Saturday 12 March 2016

The transition from dark to light, I talk to director Olivia Fuchs about Mascagni's Iris

Katia Kabanova at Opera Holland Park 2009, directed Olivia Fuchs, designed by Yannis Thavoris - photo Yannis Thavoris
Katia Kabanova at Opera Holland Park 2009, directed Olivia Fuchs, designed by Yannis Thavoris - photo Yannis Thavoris
Olivia Fuchs will be directing Mascagni's Iris for the opening of the Opera Holland Park 2016 season (with Anne Sophie Duprels in the title role, conducted by Stuart Stratford). I met up with Olivia recently to talk about Mascagni's exotic but neglected opera, and about the remarkable body of work which Olivia has built up, as well as to look forward to other productions such as Der Rosenkavalier at Welsh National Opera in 2017.

Olivia Fuchs
Olivia Fuchs
Olivia admitted that she hadn't previously thought of directing Mascagni's Iris but it was the opera in the Opera Holland Park Season which she wanted to direct. Olivia relishes doing unusual operas (and has done quite a number at Garsington Opera also) Iris fits in with previous operas she has worked on, with a female heroine, down trodden and oppressed, who has to transcend. These operas fascinate Olivia, and she points out they are written from a man's point of view. When I suggest that she provides a women's perspective, she corrects me and say she provides a more balanced viewpoint. She is a woman, and directs from her standpoint and from the stand point of here and now. She does not seek to impose any sort of feminist agenda, and points out that it inevitably another director (whether man or woman) would approach the work differently.

She finds Mascagni's music beautiful and luscious, but underneath is pain, child prostitution

Poster for Iris, by Adolf Hohenstein (1854 - 1928) - published by Casa Ricordi in 1898
Poster for Iris,
published by
Casa Ricordi in 1898
She finds Iris an interesting challenge, with its unknown music and faulty dramaturgy, Olivia describes the work as rather abstract. She finds Mascagni's music beautiful and luscious, and sees the challenge as being to make the setting match the music. But underneath the music, is pain, child prostitution and child slavery. To make it work Olivia sees her job to be to bring dramaturgical rigour to the production.

To this end she is doing research, going to the British Library. Mascagni and his librettist Illica thought they were being ground-breaking in following symbolist plays, yet the music does not match that. And the challenge is to make the audience feel something other than abstract beauty. Act Three however plunges into a different world. Olivia refers to it as almost being tagged on, and in the past the opera has even been performed with only two acts. The last act is existentially bleak and full of despair, though there is an apotheosis at the end. Olivia sees the work as being about existence, and transition from dark to light, from a young girl to a woman, from country to town and from life to death.

Working on Iris will mean reuniting with the team of conductor Stuart Stratford and soprano Anne-Sophie Duprels with whom Olivia has already worked on Janacek's Katia Kabanova and Jenufa, and Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande at Opera Holland Park. Working with people she has worked with before is something that Olivia appreciates. You can build relationships and push each other further, and develop trust and confidence. And she adds that it is in these areas that collaborations can break down. Collaboration is what Olivia loves about opera, where individuals combine into creating work. She describes Anne-Sophie Duprels as being great to work with, always willing to go with the director. And as a performer, Olivia describes Duprels as immediate and genuine, someone you really feel for on stage.

A family atmosphere, conducive to good work

Olivia loves Opera Holland Park and feels she has some of her best work there as well as working on some unusual operas. She finds it a family atmosphere, conducive to good work, and they have great singers, who are there because they want to be. She adds that she feels trusted there and not being tested by the management.  Olivia appreciates the fact that the audiences are still relatively mixed with lots of some people. The orchestra is remarkably close, so that as a director Olivia is far more aware of them.

Outside, the setting in the park is beautiful and Olivia likes that you are aware of the elements, and the environment. Inside, the facade of the Jacobean house is a constant presence which directors and designers must deal with. Olivia says that you can either use it, cover it or interact with it; you can also use it as an installation, as a sculpture. But for Olivia, what doesn't work is to use painted flats and traditional theatre design.

She has assimilated somewhat having lived in the UK for 20 years

Olivia's father was German and she grew up in Greece, America and Germany. Her theatre sensibility was originally very German, very Central European, she as very into German Expressionism and non-naturalistic theatre. But she feels she has assimilated somewhat having lived in the UK for 20 years.

