LONDON — Real theater on display in an opera house?
It used to be considered almost unthinkable in the U.S. that drama might not have to take a back seat to music. But that approach is making headlines for the Metropolitan Opera. Under the directorship of Peter Gelb, the Met suddenly has not one but two hits on its hands with Anthony Minghella’s new production of “Madam Butterfly” and “The Barber of Seville,” directed by Bartlett Sher (“The Light in the Piazza”).
Crossover directors are turning heads with opera productions in Blighty, too, though cross-pollination here between the legit and lyric worlds is far more common.
While it’s still somewhat unusual to find legit theater talent directing opera Stateside, it’s almost business as usual in U.K. opera houses. That’s because over the last 30 years, Britain’s opera managements have regularly hired theater directors rather than relying on opera specialists, who often tend to focus on vocal performances at the expense of broader dramatic texture.
In Britain this season, the Glyndebourne Touring Opera is offering a new production of Benjamin Britten’s “The Turn of the Screw” helmed by Jonathan Kent, (“Faith Healer”), who earlier this year made his Royal Opera debut with a star-studded “Tosca.”
It was Glyndebourne that first engaged Trevor Nunn to direct “Porgy and Bess” in 1986. Six years later, Nunn directed Britten’s “Peter Grimes” there. That opera has just received an incandescent new production from Phyllida Lloyd at the Leeds-based Opera North.
Following two SRO appearances in London last week, there are rumors that Lloyd’s “Peter Grimes” might be picked up by English National Opera, the company that, together with Opera North, is known to develop the theatrical side of opera in the U.K.
One of the U.K.’s most trenchant and versatile directors — she has directed David Mamet’s comedy “Boston Marriage” and Schiller’s tragic thriller “Mary Stuart” at the Donmar and in the West End, an all-female “The Taming of the Shrew” at the Globe, and “Mamma Mia!” worldwide — Lloyd is clear-eyed about working in the two dramatic forms.
“It’s the same job,” she says evenly. “There’s a difference between the expectations of singers and actors, but that’s because singers tend to feel they can survive without a director because they have an orchestra and a conductor to support and guide them — actors have nothing.”
Reflecting on the success of “Grimes,” (it is already scheduled to return in 2008), Lloyd observes that she rehearsed it exactly as she would a play.
The twinned constraints of payment and time can be a bigger challenge for a director working in opera than marshaling vast choruses around giant sets. Soloists are paid a performance fee.
Although the often hefty sum is expected to cover rehearsal, many major singers regard rehearsals as an unnecessary luxury. Managements turn a blind eye to ceaseless non-appearances by stars in a manner unthinkable in theater.
“Rehearsals are not valued,” says Lloyd. “In theater, actors are paid the same to rehearse as to perform. And the thing I can do is rehearse. There’s no point in hiring me just to do staging — that’s just a waste of time. Time is the be all and end all.”
Lloyd cites one major international house that recently proposed doing a new “Grimes” — a work about the massed ranks of inhabitants of a tight-knit community — with the absurd allowance of just two sessions with the chorus. Opera North clearly thinks differently. Lloyd was given nine weeks with the entire company with, most unusually, little allowance for singers to disappear to do other perfs elsewhere.
Lloyd has reconceived her first Britten production, “Gloriana,” for film, winning an Intl. Emmy for best arts production. Only a similar wholesale rethink would result in her “Grimes” making it to the screen.
Not that this is likely to happen for a while. Lloyd is busy for the next year working on the bigscreen adaptation of another landmark musical production: “Mamma Mia!”