Wednesday 28 August 2013

Man on a mission - an encounter with Dionysios Kyropoulos

Drottningholm Slottsteater
If you think of historically informed staging of opera, what comes to mind? Authentic costumes and scenery with a production which gives only the barest nod to authentic gestures and is in effect a modern staging in old dress, a purist staging where everything from the sets to the lighting and gestures is authentic, or perhaps a rather fey period staging whose heart is in the right place but whose budget and theatrical life are rather too low. The Historically Informed Performance movement has been with us for 30 years, developing from a small scale curiosity into regular part of concerts and recording. But Historically Informed Stagecraft has not seen a parallel development and with one or two notable exceptions, has been rather ignored.

Dionysios Kyropoulos as Uberto (La Serva Padrona) - photo by Grigoris Siamidis
Dionysios Kyropoulos as Uberto in La Serva Padrona
photo by Grigoris Siamidis
I have always been interested in the subject of how baroque opera is staged, so I was fascinated when I came across Dionysios Kyropoulos who is about to do a MPhil in the subject at Cambridge. I first saw Dionysios singing in Danyal Dhondy's Secretary turned CEO, (see my review) a radical re-working of Pergolesi's La Serva Padrona. I was fascinated when I discovered  Dionysios's parallel interest in historical stagecraft and we met up to talk about the subject further.

Dionysios is anything but a typical academic and in person combines knowledge of his subject with a keenness to enthuse others. He likens Historically Informed Stagecraft today to the position that Historically Informed Performance was in during the early years of the 20th century. At that period even the harpsichord was rather derided and a performer like Wanda Landowska created her modern hybrid harpsichord in order to convince people that the instrument was valid on their own terms.

Dionysios feels that we can learn a lot from Landowska and that Historically Informed Stagecraft has suffered from the insistence that everything is done precisely right down to the last candle. Dionysios wants to educate, both performers and audience, and feels that a degree of compromise is needed.

He is no desk bound academic and has been putting these principals into practice. Last academic year he was teaching at City University and was staging opera scenes with his students. Then this July he staged Monteverdi's Orfeo in Burgos. In both cases his stagings have combined historic stagecraft with modern costumes and scenic devices. Partly this is a case of economics, Dionysios points out that period costumes only work when done well and that needs a big budget (good breastplates don't come cheap), but also contemporary costumes speak to modern audiences and Dionysios's interest is in making the stagecraft itself work for a modern audience.

So what is it we are talking about, this Historically Informed Stagecraft?

During the Baroque era, a writer called Roger Pickering (in his 1755 Reflections upon theatrical expression in tragedy) compared the performances of the two finest singers of his day, the castratos Farinelli and Senesino, both of whom performed in London. Farinelli undoubtedly had the finer voice but Pickering compared his stage presence unfavourably with Senesino's 'divine deportment' and regarded Farinelli as something of a lump.

'Farinelli drew every Body to the Haymarket. What a Pipe! What Modulation! What Extasy to the Ear! But, Heavens! What Clumsiness! What Stupidity! What Offence to the Eye! Reader, if of the City, thou mayest probably have seen in the Fields of Islington or Mile-End or, If thou art in the environs of St James', thou must have observed in the Park with what Ease and Agility a cow, heavy with calf, has rose up at the command of the milkwoman's foot: thus from the mossy bank sprang the DIVINE FARINELLI'

If you wanted to be touched by a performance you needed to see Senesino who combined singing with a repertoire of gesture. This repertoire of gesture was improvised, but based on rules which owe their origin to the language of rhetoric. It was a repertoire which continued in use in opera until the early 20th century. It was only with the advent of Stanislavsky and the more modern schools of dramatic thought, that performance changed so radically.

Dionysios feels that for us to be true to historical performance, the singer should be able to include historically informed stagecraft alongside the purely musical elements. After all, Handel was writing for a very expressive singer who combined vocal and physical performance.

