Christian Räth (detail) View full image

A point of view

As he breathes new life into the Meyerbeers forgotten opera Le prophète for Bard SummerScape, Christian Räth explains how he goes about connecting todays audiences with historic works

How do you approach a new production of a historic piece that hasnt been staged in recent years, such as Le prophète?

Pieces like Le prophète were hugely popular in their time, but they've disappeared into no-man's-land. To bring them back, you have to find a point of view. For me, the most important thing at the start is always the question: what is important about this piece today? How can we create a relationship between today’s audience and a work that has been forgotten? What makes it relevant? You hope the music is great (which it is in this case) but the most crucial thing is to tell a story in a way that is both meaningful and entertaining.

What is the theme of Le prophète?

It is quite unusual for an opera because it doesn’t have ‘good’ and ‘bad’, or a positive hero. It’s the story of a man called Jean who is pushed to be a false prophet. He becomes a ruthless religious dictator and develops a fanatical regime, while his own existence falls to pieces. The piece dives into the psyche of a megalomaniac and at the same time shows the various factors that influence him and how he has got to this point. He obviously has the necessary ambition and self-regard, but there are also religious spin doctors (the three Anabaptists) who push Jean to take on the role so they can manipulate him and the society around him. Meyerbeer’s opera talks about the various aspects of political and religious life – how they influence society and how it can go completely wrong. This makes it relevant for today’s audience.

Does that mean you give it a contemporary setting?

There’s always a fine balance in how to set opera, because personally, I wouldn’t want it to look like a TV documentary or Netflix series. It has to be larger than life and we also have to represent the spirit and beauty of the music. I’m opting for a setup that is modern but timeless. You wouldn’t know whether it is set in the past, present or future. One could read it like a dystopia in which people go back to religious values and rules of the past, and project them on the future.

Why do you think Le prophète fell out of fashion?

There are several reasons. Meyerbeer was probably the most successful opera composer of his time and launched many musical and theatrical ideas. Thus he inspired many composers who came after him (Verdi and Wagner, for example), who picked up these ideas and developed them further.

Wagner, who started out as a great admirer, grew more and more jealous of Meyerbeer’s popularity and started agitating against him. This had a huge negative impact on Meyerbeer’s legacy. The fact that Meyerbeer was Jewish and that his music was banned in Germany during the reign of the Nazis further erased him from the musical map.

From a musicological point of view, there hasn’t been much work done on the piece – compared with composers of standard repertoire, Meyerbeer has been largely neglected.

Another reason is that the apparatus to put on a piece like this today is huge. The dimensions are massive – there’s even a ballet section of about 20 minutes, which alone is a challenge, and the roles are difficult to sing, so it requires singers who know this style.

How is it different working on a lesser-known opera compared with standard repertoire?

I find it very satisfying. From a director’s point of view, it gives you more freedom. You don’t have to deal with preconceived ideas or worry about what has been done in 20 other productions, and that you might repeat their ideas without even knowing it. It opens more opportunities to let your imagination flow.

At what point in the process do you start working with the conductor?

For this project, I started working with Leon Botstein from the very start. His mission is to present forgotten masterpieces that have never, or rarely, been performed in the US – Le prophète was last performed 40 years ago at Metropolitan Opera. It’s very important to him, and is something quite unique, especially in the US. Botstein sees Le prophète as an important piece for our time and is a great advocate of Meyerbeer as a composer. Early on, we started discussing what edits to take, and his approach is to present as much of the original version as possible. In this case, for example, we are not performing the ballet section on stage, but we will present it during the intermission so people still get to listen to it.

How would you say your work has changed over your career? What do you think youve learned or developed?

I learn with every project. The more I work on different pieces, the clearer it becomes to me that each great opera has its own musical and dramatical logic and that you have to be flexible in order to transform it into a theatrical performance. With some pieces you have an immediate love and others you have to dig a little deeper, but the music always tells you which way to go. If you commit to the music and musical style, the result is always more satifying and rewarding. There is usually a point in the process where this all falls into place and the rest unfolds. Of course, you must have your own idea and approach, but for me the music should be your guideline, even for the staging and movement.

As a director you never really know the piece until you are bringing it to life together with the performers. We all have our individual artisic process and understanding of the characters and the piece. Putting on an opera performance is a collaborative effort. We are discovering the piece together and this always involves some give and take.

Over the years I’ve learnt that that it is equally important to be insistent and not let go of my vision – but also to leave the performers enough freedom of expression. You have to find some common ground where your vision is still intact and the performer is able to realise it in their own way. And, most importantly, it has to be an enjoyable experience.

What is the difference when directing a revival?

It’s easier in the sense that you have the skeleton of the production, so you know where you’re heading, whereas for a new production, you have an idea but haven’t seen it realised yet. A revival is not always copy and paste, though. You have to give it the same energy and dedication that you give a new production, because for most of the people involved, it’s the first time. If you say, ‘Oh, we know it’, it won’t be as fresh, energetic and exciting as it should be. The difference is more in the preparation than in the actual staging. You have to get the same kind of motivation to the performance – that doesn’t change.

There’s not much you can change with the set design, but a production can change with singers who have a different approach and physicality. Sometimes it gets better because you think, ‘Well I’ve never thought about doing it like this, but this person brings this aspect to the character which wasn’t there before.’ It can be exciting to see how a piece develops over several revivals.

How do you feel opera has to change in order to attract new audiences?

It is a process that happens automatically, to an extent. We don’t want to see productions from 50 years ago where people were just standing in glittery costumes downstage – ‘park and bark’. Audiences don’t like that and neither do singers. These days most opera singers are very skilled and impressive stage performers: they can sing, act and dance. Even in the time that I’ve been working in opera, things have changed so much.

Some people still enjoy a good old-fashioned opera performance and there’s nothing wrong with that, but in general, directors, designers, performers, creatives – we’re all excited to present something that is new and (hopefully) thrilling to the public. I don’t think we have to push this, because it will happen when people have creative potential and all the talent, tools and skills to make a great performance. Sometimes things can be very simple and ‘homemade’ and still be touching, so I don’t think that it’s only a question of technology. It’s about thinking outside the box and trying your best.

Every new show is an artistic and creative experiment. That’s the nature of theatre. Although you always hope for the best, you can never know beforehand what the result may be. Luckily, sometimes the stars align, you have the right collaborators in the right piece, and something special happens.

Le prophète opens at Bard SummerScape on 26 July and runs until 4 August