Opera is not about the trappings: Annabel Arden
Q&A: Annabel Arden8:00, 15th October 2017
The director speaks to Katy Wright as she prepares new productions for Opera North and her Barber of Seville is revived for the Glyndebourne tour
Tell me about Opera North’s Little Greats season.
[Planning director] Christine Chibnall was thinking that her priority this season was to really try and reach out to people who would like to go to the opera, but perhaps haven’t. She’s put together this season with that in mind, with the most enormous variety you could imagine. It’s got everything from Cav & Pag to Gilbert & Sullivan.
We’re doing everything with very little so we can say to people: ‘Opera is not about the trappings. It’s about performance, it’s about storytelling, and it’s also about a community of people’. We’re hoping people will come to more than one opera and see the same singers being unbelievably versatile.
Why did you choose Osud and L’enfant et les sortilèges?
I could equally as well have chosen Cav & Pag, because I’d love to do those. I love Janáček – I’m always leaping at the opportunity to do more, and Osud is a real discovery. It’s the fourth opera Janáček ever wrote, and his daughter had died the year before, aged 20. This trauma found expression in this piece, which is very difficult. The curious thing is that it’s an opera about a composer who can’t finish his opera because his wonderful, inspirational wife has died. The opera itself is unfinished – it just ends. It’s an interesting thing working on Janáček; it’s very difficult to catch the right tone.
L’enfant isn’t often done because it’s quite difficult. It really is an enigmatic piece, and it’s the most exquisite score – it’s extraordinary. Whenever I’ve seen it, I’ve always thought ‘It’s a series of little numbers, but what does it really mean?’ and ‘Do we really feel for the enfant?’ It’s a riddle of a piece.
This season introduces people to opera; what was your own introduction?
I was a lucky child; I had parents who loved opera, and they took me and my brother to English National Opera as a child. My mother would buy the box over the corner of the pit; you couldn’t see the whole stage, but it was cheap, and exciting for children because you could see the orchestra. We went to see everything. Mum always had a blanket at the back of the box, and if we got bored we were allowed to crawl under it with our torches to read and eat. I never thought I would work in the opera, but when Christine Chibnall asked me to direct my first opera (which was The Magic Flute in 1993), I thought, ‘Why not?’ I’d never dreamt of directing opera, but I’d seen an awful lot. It was lucky because I didn’t feel remotely intimidated by it. I remembered it with pleasure – partly because it was just a treat.
Do you think opera today could be more accessible?
The difficulty with opera is that it has a completely undeserved reputation, in my opinion, for being posh and elitist. In this country that image is particularly strong. Opera is about absolutely raw emotion. It’s incredibly accessible drama, and I think once people start to go they realise there’s nothing to be afraid of. But you do need to crack that barrier. We all have to say to people, ‘Come, come and see!’
I often bring friends of mine who’ve never been before, and tell them they mustn’t worry if they don’t understand every word. You must read the synopsis before you go in – that’s a sensible thing to do – then you sit back and let it take you away. You may see something different from your neighbour and that’s absolutely fine. I also say if you fall asleep in the first 15 minutes, that’s excellent, because you’re supposed to let go and go into some interior, subconscious space where the music can touch you. I think people who perhaps don’t want to go to opera like going to classical concerts because they can be free in their own imagination – you can respond and have an emotional experience which is yours.
I’m a big fan of semi-stagings – I’ve just done Turandot here in Leeds. The great advantage of those productions is that you can see the orchestra. I think that really helps lots of people, because they’re watching an orchestra, a story, and people singing. I suppose that was my first experience, because I could see the orchestra.
How have you found returning to your production of the Barber of Seville for the upcoming Glyndebourne tour?
Sinéad O’Neill, who worked with me on the first production and is a brilliant director in her own right, is directing the revival. She and I met last week, and we went through every single bar, pretty much, watching the video of what we did and talking through how it could be better and how we wanted to develop it. I feel absolutely empowered by her.
We did have to make changes in a way for the tour. The luxury of working at Glyndebourne is that you can have these fantastic sets, but you can’t take it all with you so we’ve had to make adjustments.
Opera North’s Little Greats season runs between 16 September and 18 November, and Glyndebourne’s Il barbiere di Siviglia tours between 8 October and 2 December.