Dionysios was born in Veria in Greece and came to the UK to further his operatic studies, reading music at City University whilst receiving tuition from Robert Dean at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. He also has a background in acting and admits to playing the lute as an amateur. His undergraduate thesis was entitled Rhetoric, Affekt and Gesture in Handelian Opera: Towards a holistic approach to historically informed performance. But he has combined this with a lively performing career, including Smetana's The Bartered Bride with British Youth Opera in 2012 and Handel's Atalanta in Cambridge earlier this year, as well as his developing interest in directing.

Coming to the subject of Historically Informed Performance as a student he was shocked to discover that amount of material on the subject of staging in treatises which was effectively ignored by the period performance movement. This seems to have developed in Dionysios almost a mission to convert people to Historically Informed Stagecraft, and he admits that even though he might be wrong he has got to try to implement his ideas.

Any attempt to recreate Historically Informed Stagecraft struggles owing to the lack of any oral teaching tradition. If you try to implement the information in treatises on their own then the performance can lack theatrical life. For Dionysios, many attempts have been too slavish and that the best way forward is a hybrid version on the Landowska model, slowly introducing elements of historical stagecraft. His dream is to create a company and over a period of six to seven years build slowly towards complete historicism, but starting from a model which develops characters in a more modern way.

Dionysios is someone for whom reading about and researching the subject are clearly not enough, he wants to try things out with contemporary singers and audiences. For staging Orfeo in Burgos this year, Dionysios found that both the singers and the audience loved it. An audience questionnaire received a very positive return rate and a very high approval rating. More than that they showed to Dionysios a way forward to demonstrate the power of rhetoric based gesture when combined with musical performance.

The experience also opened Dionysios's eyes to the power of direction, he found such freedom as a director that he is keen to pursue this role.

Of course, the style does not come easily and it needs work from the singers to make the style live, but he admits to being surprised at how quickly his performers took to it. He has also experimented with mixed styles, regarding Historically Informed Stagecraft as simply one element in a theatrical armoury. So that in staging scenes from Cavalli's Calisto the Gods used historical gestures whilst the humans were more naturalistic.

He is not dogmatic about historical gesture, regarding the style as simply one tool available to performers. But he keenly feels that it should be taught more, and at a lower level in conservatoires. Also more research and trial is needed in order to produce work which is not only theatrically convincing but which appeals to both critics and audience. He describes bringing back this craft that has been lost as almost like archeology.

For Dionysios, stagecraft and performance involve far more than just the performers and he is equally interested in the reception by the audience. The fact that the modern performance tradition is rather a magpie combining elements from different eras, so that we now have theatres dark with the audiences quite silent even though this was something brought in by Wagner. In the baroque period opera was something of a stadium event, particularly in public theatres like those in London and in Venice.

Dionysios talks of being prepared to embrace different approaches to audience reception and brings in the example of Tweeting during performance. In The Secretary turned CEO the audience could have a Twitter conversation with one of the characters during performance, this is a possibility that excites Dionysios. He feels this is something that could be taken further and combines modern and historical practices in an exciting way.  But as with everything, not everyone is receptive to such innovations and in incorporating new technology someone needs to experiment with it and get critical approval.

He links this to the modern trend with ensembles to present concerts in less traditional ways, such as the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment's Night Shift and City of London Sinfonia's CLoSer, and feels that these events are helping to bring in a new audience and that they relate directly to the way opera was presented in the past. A historically informed approach has potential to appeal to a wider audience.

Spending an hour or so talking to Dionysios Kyropoulos it becomes clear that he is a man with a mission and that for him research into historical stagecraft will clearly involve much putting theory into practice. Just before he starts at Cambridge he will be directing Handel's Rodelinda; there will only be four days of rehearsals but he regards it as a great opportunity to experiment. Then he will be returning to Burgos next year to direct another baroque opera. So watch this space.

Dionysios ideas have come to full fruition with his doctoral thesis at the University of Oxford. His thesis is available from the Oxford University Research Archive website, the thesis' title says it all:

Teaching acting to singers: harnessing historical techniques to empower modern performers

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