Out of the Shadows

Saturday, 19 June 2021

Directing the Don and discovering Dido: I chat to director Jack Furness in advance of his production of Mozart's Don Giovanni at Nevill Holt Opera

Jack Furness with Rebecca Meltzer, movement director on Shadwell Opera's production of Oliver Knussen's 'Where the Wild Things are'
Jack Furness with Rebecca Meltzer, movement director on Shadwell Opera's production of Oliver Knussen's Where the Wild Things are (Photo Nick Rutter)
Director Jack Furness has made something of a name for himself with contemporary and 20th-century works, directing such operas as Peter Maxwell Davies' The Lighthouse [see our review], Schoenberg’s Erwartung (in a double bill with Mark Anthony Turnage’s Twice through the Heart), and Oliver Knussen's Where the Wild Things Are with his company, Shadwell Opera. But Jack's work during the last three years has had another thread running through it, that of Mozart notably Don Giovanni. In 2019, Jack was the revival director for the performances of Kasper Holten's production of Don Giovanni at Covent Garden, and Jack directed his own production of Don Giovanni at the Teatru Manoel in Malta. Then in 2020, Jack was planning to direct Don Giovanni at Nevill Holt Opera. But fate had other ideas, but now Jack is returning to Nevill Holt and to Don Giovanni as he will direct a production in Nevill Holt's new outdoor theatre this Summer. And Jack is also returning to Covent Garden, for a further revival of Holten's production in July this year..

During May, Jack was in London to direct Purcell's Dido and Aeneas at the Royal Academy of Music, so we took advantage of the weather to meet up and chat about Don Giovanni, directing opera, discovering Dido and Aeneas and much more.

Nevill Holt Opera's 2021 season will take place not in their theatre but in a temporary outdoor theatre which will enable the company to seat an audience of 650 safely. It also features an outdoor stage some 30 metres wide, quite a challenge for a relatively intimate work like Don Giovanni. But Jack points out another challenge, in an opera that famously takes place under cover of darkness, the Nevill Holt performances will be outside in daylight, something which is exciting but challenging. Luckily Jack is working with a designer, Alex Berry with whom he has worked before, including on Britten's The Rape of Lucretia at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, and Peter Maxwell Davies' The Lighthouse with Shadwell Opera, and the two also worked on a planned production of Handel's Giulio Cesare in Scotland for 2020 which was cancelled.

Jack Furness, Director  (Photo Scottish Opera/Tommy Ga-Ken Wan)
Jack Furness (Photo Scottish Opera/Tommy Ga-Ken Wan)

The scale of the production at Nevill Holt this Summer will have to be so much bigger than usual, but the setting outside is also beautiful. Jack and Alex plan to take advantage of the scale and bring the audience into a whole world in a very filmic way. They plan to embrace the scale and enjoy the fact that it takes place outdoors in mid-afternoon, treating these as strengths. There are different ways for the drama to be confusing and psychologically disturbing, and Jack and his team have some interesting ideas which I look forward to seeing reach fruition this Summer.
In terms of the work's structure, Jack sees Act One as quite neat and Act Two as 'all over the shop', and that applies whatever the version of the opera you are performing (of which more anon). So the production will use Act One to create the world that the characters inhabit, and then in Act Two this breaks down and is challenged, as the characters lose their grip on who they are meant to be. One of the important aspects of the opera is that Giovanni himself presents a real challenge to the social structure.

Social structure is important in the opera, the piece has a clearly delineated patriarchal, class-based structure with Don Giovanni as a chaotic neutral, working against the society's structures for his own benefit yet offering no alternative. Jack adds that this aspect of Don Giovanni's personality is why we love him. If you see the opera in Enlightenment terms, taking God out of the equation leaves you with marriage as the important social glue. Jack sees marriage as being important in the opera, all three women are on the marriage threshold somehow (Donna Anna is engaged to be married to Don Ottavio, Don Giovanni has just jilted Donna Elvira and the opera takes place on the day of Zerlina and Masetto's wedding). And Don Giovanni interrupts each woman at that crucial moment; this is why he is so transgressive.

