Monday 26 July 2021

To focus on the journey, on the people and their stories: Julia Burbach directs Wagner's Die Walküre for the Grimeborn Festival

Wagner: Die Walküre - Opéra National de Bordeaux (Photo Eric Bouloumie)
Wagner: Die Walküre - Evgeny Nikitin (Wotan) - Opéra National de Bordeaux (Photo Eric Bouloumie)

Opera director Julia Burbach has been spending quite a bit of time with Wagner recently, specifically his Ring Cycle. In 2019 she directed the Grimeborn Festival's production of Das Rheingold [see my review], the first in what was hoped/planned to be eventually a full cycle based around Jonathan Dove and Graham Vick's reduced version of The Ring originally made for Birmingham Opera Company. And in 2019, Julia also directed Die Walküre for Opéra National de Bordeaux in a production that was planned to transfer to Icelandic Opera in 2020 but which has now been re-scheduled for 2022. And now, having just directed Mascagni's L'amico Fritz for Opera Holland Park [see my review], Julia directs Die Walküre for the Grimeborn Festival at the Hackney Empire conducted by Peter Selwyn on 4, 6 and 7 August 2021.


Richard Wagner: Die Walküre - rehearsals for Grimeborn Festival's production at Hackney Empire, 2021 (Photo Alex Brenner)
Richard Wagner: Die Walküre - rehearsals for Grimeborn Festival's production at Hackney Empire, 2021 (Photo Alex Brenner)

Of course, Julia's familiarity with Wagner's operas goes back beyond this. As a staff director at Covent Garden she worked on Keith Warner's staging of The Ring, and she was the revival director for Christoph Loy's production of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, so she was familiar with operas which last over three hours, and she talks about how fabulous it is to have a monologue which lasts 40 minutes. And being German, she can read the texts which also helps.

Bordeaux Opera already had Die Walküre in the calendar but was without a director when a contact from Covent Garden who was now working at Bordeaux suggested the opera to her. She likes the piece and felt she could embrace it, partly because she was interested in bringing out themes in the opera which she had not seen in productions where she was an audience member.

Essentially, Julia sees Die Walküre as a kammerspiel, a chamber piece of dialogues and intimate interactions, albeit a long one. And its topics are highly relatable, fathers and daughters, husbands and wives, these are situations we encounter every day. Though the characters are Gods, their problems are human.

Richard Wagner: Die Walküre - rehearsals for Grimeborn Festival's production at Hackney Empire, 2021 (Photo Alex Brenner)
Richard Wagner: Die Walküre - rehearsals for Grimeborn Festival's production at Hackney Empire, 2021 (Photo Alex Brenner)

Julia's relationship with the Arcola Theatre's Grimeborn Festival goes back a long way. As a director she had done spoken theatre before starting in opera, and her early opera directing was on the London fringe and Grimeborn gave her chances, being important in her development as a direction. So she mentioned to the festival's co-directors Mehmet Ergen and Leila Nazli about her idea of a fringe Ring Cycle

It took some time for them to be convinced, but the project has an important social and political message to it. Not just the politics of the work itself, but the fact that many people who are interested in The Ring cannot afford the ticket prices for performances in the UK, and anyway tickets are often like gold dust.

To do The Ring, they had to find a suitable format. Jonathan Dove and Graham Vick's version trims down the running time; Birmingham Opera's original performances were over just two (intense, long) nights, Das Rheingold and Die Walküre one night, Siegfried and Gotterdammerung the next. But Jonathan Dove also reduces the orchestra down to just 18 players. And this made the project 'borderline feasible'. It meant they could present The Ring at affordable prices, enabling people to come and see whether they liked it. This accessibility issue is one that is important to Julia and she points out that with the cast of Das Rheingold at the Grimeborn Festival in 2019, not only were most making either their Wagner debuts or their role debuts, but few if any had seen a Ring Cycle for themselves!

