The director of Driving Miss Daisy and Double Jeopardy describes stumbling into opera direction at a cocktail party.
How did you first come into contact with classical music?
I started listening to it when I was a kid growing up in Sydney, listening to it on the ABC. My parents didn’t know anything about classical music, in fact, I think they finally went to their graves not knowing anything about it. But I used to hear it on the ABC and I remember thinking, “God, that’s good.” I became interested purely from that.
Were there any composers that particularly appealed?
Oh, yes. My first – my great – love, and the thing that really kicked me off was Bartók. I remember hearing the Bartók String Quartets and being absolutely electrified at the ferocity of the Piano Concertos.
Director Bruce Beresford
What was it about the music that spoke to you?
I really don’t know. I’d never heard any other classical music before that – I had nothing to compare it with – and I suddenly heard this music. I remember it was Bartók’s Second Piano Concerto and I thought, “My God, that music’s wonderful!” And then I started listening to the ABC classical station as much as I could. I don’t know what it was. I never developed that kind of interest in rock ‘n’ roll and all that – I could listen to it, but I was never particularly interested.
What were your first experiences of opera?
I went to a few operas when I was at school. They used to do them in the Elizabethan Theatre in Newtown, which is not there anymore. I used to go occasionally and I remember seeing a Rigoletto there but I was never that interested. They just had painted backdrops and the productions were very static – it never meant much to me.
But then when I went to London when I was about 22 and a friend of mine who was very keen on opera and dragged me off to Covent Garden and we saw Peter Grimes. The production was so fantastic that I suddenly realised opera could be amazingly exciting. It was dramatically acted, the music was phenomenal, the set was absolutely brilliant – the seaside village – and it was so gripping. I thought, “God, you don’t have to do it with those crummy painted backdrops like they had in Sydney!” Of course, they now do very good productions in Australia – they’re often wonderful – but originally when I saw them they weren’t particularly interesting. Being in London really converted me.
How did you become involved in opera as a director?
It came about by chance, really, because one year I’d gone to the festival in Spoleto, in Italy, run by the composer Gian Carlo Menotti. I met Menotti at a cocktail party and he said, “Oh, someone was telling me about you, you’re that film director who likes opera!” and I said yes, and he said, “Why don’t you come here and direct an opera?”
I told him I hadn’t had any musical training, I’m not a musician. I’ve got a fairly good ear for music but I can’t play any instruments or anything. But he said, “You’re going to direct it, you’re not conducting it!” So the following year I did Puccini’s Girl of the Golden West there. Since then I’ve gone on directing operas intermittently, in between films.
The town of Loxford appoints a May King in Queensland Conservatorium’s production of Albert Herring
What are some of the challenges directing opera as opposed to film?
The main thing I have to think about when I’m directing an opera is that everybody’s watching the action in a wide shot. You can’t cut closer and you can’t use all the techniques of film – you can’t do tracking shots, you can’t cut the scene off, you can’t alter the length of scenes – it is what it is and you have to make it work within a preordained format. So I do my best to say, “Right, I’m watching it from a fixed position.”
And then I think, “Well, the setting’s important, the singing is important – the most important – but groupings, the lighting, all of these things make it work dramatically”. I’ve seen so many fabulous productions, it’s just incredible what can be done now. I try to make them as interesting as I can, in that wide-shot format.
You’ve directed quite a diverse portfolio of operas now. Are there any on your wish list?
The one I’d still most like to direct is Peter Grimes, which is such a masterpiece. I’ve tried! I’ve suggested it to people and they always say ‘Oh, we did it last year,’ or ‘We’re going to do it in two years,’ and so I’ve never done it. I think I must have seen at least ten productions of it around the world. I absolutely adore it.
You’re directing Albert Herring in Queensland. What attracts you to Britten’s music?
Britten is my favourite opera composer. When they first asked if I would be interested and they said “It’s Albert Herring,” I really jumped at it. I just love Britten’s music, it’s so melodic, it’s so evocative, it’s so dramatic and in the case of this opera it’s so funny!
Albert Herring, a reluctant May King
The opera was written shortly after World War II – has it dated?
I don’t think so. The story was based on a de Maupassant novella that was written some years before, and it’s a fairly straightforward story. I’ve set it exactly where it’s meant to be, in Edwardian England. I’ve seen productions of this where they’ve updated it but I don’t think they work. Britten went to great pains to paint a rather witty send up of the era. It’s not bitter or sarcastic – it’s rather loving. He makes great fun of the manners and the attitudes, but it’s done rather affectionately. Herring’s a bit of a misfit, although he gets on to the turps and hits the town. He breaks free of the constraints.
Do you have any favourite moments in the opera?
I love the whole opera but in Act 3 there’s a threnody in which the whole cast sings. I think it’s one of the high moments of the operatic repertoire. It’s really a great bit of writing. I remember the first time I saw a production of the opera – I loved the whole thing, but when it got to that, I thought it was a fantastic bit of music.
What are you looking forward to about this production?
We’ve got wonderful sets, great lighting, I think it’s a very sophisticated production. The costumes are fabulous. And all these young singers – trained here in Queensland – are first class! The conductor, Nick Cleobury, speaks very highly of them. They’re well trained and they’re very enthusiastic. There’s no one who’s cynical, no one who’s done it all before. There are some really great voices and I think a number of them are going to make an impact around the world.
The Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University’s production of Albert Herring , directed by Bruce Beresford, is at the Conservatorium Theatre September 9-17 as part of the Brisbane Festival