And he interacts with each character on their own terms, and Jack quotes his designer as saying that Don Giovanni 'has different fonts', he mirrors people and responds in a different guise to each. This means that they have to sharply draw the differences between the characters. Mozart, when planning the opera, wrote to his father about writing an opera with an opera seria character (Donna Anna), a buffo character (Zerlina) and one in between (Donna Elvira).

Mozart's Don Giovanni directed by Jack Furness at Teatru Manoel, Malta
Mozart's Don Giovanni directed by Jack Furness at Teatru Manoel, Malta

There has, however, been a modern tendency to imbue productions with perhaps more seriousness than Mozart intended, after all, it is worth bearing in mind that when the work was revived in Vienna in 1788 it was performed by the Italian opera buffa company that had already premiered Le nozze di Figaro. And, after the year we have all had and given the context of the performance, Jack wants the audience and performers to have fun so hopes to bring out the black comedy elements in the piece. His previous production of the opera, in Malta, was far darker yet this new one will be lighter but there will still be dark and light moments, there will be strange and disturbing moments.

Mozart left us two versions of the opera, the one written for the Prague premiere in 1787 and the changes that he made for his entirely new cast in Vienna in 1788. The version that they are performing this Summer has not yet been fully decided, but Jack is very fond of the Viennese version, including the scene where Zerlina shaves Leporello, which is very rarely done, but which Jack thinks is fun, especially as Zerlina and Leporello are two of his favourite characters. Though if that scene is included then it is very difficult to include Don Ottavio's aria, 'Il mio tesoro' (which was written for Prague and was cut in the Vienna performance). Mozart's Vienna performances also famously cut the finale, but Jack comments that it seems from letters that Mozart was experimenting with different endings of the opera, though Jack and his team plan to include the whole of the Prague ending.

Certain directors, when they return to directing an opera always seem to give a variant of 'their' production. Before Nevill Holt asked Jack to direct Don Giovanni, he would have said that he didn't have another production in him. But doing the revival of Kaspar Holten's production at Covent Garden made him realise that as a work of art the opera is bottomless and one interpretation cannot achieve the totality. He has gone past having a single production in him, and now simply lives the work each time he directs it.

It has helped that his experiences with directing the work have been remarkably varied. At Covent Garden he is working with experienced singers, learning how their years of experience tell in the way they approach the work, especially in the recitatives. Yet at Nevill Holt, he is working with younger singers, who bring a refreshingly different approach coloured by the fact that they were singing their roles only for the second or third time.

For Jack, the biggest challenge in performing Mozart's operas is not just defaulting to tradition. He wants to be able to go back to what is on the page, and looking at this can be illuminating about the characters and what they are thinking but this fresh approach can be hard with a work as iconic as Don Giovanni.

The conductor at Nevill Holt will be Finnegan Downie Dear, the musical director of Shadwell Opera, with whom Jack has worked a lot. And Finnegan Downie Dear will be conducting their relatively newly formed Shadwell:Ensemble. Jack and Finn (as Jack refers to him) have a long-established relationship and so tackle the work as a team. Jack feels that it is easy for conductors and directors to become siloed when working on a production, to stay out of each other's way. But he and Finn don't have to do that, and in fact, Finn might have a lot to say about what is going on, on stage, and vice versa. That Shadwell:Ensemble will be in the pit means that they will already have a relationship with the players as well.

Purcell: Dido and Aeneas - Silja Elsabet Brynjarsdóttir (Sorceress) and Bernadette Johns (Dido) - Royal Academy of Music, 2021(Photo Craig Fuller)
Purcell: Dido and Aeneas - Silja Elsabet Brynjarsdóttir (Sorceress) and Bernadette Johns (Dido)
Royal Academy of Music, 2021(Photo Craig Fuller)

Of course, as we were meeting up during the lunch break during rehearsals for Purcell's Dido and Aeneas at the Royal Academy of Music, I had to ask how rehearsals were going. Jack starts by saying that the rehearsals so far had been so much fun. For many students, it was the first time this year that they had been together in a rehearsal room rehearsing for a proper show. So Jack wanted to make both the rehearsal process and the show itself a joyous one. Lutenist Elizabeth Kenny was the music director with Victoria Newlyn doing the choreography, and the whole process felt very restorative.