A fringe Ring Cycle still costs a lot of money, but less than a full staging with its sheer length and large orchestra. For Julia, it is the message which is important and it was clear from early on that her production of Die Walküre was not going to be set-heavy one, because they just can't afford it. She wants the production to focus on the journey, on the people and their stories. And even if she had £50,000 to spend, she questions whether it would be right in the present climate to spend it on the set. 

So the production is recycling things, making a production which will be itneresting and innovative, quality is not just about what is expensive.

Whilst Die Walküre will be shorter than the full version, it will still last around three hours. She describes Jonathan Dove's reduction as intelligent and clever, keeping a lot whilst losing so many orchestral players. Similarly the dramaturgy is tight. So for Das Rheingold, the cuts meant the loss of Mime; this means that we do not see Mime's bullying by Alberich, so Julia could present Alberich differently, as more of a tortured character than an abusive one.

The major points are still there, just elegantly reduced, so that in Act Two of Die Walküre the action between Siegmund and Sieglinde goes straight to the Todesverkundigung, whilst the Ride of the Valkyries is both shorter and with fewer Valkyries (just three plus Brünnhilde). Julia feels that this works well as she can paint a more interesting relationship between the four women, rather than having a mass of them and Wotan's attack on Brünnhilde becomes more dangerous because there are only three Valkyries to protect her. So she is turning this slimmed down quality into a benefit. Her interest in the Valkyries as characters extends to the full-scale opera, so that in Bordeaux she did not want the Valkyries to be uniform but individuals.

Wagner: Das Rheingold - Andrew Tipple (Fasolt), Paul Carey Jones (Wotan), Gareth Brynmor John (Donner), Dingle Yandell (Fafner) - Grimeborn Festival (Photo Lidia Crisafulli)
Wagner: Das Rheingold - Andrew Tipple (Fasolt), Paul Carey Jones (Wotan), Gareth Brynmor John (Donner), Dingle Yandell (Fafner) - Grimeborn Festival 2019 (Photo Lidia Crisafulli)

When I ask whether Grimeborn's production of Das Rheingold and Die Walküre will turn into a complete Ring Cycle, she answers 'who knows'. In the present climate she has been working day by day, week by week. Ironically, she has been busier than ever because she has needed to be constantly revising jobs as things are constantly in a state of flux.

But intellectually the new production of Die Walküre is related to 2019's Das Rheingold. This latter used cardboard boxes as a key element in its design. Partly, this was because they were cheap, but also boxes bring with them resonances of transience, of lives packed up, or of back alleys with rubbish. This idea of transience is important in Das Rheingold, everyone is lost and looking for a destination. The production at the Arcola Theatre was, of necessity, intimate; when Alberich was breaking down the audience was just a metre away from him. She finds the intimacy of such performances wonderful, and the emotions evoked can be so real.

Similar ideas are present in Die Walküre. Valhalla is there, but its creation did not fix anything and Wotan is still roaming, still subject to his demons, still tormented, whilst his daughters (the Valkyries) collect an army to protect him. But to protect him from what, from himself? The production will not be at the Arcola Theatre but at the Hackney Empire, and thus will be translated onto that theatre's larger stage. Julia and her team are embracing the vastness of the stage and using an empty warehouse aesthetic. 

An important element is the festival's audience, Julia sees them as humans who will emote and react, rather than intending to educate them. Many in the audience at Grimeborn Festivals have never seen an opera before, they come, try it out and enjoy it, even the ones in foreign languages (Julia's productions at Grimeborn have always used the original language). She wants to avoid the concept that opera is a strange creature that you can only enjoy and understand after being educated in it. Thas is being over-complicated, for Julia opera is above all about storytelling.

Wagner: Das Rheingold - Seth Carico (Alberich) - Grimeborn Festival, 2019 (Photo Lidia Crisafulli)
Wagner: Das Rheingold - Seth Carico (Alberich) - Grimeborn Festival, 2019 (Photo Lidia Crisafulli)

And having such a minimalist set up for the staging, encourages audience members to use their imagination. Big sets, she feels, usually complicate the use of time in the theatre in a fiendish manner. Her enjoyment of the Hackney Empire stage goes back to her time as a teenager. Aged 16 she did an internship there, working on the talent nights when lots of fabulous local talent would come out. And the family would also regularly go to the Hackney Empire pantomime.

