Rodula Gaitanou was interviewed by Limelight during pre-production on William Tell

People think they know Rossini’s William Tell because of its famous overture and the legend that it’s based on. Then you start working on it and you discover almost a Pandora’s Box – it’s big, it’s epic. Rossini wanted to write a French opera so there’s ballet, there’s a big chorus, fantastic ensembles. But putting aside all the big things, so much of this opera is relevant to us today.

Rodula Gaitanou. Photo © Yiannis Drosoulakis 

Ultimately, it’s about a fight for freedom and the right to retain and practice your culture and traditions. The opera tells the story of a small Swiss community that is being oppressed by occupying Austrian forces. For the Austrians, it’s not enough to impose a certain way of life – rather, the customs and traditions of the Swiss must also be belittled and the people treated condescendingly.

And in all of this is a deep love that the Swiss have for their soil and land. The way I see it, and I think it’s there in the music, the Austrians not only invade this space but pollute it. This community is one that lives for and is nurtured by nature, constantly surrounded by the fresh Alpine air and the mountains. And because it’s the most precious thing to them, the Austrians must destroy it. That’s proved to be one of the most challenging things about staging William Tell – how do you make clear to the audience this people’s profound relationship with nature? And how do you make this village’s story stand in for a national struggle?

But against this great story of oppression and grand national struggles are lots of very small-scale, human ones. There’s a Romeo and Juliet love story going on between Arnold and Mathilde, and two fantastic portrayals of the father-son relationship between Melcthal and Arnold, as well as William Tell and Jemmy.

It’s the balance of the epic and the intimate that’s so important in William Tell. I’m trying to always take good care of the storytelling, to be clear about the important ideas and direct the focus of the audience, rather than simply create something they just look at for four and a half hours. I want the Swiss people’s journey onstage to be very clear, and that is what is going to hold the audience’s attention. We have cut quite a lot – it is Rossini’s largest piece of work, so it certainly wasn’t an easy job, let me put it that way.

In terms of preparing for any opera, I usually listen to the piece and then I have a read of the libretto. And any instinctive ideas, anything that comes to me straight away, I try to write down. Quite a few times these very first ideas turn out to be very important – they’re not weighed down by the creative process yet.

The interesting thing about the legend of William Tell is that there are so many different versions. I really enjoy digging into these different versions and then allowing that research to inform the way I approach the opera. What are the themes that I want to tap into, and what can I bring to the surface that might not be so dominant in the libretto but is suggested through subtext or the other existing versions of the story?

We’re setting the opera in a very timeless, but modern space. You can think of it as being in a dystopia that is actually very near to us. We’ve drawn inspiration from things like The Hunger Games and The Handmaid’s Tale, so it’s certainly picking up on stories that don’t feel very far from us at the moment unfortunately. Gesler, the villain of the piece, he’s not only a baddie but a king amongst baddies. As far as operatic villains go, he’s at the far end of the spectrum. He’s got all the characteristics of a sadist, and human suffering is a game to him. For him, human life is not of great importance and if you think about it, this devaluing of life is the most atrocious thing, and we try to show the brutality of that in our production.

One of the most important things for me about this opera is engaging with the humanity of it. Engaging with the fact that people will always fight for freedom and be united to fight for a higher cause. And these are things that resonate with people, even if many of us are on the safe side of things. In a way it is a funny thing – we go to the theatre and watch stories unfolding of great fights and struggles and it can be easy to brush them off as drama, but all these things are happening in the present. Helping the audience realise the relevance of these things with William Tell is a challenge, but it is a great, great pleasure at the same time.

Victorian Opera’s William Tell is at the Palais Theatre, St Kilda from July 14 – 19