague in a Time of Feasting,” he explains. “It has a certain structural similarity, in that it starts with a full table of people and then they empty one by one, rather than the process in the first piece where they create the table. It’s much more political and basically about a Putin-like character, who is having a dinner party with a group of toadies. One by one they end up leaving, so that by the end of the piece he is left on his own. Having replaced them all with mannequins he says, “I’ve always sat before a cabinet of dummies”.
Pountney, has spent much of his career championing the Slavic repertoire and he admits that both works have a Russian flavour.
“It’s never really spelt out, but people do talk about the camps and being an enemy of the Party,” he says. “There are one or two minor references like that. I guess that comes out of my rucksack of literary memory. I don’t know where all these characters came from, to be honest.”
One role in A Feast in the Time of Plague certainly has its roots closer to home.
“I’m particularly pleased with the character of McGuire, who is sort of based on my godmother. She was a very feisty Scottish lady, whom I can imagine not having any truck with this virus nonsense.”
By nonsense, Pountney means the overzealous actions taken by governments and individuals alike during the pandemic. “These circumstances have given natural busybodies a license to start bossing people around and you sense in the whole lockdown procedure a certain kind of delight felt by those in control,” Pountney says. “It’s as though they’re thinking, ‘We’ve finally got the people where we want them, and we can tell them what they can and can’t do; whom they can meet; and where they can go.’ There is a strain of human nature that rejoices in that slightly puritanical fascism.”
While the pandemic may have exposed some undesirable aspects of our society, Pountney hopes the opera shows it’s not all bad.
“A crisis of this sort reveals all kinds of truths about people, because they’re put under enormous pressure,” he says. “In normal life, you go about your daily routine and most of the time you exist somewhere on the surface. This surface has now been stripped away and we’ve all been confronted with ourselves in various ways. There is an element of sincerity underneath all the craziness of these characters … and an emotional tug.”
Bringing these crazy characters to life, are some of the best performers in the opera world, including Claire Booth, Susan Bullock, Peter Hoare and Simon Keenlyside. Given the physical restrictions imposed by the public health guidelines, Pountney will only have one day to both rehearse and record the piece. Is this a first for the veteran director?
“You bet!” Pountney says gleefully. “It’s basically saying to people, ‘Be yourself; be your personality!’ This is where the casting was so critical. Part of the point of the piece is that it creates very vivid characters, so the physical production doesn’t really matter that much. What’s important is that they are alive. Wasfi has put together an amazing cast. They will know what to do. They’ll get it.”
Simon Keenlyside as Antoine the playboy in A Feast in the Time of Plague. Photograph © Richard Lewisohn
That said, Pountney is more than aware of the challenges posed by having just one day to direct a brand-new production that will be recorded for all the world to see.
“It’s a huge problem bringing 12 people together and creating spaces for them to exist in a socially-distanced way. Wasfi is making no money out of this, so we have to do it really fast, which is also quite amusing. Of course, I conceived this piece to be set around a table, which sort of dictates most of the production. The physical structure is very clear. They have a place to sit and a place to die and in between those two things, they can do what they like really.”
In ensuring the cast knows exactly where to go, Pountney has looked to the past for inspiration.
“I’ve made a seating plan and I’ve sent all the singers 35 scanned diagrams linked to particular pages in the score, so everybody knows if they have to move, and where they have to move to. It’s rather like the diagrams Casa Ricordi used to send out to theatres that wanted to do Verdi’s operas. It’s directing by numbers! COVID has just made us go back 200 years, before directors were necessary at all,” Pountney laughs.
Pountney is extremely grateful for the opportunity to return to a live theatre and he is keen to point out that this has only been made possible through the incredible efforts of Wasfi Kani and the generosity of the donors supporting the Grange Park Opera.
“We can fill somewhere between a third and a quarter of the normal capacity. And obviously we need to fit the donors in there, because this is an expensive operation, which Wasfi is running at a loss.”
On the matter of funding, Pountney has this to say to governments keen to overlook their responsibility for supporting the arts: “It’s very important we don’t lose sight of this concept of the public good. It’s great to have all the diversity that the country house opera scene has brought to Britain, but there remains a duty of public opera companies to offer culture to the broad spectrum of society.”
He adds, “I would warn politicians against saying, ‘Look at what the country house opera scene has achieved. See, we don’t need to subsidise opera companies’. Public opera companies are performing a public service, which is quite a different job to what companies like Grange Park Opera are doing.”
And what of the future for A Feast in the Time of Plague, beyond its world premiere this weekend?
“I’m excited with the way the libretto has turned out and I’ve now written the companion piece. Alex would like to do an orchestrated version for 12 instruments, with one instrument accompanying each singer, so if you can persuade anybody in Australia …” Pountney trails off with a chuckle and a glint in his eye.
A Feast in the Time of Plague will be performed and filmed at Grange Park Opera’s Theatre in the Woods on September 12 and 13 and then made available online in two parts, with the first part available on September 24 and the second part on October 1