She finds it great that the Arcola Theatre and the Hackney Empire are collaborating. This is what companies ought to be doing, not competing but pooling resources. It is the bigger picture that is important and we have to think outside the box to ensure that we all get to the right destination.

But Die Walküre isn't the only production that Julia is preparing, when we spoke on Friday 16 July, she was preparing for an afternoon rehearsal with the Grimeborn Valkyries and was then dashing off to Opera Holland Park where she has been directing Mascagni's L'amico Fritz which opened that evening.

This assignment was rather a last-minute jump-in, but though L'amico Fritz is a world away from Die Walküre, the two productions have a commonality in that the money has been spent on the people not the sets. Most of the props in L'amico Fritz are imaginary, and she points out that you only have to mime picking cherries twice for the audience to understand and to use their imaginations. L'amico Fritz will have a cinematic, Fellini-esque, monochrome look which suits the piece, and was achievable within their budget.

Mascagni: L’amico Fritz - Katie Bird as Suzel, Paul Carey Jones as David - Opera Holland Park, 2021 (Photo Ali Wright)
Mascagni: L’amico Fritz - Katie Bird (Suzel), Paul Carey Jones (David) - Opera Holland Park, 2021 (Photo Ali Wright)

With both productions, Julia is asking the audience to come along on the journey, this is part of the contract she feels she has with the audience and they, in their turn, will watch more closely. This, she feels, is going to be the new normal, productions which are slimmer, faster and shorter, and years and years directing fringe performances is a good school!

She also feels that we need to help educate the audience so that they have a clearer idea of what goes on back-stage, how hard people work, and she mentions the woman at Opera Holland Park who has been hard at work loving crafting Fritz's birthday cake. The backstage crew are usually in the shadows, the audience remaining blissfully unaware of things like midnight lighting sessions. With an opera cast of around 10 people there might be some 50 backstage crew busy lighting, painting, rigging and more and they deserve credit.

Julia comes from a German family, and her mother was a singer and her grandfather a fine baritone. But her father travelled extensively for work, so that she was born in Japan and spent a lot of her teens in the UK, and decided to stay here and study. At university she studied academic subjects, but was always interested in the theatre and directing. However, she found that she was too English for German theatre, and too German for English theatre, it was her mother who suggested applying to opera companies. 

Illumination came during her second observership, at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich (which meant she could stay with her grandparents). Christoph Loy was directing Hans Werner Henze's The Bassarids and she found it sensational, with Loy's psychological way of working seeming incredible. Loy for his part worked to help her and when he was to direct at the Royal Opera House in London he thought it would be useful to take with him a London-based bilingual girl. She was noticed at Covent Garden and that was how she became a staff director, but she also continued working with Loy elsewhere too.

She is good at switching between English and German during rehearsals, but comments that if she has to add a third language things get more unpredictable! She was recently directing in Karlsruhe, but not everyone spoke German so she was using both German and English, and she found that she was becoming unused to directing in German, her working language is English.

My chat with Julia covered a remarkable amount of ground and she is both interested in her craft and highly articulate. But more than that, she is also engagingly witty and funny, so that our talk was great fun and you wished that time and circumstances could have given us a meeting in person. Perhaps next time.

Julia Burbach
Julia Burbach

The run up to Die Walküre will be a fast and furious two weeks of rehearsal, but she takes the view that even when conditions are challenging, it is important to do it, to think about what is possible.

Julia Burbach on Planet Hugill

  • 24 July 2021 - Mascagni: L'amico Fritz at Opera Holland Park - my review
  • 11 January 2020 - Puccini: La Boheme (revival director) at Covent Garden - my review
  • 1 August 2019 - Wagner: Das Rheingold at the Grimeborn Festival - my review
  • 29 July 2018 - Britten: Rape of Lucretia at the Grimeborn Festival - Ruth's review

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