Jenufa at Opera Holland Park, 2007, directed by Olivia Fuchs, designed by Yannis Thavoris - photo Yannis Thavoris
Jenufa at Opera Holland Park, 2007, directed by Olivia Fuchs, designed by Yannis Thavoris - photo Yannis Thavoris
Her parents were not particularly into theatre at all. In Germany she worked in the municipal theatre as an actor and doing small singing parts. She studied drama and was working as an actor. She became frustrated and set up her own theatre company and picked up directing again, and realised she was better at it than acting.

She then worked with David Freeman on his productions of Monteverdi's Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria and L'incoronazione di Poppea at English National Opera in the early 1980's. She found Monteverdi a great way to get into opera, it was not so scary and far closer to theatre. She then worked with Peter Sellers on Handel's Theodora at Glyndebourne and this helped her to get into directing choruses (which she describes as always difficult for directors from a theatre background). She didn't do much assisting but that she was very fortunate in the directors she did work with.

How a group of people join to overcome their differences and survive adversity

Another work coming up is Stephen McNeff's opera Banished which he is writing for the students at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance. The libretto is by Olivia, and though she was originally planning to direct it, she is now not able to. She found it wonderful working on a piece for lots of female singers. Based on the true story of the first female prisoners transported to Australia in the early nineteenth century, Banished tells the story of how a group of people join to overcome their differences and survive adversity. It is a very apposite subject, the story starts in Deptford/Woolwich where the transport ships left from. Having done work for Opera Australia, Olivia found the origins of the country fascinating, and the new colony was full of social injustices with most of the young women there because they had stolen something.

Banished is based on a play by Steven Gooch, Female Transport, and Olivia has adapted the play into a libretto. This is something she has done before, she wrote the libretto of The Maids (based on Jean Genet's play) which had music by John Lunn. And she has also creating the dramaturgy for events such as Pleasure Palaces which was performed at the Lyric Theatre Hammersmith for the Millennium. She describes it as being akin to what you do as a director, creating pieces and seeing what works dramaturgically.

Visually she likes to find key or a metaphor and she is not into naturalism

Olivia Fuch's production of Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier
at Theater Magdeburg
As a director, Olivia does not set out to have a directorial style. Visually she likes to find key or a metaphor and she is not into naturalism, adding that that is why opera appeals to her. She is really interested in physicality on stage, both the interaction between performers and between performers and their environment. She enjoys telling stories, not necessarily naturalistically, and at the heart the work is about human beings. She is not really interested in setting stories in the future, or on Mars; she prefers to find something that means something to audiences now.

Occasionally she is asked to set operas in period. Of course the question then becomes, what period that of the libretto, that of the original production or the time of it first performance. Often it just means that people want pretty frocks. This leads us into discussing a project coming up next year; Olivia will be directing Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier at Welsh National Opera, in a new production based on one Olivia directed at Theater Magdeburg.  She returns to Magdeburg to direct Gounod's Faust.

Balm for the soul

Olivia will be directing Handel's Alcina for the Royal Academy of Music in the Autumn. I was curious about her feelings about Baroque opera and she exclaims that she loves it, describing it as balm for the soul. Part of the reason is that the works are so psychological particularly the da capo arias. Not being realistic, the director has to make a reason for people to sing the arias, to find a journey through it. And for Olivia, the music takes us to the inner workings of human feeling. She finds Handel's music has an amazing human quality, and he writes brilliantly for women.

Olivia also finds a sense of juggling time in Baroque opera, they are written on a big scale but there are intimate moments when time slows down. (This is a quality which Olivia also finds in Der Rosenkavalier). A director needs to juxtapose action and music, counterpointing the music ather than matching it. The length of the arias means you have time to go inwards, and it is not just an instant snapshot. She then adds that baroque operas is certainly not as extreme as Noh Theatre, which is even slower, meditative and highly inward.

As a final question, I ask about her desert island opera, something she would like to direct without constraints. She comes up, not with a wish list, but with operas she would like to direct again, Katia Kabanova, Rusalka, Pelleas et Melisande and lots of Handel.

Elsewhere on this blog:

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