Saturday, 21 November 2015

Creating La Boheme in wartime Paris - an encounter with Nina Brazier

 Ryedale Festival Opera - The Coronation of Poppea, with Elizabeth Holmes (Poppea) and Stephanie Marshall (Nero) Photo Emma Lambert
 Ryedale Festival Opera - The Coronation of Poppea,
with Elizabeth Holmes (Poppea) and Stephanie Marshall (Nero) Photo Emma Lambert
You have one of the most iconic operas of all time, limited resources, no chorus and just a piano for accompaniment: how does a director bring La Boheme to life for an audience which mixes those who have seen it dozens of times and those for whom it is a first opera? I met up with the young director Nina Brazier to talk about her new production of Puccini's La Boheme which debuted at the Clapham Opera Festival yesterday (20 November 2015).

Nina Brazier
Nina Brazier
We started by talking about re-interpreting opera in new productions and the pressure on a director, particularly a young director, to do something difference. Nina felt that it was important that your 'take' on a piece should offer a reason for doing it in the first place, and that you shouldn't re-imagine an opera in such a way that it was unrecognisable. 

The challenge is to bring out the particular individuality without distorting the work

She sees the challenge as being to bring out the particular individuality without distorting the work. And it is a greater challenge in a fringe environment with limited resources, but Nina seems to view this as exciting rather than difficult. She is even up-beat about just having a piano accompaniment and no chorus, seeing the stripped-back nature of the production another challenge which means the staging has to work harder, and it can add intimacy and focus to a production. The director also needs to use imagination in finding other moments of interest in the music and staging to compensate for the times when things like the chorus is lacking.

With a reduced accompaniment, the advantage, from a casting point of view, is that younger, lighter voices can be used and most of the performers in Clapham are singing their roles for the first time. The production offers a way in for singers who are just bedding a role down and not yet ready for a big house.

Ryedale Festival Opera - The Merry Widow - Photo Gerard Collett
Ryedale Festival Opera - The Merry Widow - Photo Gerard Collett

The Clapham Opera Festival is very much the brainchild of Marie Soulier

The Clapham Opera Festival is very much the brainchild of Marie Soulier who created it. The festival is inclusive and democratic, getting as many locals as possible involved and there are two open dress rehearsals for local children. And local business support the production too. It the festival's director Marie Soulier who suggested the Wild West setting for last year's production of Rossini's La Cenerentola, and it was her idea to set this year's La Boheme in Paris during World War 2.

With a setting in Paris during the Occupation, living as poor students ceases to be a life choice for the characters and becomes a necessity. Depicting the main characters as members of the resistance, Nina is enthusiastic about the way the production captures the extremes of Paris at the time from real poverty to rich living.

She feels that the setting produces an interestingly darker take on the opera, making the character of Mimi more interesting. Mimi is rather ambiguous and potentially an informant, being torn between love and money, thus adding another layer of suspicion. And of course, in the poorer areas of Paris at the time TB was rife.

Of course the new setting does not work ideally at every point in the opera, but Nina is concerned to ensure that they never go against the grain of the piece. She admits that there are a couple of places where adjustments must be made but there are some which work extremely well. She cites the role of Alcindoro in Act Two who is still comic, but he is also a real informant which adds fuel to the bohemians scorn for him and his role is heightened in subsequent acts. In the final act, the young men's play fighting becomes darker and more threatening. Fiona Murray is the Italian language coach for the evening and she is making sure that everything which happens works with the language and works dramaturgically.

Ultimately Nina hopes that the production will have enough light and enough dark to bring the love story into relief. As a director she finds it uncomfortable when things in a production go against the music, liking everything in a staging to be logical and to tell the story clearly.

She fell into opera almost by accident.

To a certain extent she feels this is because of her background in straight theatre. She fell into opera almost by accident. Her family was based in Wales, and she had not seen an opera, and she did a drama degree in Exeter. Whilst doing an MA in Text and Performance she assisted on a new opera by Paul Clarke performed by Opera Circus and she simply fell in love with the music. She then assisted at University College Opera, and on Rigoletto at Opera North. Now she very rarely directs plays. Though text is always at the very heart of her craft, she would feel lost without her musical training and always notates the action in her score.

