The renowned Australian stage director’s love of music and opera goes back to school days at Homebush Boys High.

My relationship with music has all been show related. I joined the school choir and a church choir, singing Palestrina, Zigeunerlieder, Bach motets and William Byrd. But more than anything, it was going into the operas at Homebush Boys High where we did cut-down versions of Offenbach’s Gaîté Parisienne, The Barber of Seville and The Magic Flute

There was such an exquisite sense of music at Homebush. It was a particular teacher, Lindsay Daines, who was doing such interesting productions with such great music in them. Our production of Lord of the Flies had the Pie Jesu from Fauré’s Requiem as the high point for Simon’s death and the music from La Fille mal gardée, which I then plundered for my school production of Toad of Toad Hall.

Director Neil Armfield. Photo by Tony Lewis.

But The Magic Flute was the one that really captured me. I asked for a recording of the full opera for Christmas 1969 and my parents got me the Klemperer. It was also a particular positioning of myself within the family, because my oldest brother Ian was devoted to The Rolling Stones and had pictures of Mick Jagger all over his bedroom while my other brother Ross was obsessed with The Beatles.
I sort of grew up with both of those influences but I kind of rejected them and shut the door and put on classical music. I subscribed to the World Record Club so every month the catalogue would arrive. I was working in a wallpaper shop in Burwood to make the money to buy Twinings tea and Carr’s Table Water Biscuits and records from the World Record Club – I wasn’t at all gay!

I did The Magic Flute in Chicago [December 10, 2016 – January 27, 2017] and my whole production was based on the idea of a 13-year-old boy directing a production of The Magic Flute, so it’s an extremely personal production that we developed. 

When I went off to university and directed there, I was always aware of how important music was to a piece of theatre. I remember using Purcell’s March for the Funeral of Queen Mary in a production of Measure for Measure with SUDS and Alan John (who was a good friend from school) wrote a lot of music for the shows that we did. 

And then, when I started doing opera – because I’d been going to the opera from when I was about 16 on student subscriptions – it sort of took over. Opera becomes the music that you get obsessed by because you listen to it over and over and over again until it invades your dreams. Then you can start to reveal it and get inside it in the rehearsal room.

I’m doing Brett Dean’s new opera of Hamlet next year at Glyndebourne. I love working with Brett. There’s a wonderful fragility about the music and he is one of the world’s greatest contemporary composers.

Before the Melbourne cycle I was completely into The Ring again. It’s the most amazing music. The production was so much better for having rested for three years. It was a really fantastic cast and the score is so rich. It’s so perfect in its psychological, dramatic, mythological and metaphysical arguments and frameworks and it takes so much analysis and study. The music is so generous I guess.

The Music I Couldn’t Live Without…

Richard Strauss: Four Last Songs
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf s Warner Classics 2564607591

I suppose if I had to choose, I do often find myself coming back to one of the recordings that I grew up with: Elisabeth Schwarzkopf singing the Four Last Songs by Richard Strauss, which are pretty perfect. What I love about the work I think is the sense of total immersion and the feeling of a life that’s been lived. To the Strauss I would add Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony, which is, I think, my favourite symphonic work.

Neil Armfield is co-Artistic Director of the 2017 Adelaide Festival, which runs from March 3 – 19.