Wednesday 14 June 2017

The guy who serves the music: I chat to film maker turned opera director Aik Karapetian

Gounod: Faust - Latvian National Opera (Photo: Agnese Zeltina (c) Latvian National Opera and Ballet)
Gounod: Faust - Latvian National Opera (Photo: Agnese Zeltina (c) Latvian National Opera and Ballet)
The young Latvian film director Aik Karapetian (his parents are Armenians who settled in Latvia) directed his second opera production Faust in September 2016 at Latvian National Opera. The production won an award at the 2017 Latvian National Music Awards this year, and was chosen to open the 2017 Riga Opera Festival (see my review). His 2011 production of Il barbiere di Sivigla is still in the Latvian National Opera's repertoire, and Aik will be directing Bizet's Carmen in Montpelier in 2018. A remarkable achievement for someone who originally had no thought of directing opera; whilst I was in Riga I met up with Aik to find out more.

Aik Karapetian
Aik Karapetian

A crazy accident

Aik got involved in opera via what he calls a 'crazy accident'. The previous director of Latvian National Opera, Andres Zagars, held an event for new set set designers, where the young aspirant designers were given a short-list of operas, asked to choose one and present ideas. One of Aik's friends was going, so she persuaded him to come along. Everyone else was showing models and elaborate designs; Aik did not have anything and did not know much about opera, but gave a verbal presentation. It turned out that Zagars liked his ideas, and Aik was offered an experimental production in the small hall at Riga Opera House. Then the director dropped out of a new production of Rossini's Il barbiere di Sivigla on the main stage , and Aik was offered the role. He had one month to prepare his ideas before presenting them, and everyone loved what he suggested.

Before the 'crazy accident', he had not only never seen any opera before and never thought he would make opera his life. But Zagars warned him that opera was like a disease once it is in his blood.

Aik trained as a film director at Académie Internationale des Arts ESEC in Paris, and was a movie fan from childhood making films with his friends as teenager. He makes very dark horror films and sees no connection between his films and his operas. In fact he talks about films being his wife and operas his mistress! Aik's first opera production Il barbiere di Sivigla came out in 2011, when he was 27, and a year before his first feature film. So ironically he made his debut as an opera director before his debut as a film director.

'I have the perfect job, listening to perfect music, telling people what do do!'

He loves the fact that you can direct three operas in a year, whereas a film takes two or three years. This means that you can devote three years to creating a film, which may be a flop but with opera productions there is a chance to experiment more, assuming that people actually ask you to create new productions.

Though Aik claims to originally have had no idea of going into opera, he has clearly thought deeply about the mechanics of making opera. What he does not like is the idea of directors who use the Stanislavsky method with singers. He calls this 'the dumbest thing', and says that singers need to know a lot of music, text and where to move on stage and that if you add Stanislavsky as well it can 'destroy all the musical stuff'. Also, on a practical note, he points out that the cast changes all the time; the cast I saw in Faust included a Faust and a Marguerite who had not previously sung in the production and there have been three different Fausts since the production's debut. This means that he would only be able to use Stanislavsky with the opening cast, it would not be possible to work with every singer.

He is a guy whose role it is to serve the music

Aik Karapetian's production of Rossini: Il barbiere di Sivigla at Latvian National Opera
Aik Karapetian's production of Rossini's Il barbiere di Sivigla
at Latvian National Opera
Aik also sees links between opera and film directing, and feels that theatre directors can be less flexible in opera. In opera, as in film, you are making an image whereas in theatre you are interpreting a text.  His basic concept for that first production, Il barbiere di Sivigla, was Tom and Jerry cartoons, he looked for an image to fit each part of the music and tried with the singer to depict that image. His view of opera production is simply that he is a guy whose role it is to serve the music, finding an image for the music.

He is not keen on the idea of 'singers in jeans and hoodies singing baroque music' and wants the music in an opera to be a reflection of the precise time-period. So when directing, Aik tries to create his own world in the music, which reflects the time-period of the opera. He admits that this can be risky and that it sometimes works and sometimes doesn't, but he clearly feels that simply changing the time-period is easier, lazier option.

Working with a chorus is one of the trickier skills for a director who does not come from a musical theatre background. Aik describes working with the chorus as very scary and this was especially true of Faust which used the full chorus; the not knowing what to do with them and the realisation that you cannot do too much. He points out that the chorus has to sing, so that their movements have been kept quite simple. He adds that some directors simply leave the direction of the chorus to the first assistant director (who normally comes from an operatic background). There is a big difference here between film and opera, in film the ideal chorus is made up of people in the background, ones you don't really see or register properly.

A fairy tale, but one for adults

Directing Gounod's Faust was the suggestion of the opera house. When I ask him what opera he would select he suggest Handel's Rinaldo but says that this would be problematic at Latvian National Opera as there is no baroque tradition there. With Faust Aik started by listening to the music repeatedly, and reading Goethe. He became obsessed with FW Murnau's film Faust and Murnau's German expressionist style had a big impact on the production. Aik found it no big deal to make Mephistopheles a frightening character. He wanted to create a fairy tale, but one for adults and in addition to Murnau, he cites El Greco as another influence.

Aik's production of Faust makes a lot of use of video projections, though he did not use video in Il barbiere di Sivigla. In fact, as a rule he hates the use of projections on stage describing it as a very powerful too which pulls the audience's attention onto the film and away from the stage. For Faust he used projections particularly for the magical elements which could not easily be done in a realistic way in the staging. He also introduced projections into the Act Two love duet partly to provide variety as 'nothing happens'.

Aik's film  People Out There (2011) is available from Amazon; The Man in the Orange Jacket was released in 2014, and his film Firstborn is coming soon.

Aik's new production of Bizet's Carmen will presented at Montpelier Opera in March 2018.

Elsewhere on this blog:

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