Susan Nickalls

Artist focus – Thomas Guthrie

2:38, 5th June 2017

Thomas Guthrie is a man on a mission. The stage director/singer/ musician believes that opera performances are due a revolution similar to how the early music model completely transformed the way people play classical music.


‘If you listen to a 1950s or 60s recording of a Bach Passion, it was such a shockingly different approach,’ he says. ‘There were wonderful performances from those times, but it’s difficult to argue that most of them aren’t terrible in the light of what we’ve come to expect in terms of musicality, freedom of expression, dynamism and communication of ideas. Sometimes there can be a weighty worshipping at the altar of music at the expense of the human drama.’


Guthrie’s approach is firmly rooted in the art of rhetoric which had such an influence on the early music movement. He points out that the 12-part discourse favoured by the Sophists has six dedicated to the art of writing and six to the delivery, and that this science of composition and performance influenced how composers were educated and culture disseminated.


‘The idea that you should simply take what’s on the score and hold it sacred is wrong; that’s only half of the story. For the delivery, you have to build on things such as what the audience is like and how the words will affect them emotionally and take responsibility for that. What early music has always done is respect what’s on the page but then take the ideas behind it to a modern audience.’ As an example he points to his production of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo forI Fagiolini which has toured the UK and Europe over the past year.


Guthrie put the musicians and singers together in the same space and used no staging, apart from a thrust extending into the audience for the opera’s pivotal point when Orpheus turns around to look at Eurydice. ‘The simpler you can do things the more effective they can be. In L’Orfeo, the music is designed to support the text first and foremost and to tell a story in a direct and emotional way. If you tell the story without tying it down to Greece and the ancient iconography of lyres and togas and tell it simply through the music, then you can do something exciting.’


Guthrie will also direct L’Orfeo for the Brighton Early Music Festival in November and another performance at Princeton University where he has been awarded a visiting fellowship for the fall term. While he’s in the U.S.A., Guthrie plans to write a book on rhetoric and stagecraft, a project largely born out of frustration about the lack of training for opera and an understanding of what opera actually is. ‘I don’t claim to have the only interpretation, but I have strong, passionate beliefs about the standard of work that goes on. All opera should be storytelling of the emotional and human kind and shouldn’t have to be spectacular and expensive. I would put more money into the process, development and testing of it, for instance opera is the only modern theatrical form that doesn’t have previews.’


There are few people more qualified to write such a book than Guthrie. As a child he was obsessed with singing, playing the violin and Mozart’s Symphony No.40: ‘I imagined stories as I listened, I could hum every bar’. At Cambridge he was a chorister at St John’s College and went on to study Classics at Trinity College. Guthrie also maintains a busy performing career which he says helps inform his work as a director. He’s playing Christ in his production of Bach’s St Matthew Passion for the York Early Music Festival in July and regularly plays in Barokksolistene’s Alehouse Project. Through his GOTcompany, Guthrie continues to explore his interest in the relationship between physicality, music and text. ‘There’s no simple solution, but I do believe that opera should be an extraordinary experience for the audience every time.’



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