Limelight catches up with a young opera and theatre director on the rise.

Over the next year you are directing two operas – Make No Noise for the Munich Opera Festival and Elektra for WA Opera – and a staged version of the song cycle Winterreise. What appeals to you about these forms?

I think my interest in opera comes from the idea of Gesamtkunstwerk – theatre that can embrace the synthesis of all artforms. However, I have contradictory feelings about opera. I’m drawn to the individual elements that make up an opera – music, spoken voice, sung voice, scenography – and how they can be woven together to create a whole.

How much does having sung as opposed to spoken text, and various other musical considerations, affect your approach to a production?

Working with a sung text immediately adds an entire new layer, and I find myself asking a whole range of different questions. “Why are they singing and not speaking?” is the central one. There must be a reason. It also means I think about the use of time very differently. Singing allows a suspension of time to occur, which is something I am very attracted to, but is difficult to wield. Working with a score also means that many interpretative decisions have already been made by the composer, so you have to create your response aware of these pre-existing decisions. 

Some might argue that the music of Schubert’s Winterreise is in itself such a complete emotional journey that a staging could not add anything to the work. How would you sell it to sceptics?

Listening to the recording at home certainly offers a full emotional journey, but we are not trying to recreate that particular emotional journey in this production. We have used 14 songs from the cycle to support a new narrative about a man attempting to survive his daily routine while being haunted by his past traumas. We have created a new work and used Schubert’s songs to communicate the inner thoughts of a man trapped in a house in Australia. Therefore this isn’t a recital of Schubert’s song cycle. This isn’t one for the purists.

The music will be performed by a rock and cabaret singer (Paul Capsis) and jazz pianist (Alister Spence) in English. Does it still sound like the original at all?

Absolutely. Some of the songs we sing exactly as Schubert wrote, others we used as inspiration to create our own versions. But Schubert wrote songs that require the singer and pianist to infuse them with their own personality – there is no “correct way” to perform Schubert, what is important is having a deep connection to the emotional state of each song. So when you are working with performers like Paul and Alister, you want them to mix their own musicality and ideas into the songs, as you want to hear their artistic voices melding with Schubert’s. 

What attracts you to grim Greek tragedies such as Elektra?

I am endlessly drawn to the Greek tragedies. Within these plays are the core thoughts that we still struggle with today – the essential dilemmas and questions – and the Greeks often had an ability to pierce these ideas with a precision we seem to lack today. I return to these stories again and again, because they spur my imagination, and because I find that through revisiting them I gain a greater understanding of history – of who I am and of where I came from. 

If you had your pick of another opera or classical work to direct, what would it be?

I have always wanted to direct Bluebeard’s Castle by Bartók and Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex. But I am also really drawn to early Baroque operas, such as Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo and Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. I’m not that interested in Classical or Romantic operas, it’s the early 20th-century and Baroque material that I feel an affinity with.

Did you grow up around classical music or play an instrument? Has it had an influence on directorial work?

I went to school on a music scholarship, so music was a major part of my high school years. I was drawn to music, and then dance, before literature and theatre, and I think this has had a major impact on the way I create theatre. Probably in the way I think about imagery, and also rhythm – I often think about how rhythm can create meaning and understanding between performers and an audience. The idea of instinctual rhythms that are felt in the body, as opposed to understood consciously, is an important part of my thinking.

You founded ThinIce, which is involved in Winterreise and Elektra, when you were 17 and still in school. Did you imagine it would have flourished so well over the next ten years?

I had no idea where it would go when I started it. I didn’t really think about the future. It was all about putting on a show now now now! It was a way to get support – a small grant and access to a theatre. And from there it has just grown and grown.

Still being in your mid-twenties, have you ever had to struggle for people to take you seriously as a director, working on major productions at such a young age?

I don’t believe my age has ever been an issue. Perhaps actors have complained about me in the corridors, but I’ve never had to defend my age in a rehearsal room. But everyone in the process has met me before the project starts, so they know what they’re signing up for. 

Die Winterreise runs from July 20-31 at the Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne. See event details here.