You’ve been an opera director for about 30 years now.
Yes, I started wanting to be an actor, then decided that I would be too nervous. And so I wanted to be a stage manager for an opera company, but in Australia at that time opportunities were very limited. So I came to England and it turned out to be very useful training. I never thought I would be director, but that’s the way it ended up, and I’m very, very lucky because I’m doing something I love doing.
At 57 this year, you’re one of the most experienced in the business.
A lot of people think that’s very old! These days, people are very torn between the idea of experience and youth. It’s a very youth-orientated world, and a very visual world we live in. And many people say, ‘Oh, we should have young people, because they have fresh ideas.’ But it doesn’t mean that the more mature people can’t have fresh ideas, and sometimes the experience will save a lot of time and pressure. I’m certainly not against youths having their way at all – I was a youth once!
Your own productions tend towards the more literal.
I’ve done some that are less than traditional; I think they’ve been interesting too. It depends on the piece, and the audience, and what you’re trying to say about the piece. Certain standard repertoire pieces update brilliantly, some don’t. ‘Bohème’ is a universal story, and it can update pretty well – the SLO are putting it in the 1930s. It was written in 1896 and it was set round about 1830 originally, but I’ve done productions set around the 1890s and I’ve seen many productions that update to the present day, with Mimi dying of AIDS instead of tuberculosis.
I’ve yet to see a very experimental ‘Bohème’.
I think most people think it doesn’t work. Much as people try to bend ‘Bohème’ to say something totally different, I don’t think it can be done. And that’s why I think it has no interest for directors who want to be unusual in their treatment of it.
Can directors go overboard rethinking operas?
There are directors that rearrange arias and ensembles in opera. If you want to do that, just write your own opera! This is what I really feel as a director – we’re there to serve the artform. The artform is not there to serve us.
What’s the most challenging aspect of directing ‘Bohème’?
To make the strength of the story come through the romanticism of the music. It can be just of as a wonderful love story, a very romantic opera with wonderful melodies and gorgeous costumes. But these people really suffered in pursuit of their art. They starved, got sick, and couldn’t heat their apartments [in winter]. It was grim… But they were prepared to put up with it for the sake of what they believed in. It’s actually quite a hard-hitting piece, and based on real people. It’s a tragedy.
You’ve worked with many famous singers, including Pavarotti, who sang as Rodolfo in one of your productions. Who are your most memorable Mimis?
The Mimis have not been quite as famous as Pavarotti. Most have been Australian singers, although in other productions I’ve worked with Mirella Freni, Ileana Cortrubas… It’s always been a star vehicle for tenors and sopranos in their house. I had an extraordinary singer, who’s retired now, called Glenys Fowles. She looked terribly fragile. She had very, very pale skin, and beautiful bone structure, and the total performance, was quite, quite amazing.
In Singapore your Mimi will be Nancy Yuen.
I’m looking forward very much to working with Nancy, because I’ve worked with her before in fact she sang in my ‘[Madama] Butterfly’ production in Australia, and she was also absolutely entrancing as Suzanna in ‘The Marriage of Figaro’ at the Royal Academy of Music. And I know she sang ‘Bohème’ before. I think Nancy will bring something very special to the part. She’s a very special artiste.
Hypothetically, which movie stars would you choose to play Mimi and Rodolfo if you could?
I would never choose a movie star! (Chuckles) Because I don’t find them very interesting. I’d need a lot more time to think about that one!
In the 1950s and ’60s there was the great rivalry between Maria Callas and Renata Tebaldi. As a director, supposing you could work with either, who would you choose and why?
Choosing between the two would be very hard, because both were outstanding singers. I think for me I would probably choose Callas, simply because she changed so much about opera, and made it such a dramatic experience. If I’m preparing an opera and there’s a recording by Callas, I would listen to it first. When I did Norma, I wasn’t so keen at first on doing the piece, but I got at least four recordings by Callas – some of them pirate and some of them at the very end of her career. Some of the sounds she makes are really very unmusical, some are more sublime than she’d ever made before! Callas was absolutely remarkable. But I love Tebaldi, I think her singing is some of the most beautiful there’s been.
In directing singers, is it always a question of singing versus acting ability?
It’s always a difficulty. Essentially the voice is what comes first. It’s wonderful it they can act – it is an opera. These days, we have so many good-looking people who sing quite well, but aren’t really very interesting. I remember working with the Frenis and people like that. They were great, great singers. I think the current trend towards using younger singers all the time does a great disservice. For many singers the forties is their [vocal] prime, but people aren’t interested in using them any more, they’re too old. And that is a crime.
You are openly gay. What do you think it is about opera that attracts gay people?
People always think it’s the glamour of it all, but I think it’s more than that. It’s the dramatic situation, and the emotion, that heightens people’s interest in it. I don’t know why exactly, but I think that there is a larger-than-life element that opera has that attracts a lot of gay people. For me, it was the music.
Are you attached?
I am. We’ve been together about seven and a half years, and are about to have our civil partnership in England.
Have you ever encountered discrimination in your work?
I’ve never come across any discrimination, no. I’ve met a couple of singers who weren’t so keen on gay directors, and I knew that they weren’t. But I never had any problems with any of them, possibly because we just got on well, and I did my job well. That’s not to imply that other people don’t. It’s just that there are lots of straight people with whom they get along equally badly.
Do you think that in these tough economic times, opera houses are falling back on the popular warhorses?
A bit. And I think that’s understandable. There are certain audiences that don’t want something experimental; they don’t want to go to an opera that they don’t know. I’ve done several productions where I’ve discovered that the audience really doesn’t want to think too much about it, they just want it to look the way they remember it last time. And that’s rather dispiriting, when you spend a lot of time looking at the text, thinking what it could mean, and talking with the singers.
La Bohème was performed from 29 Jan-3 Feb at the Esplanade Theatre. This story first appeared as '‘Bohème’-ian rhapsody' (Jan 2010).