Nina has directed a number of operas for Ryedale Festival Opera, The Merry Widow this year and The Coronation of Poppea last year (see my review) and next year she directs Handel's Alcina  for them. This will be her first Handel opera, her first exposure to the challenge of opera seria and the necessity to ensure that the singers take care of their body language for what can be a long stretch in the long arias.

Nuremberg on the 70th anniversary of the Nuremberg trials has great resonance

A Song of Good and Evil - Berwald Hallen, Stockholm - Philippe Sands, Emma Pallant
A Song of Good and Evil
Berwald Hallen, Stockholm
Philippe Sands, Emma Pallant

The same weekend that the Clapham Opera Festival opens, another show of Nina's, A Song of Good and Evil, opens in Nuremberg. And whilst there are lots of dates for the production (it has been to the South Bank Centre, and to Stockholm, with dates coming up in Istanbul, and Kings Place) the performance in Nuremberg on the 70th anniversary of the Nuremberg trials has great resonance. So Nina will be flying out to Nuremberg the day after La Boheme opens in Clapham.

Written by the international human rights lawyer Philippe Sands, A Song of Good and Evil deals with three men tied to the Nuremberg trials including Hercsh Lauterpacht who came up with the phrase Crimes against Humanity, and Raphael Lemkin who invented the word Genocide. The work uses a baritone (Laurent Naouri), pianist and two narrators and in Nuremberg on of the narrators will be Vanessa Redgrave. The performance in Nuremberg will also be filmed for a documentary.

Creating opera

A Telephone Call by Tom Randle at Tête à Tête:The Opera Festival, photo Claire Shovelton, featuring Gillian Keith (soprano) and Beatrice Curnew (actress)
A Telephone Call by Tom Randle at Tête à Tête:The Opera Festival
Gillian Keith (soprano) & Beatrice Curnew (actress)
photo Claire Shovelton, 

I was curious how Nina might approach La Boheme again if someone else approached her to direct it, but in the midst of rehearsals for the current production she stand back enough yet and is too focussed on what they are doing now. But on any new production she wipes the slate clean and starts with a brainstorming session with the designer.

When it comes to opera productions, her instinct is always to say yes to offers but availability comes into it and also who your collaborators are going to be. After all, you are going to be spending months with them, and on a small scale production you really have to rely on the people you are working with. Another important factor is whether the opera is a story that you want to tell. She has doing three or four productions of The Magic Flute in English and to do it again would need to find something fresh to say.

When starting on a new production she listens to the music over and over again, to get her own version into her mind because if she sees a production she feels that her subconscious can pick up ideas. She also explores around the opera, looking at history, context, politics, power and money at the time. She needs to find her own context for the piece, but always goes back to the music. And of course, casting can affect the process too.

And whilst she would love to direct Rigoletto or The Makropoulos Case, she is always full of her latest opera whatever it is. She normally falls in love with the current opera, but there is a danger you might hate it too!

Each new production brings the consideration of how it fits into your own personal narrative. And whilst she would always like to say that she is looking for a stepping stone in her career, she admits that her main concerns are with whether the production will bring her to a new place, and will she learn from it. That said, she has found that work usually begets work and cites a number of smaller productions which have led to bigger things.

She loves new opera. A big collaborator in the rehearsal room, her directing style lends itself to situations where you have a composer present too. She is open enough to take on other ideas and has certainly enjoyed all the contemporary opera.

La Boheme
22 November, Church of the Holy Spirit, Clapham (Clapham Opera Festival)

A Song of Good and Evil
28 November, Théâtre Olympe de Gouges, Montauban, France
29 April 2016, Zorlu Centre, Istanbul
16 & 18 May 2016, King's Place London

Elsewhere on this blog:

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