This was the first time that Jack had directed Dido and Aeneas, and he admited that he had always been sceptical of the work. But they used a new edition of the opera by Bruce Wood which restores the dances which are mentioned in the surviving libretto but which are missing from the earliest manuscripts of the score (which date from some 50 years after that early printed libretto). And Jack has found that the extra music helps to tell the story, and he told the singers not to think of it as an opera but more like a musical or a music video. The work is more than just recitative and opera; though through-composed it is influenced by the 17th century English masque with its emphasis on dance, and Jack feels that it helps if we think of it as an experiment, rather than an integrated opera form. He has taken the opera glasses off and looked at the work in another way and suddenly it is amazing and he adores it.

Jack Furness (Photo Thurstan Redding)
Jack Furness (Photo Thurstan Redding)

The last year, and these new productions, have also made Jack think about the entire process of directing an opera and who the production is for. He feels that there is a tendency when working on an opera to think of the job as like writing an essay, to make a cogent argument about the piece. But this is very much an approach that is aiming the production at insiders, developing something that someone in the know can engage with. He doesn't want to do that any more, he wants to treat things more physically, urgently, and to relax a little about 'the whole opera directing thing'. He points out that both Regie Theater and highly conservative productions both seek to advance an idea about the piece via signs on stage, whereas what he would like to do was create a space on stage where people can tell a story, to create insight.

The problem is, of course, that the essay-writing approach fits in with the way the opera world works. The need to present an initial concept, then the more expanded presentation, each done to a deadline, funnels you towards producing a production which is an essay about the opera. He admits that he is still trying to work this out! (After our chat, it occurs to me that we critics are often just as much to blame in this process, it helps to crystallise your thoughts, whether for or against, if the production has a clear concept and intention behind it.)

Jack wants to stop trying to be clever and to get out of the way a bit. It helps that the atmosphere this Summer in Nevill Holt will be more casual than usual. The audience has the opportunity of choosing different types of seat from the more expensive, seated in a covered grandstand, to those picnicking on the ground. So the whole opera experience will be different. What he also finds fascinating is how much knowledge to assume on the part of the audience watching the production. This is different for every production, but inevitably the 'essay about the opera' type of production assumes far greater knowledge on the audience's part.

Polaroid of Jack Furness taken on the set of 'Where the Wild Things are' at the Mariinsky Concert Hall, St Petersburg
Polaroid of Jack Furness taken on
the set of Where the Wild Things are
at the Mariinsky Concert Hall, St Petersburg

Jack's last live production with Shadwell Opera was Oliver Knussen's Where the wild things are. This is a piece that is based on a children's picture book by Maurice Sendak, but which clothes the story in sophisticated music. For the Shadwell production, they took the decision to concentrate on telling the story and nothing else because they were expecting an intergenerational family audience (the UK performances took place at Alexandra Palace and the production also travelled to Russia). This meant that the production had to be super clear, and Jack felt that it worked really well and they had a great time making it.

Also, after the last year, he feels that his whole attitude to the process of making opera has changed, and now it is about joy and fun in the rehearsal room, enjoying the incredible music, the amazing stories and the raw energy of someone getting on stage and acting it out. Then he smiles and adds, 'see how long it lasts!'

Coming up, Jack has several plans bubbling away. He is directing a site-specific production of of Puccini's Gianni Schicchi, with David Kempster in the title role, at Børsen (the 17th century Stock Exchange) in Copenhagen, Denmark for the Copenhagen Opera Festival in August. There are also a lot of plans with Shadwell Opera, including several digital commissions and commissioning a new opera which they are planning to produce in 2023. Having formed the Shadwell: Ensemble there are plans for a concert in July. And he feels that during the past year he has been lucky to have Shadwell Opera, where they have been very much focused on the people involved and supporting them.    

Mozart: Don Giovanni - conductor: Finnegan Downie Dear, director: Jack Furness, designer: Alex Berry, movement director: Jenny Ogilvie - Don Giovanni: Seán Boylan, Leporello: Nicholas Crawley, Donna Elvira: Aoife Miskelly, Zerlina: Olivia Warburton, Commendatore: Dingle Yandell, Don Ottavio: Joshua Owen Mills, Masetto: Benedict Nelson - Nevill Holt Opera, 19, 21, 22, 24, 25 August 2021



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