Christophe Coppens. Photo: Pieter Claes (detail) View full image

All roads lead to opera

As Christophe Coppens prepares his new production of Norma at La Monnaie/De Munt, which opens on 12 December, he explains his joy in making opera and his vision of how opera can be more relevant

What excites you about opera?
Making visual art is always struggle and suffering, and opera is hard work, but for me, it’s a gift. I love the difficulties and restrictions. The libretto and music can’t be touched, which makes it more restrictive than theatre, and I like that. It helps me having certain boundaries to fill with colour. I also like the pressure of the short rehearsal period – it suits the way my brain functions.

I did many different things before I started directing opera, and it’s still the only place where all of these things come together. It’s so complete. I enjoy every minute of the process and the fact that it is a collaborative effort. It also makes sense that I do it in this phase of my life, at 51. I don’t think I would have been capable 20 years ago – it’s as if all roads have been leading to it.

As well as directing, you design the costumes and set – what are the advantages of working this way?
It’s not that I don’t trust anyone else or that I don’t want to collaborate with other people – it’s just that in my head, the whole process is one entity. I can see what’s needed and change things easily: for example, the way Norma moves, what she wears, how the door opens when she enters, the speed of the elevator – it’s all part of the picture I have in my head. I think I work like a painter, and every aspect of making an opera is another layer.

Also, I’ve worked with craftsmen and artists all my life, all over the world, so I know how to approach them and get things made – I speak their language and enjoy their company.

What is your process when you come to work on an opera?
I start by listening a lot and watching DVDs – but not too many. I prefer to watch vintage productions. I have a visual approach, so I quickly start sketching and making drawings. I believe in intuition and free association so I try to let my imagination as wild as possible – later I will reduce, deduct and edit, while listening to the music over and over.

Then I move on to the libretto. One of the steps I love most is having long intense conversations with the dramaturgist, and from there the idea starts to emerge and I see the line I want to take. Having a good dramaturgist by your side is so important. At La Monnaie, they have Reinder Pols – the best!

With these thoughts, I go back to Peter de Caluwe. We talk and then I give a first draft of a presentation. I start designing the costumes and set, working with ISM Architects on plans and models. Along the way, I keep working on the libretto and music, and build it up. Next I paint a storyboard – I made more than 200 drawings for Norma. These help everyone get inside my head, so we can move faster once we start.

By the time we go into rehearsal I have a clear idea of the entrances, exits and even the blocking. Everything is timed to the second, although there’s still a lot of freedom to change. Once the design is done, I step into rehearsals and it’s as if somebody else made the set and costumes and I’m a third person. I will ‘kill my darlings’ in a second and use what remains relevant from the designs. It’s about the performance, story, music and voices – it’s not a painting or a design.

Does your work have its own visual stamp?
I try not to have a specific visual identity, whether in opera or art. I reinvent the visuals each time, in service of the work. The three operas I’ve directed so far all have a contemporary approach. That doesn’t mean they have to look modern, but that they’re based in what’s happening today, either in the arts, politics or social issues. They are also informed by other media, the arts, music, pop culture, cinema, politics and current affairs. Opera is not an island.

The trap for me is that people label me as doing quirky, weird, contemporary pieces, but at the core I always work on a very classical base, but with a twist. I am also attracted to costume pieces and beauty. Even then, it’s possible to create twists – to have a classical approach that brings something new. I want to make intense, detailed, layered work that’s close to the original, with ideas that are sourced in the libretto and music, rather than just sticking on a weird concept for the sake of making it current.

What are the most important things you’ve learnt about directing opera?
I’ve learnt constantly along the way from all the singers and colleagues I’ve worked with. I don’t believe the myth of the director always being right – I love dialogue and being told off by people who know better than me. There is so much expertise gathered in the rehearsal room, especially at La Monnaie, where everyone is so knowledgeable and smart. A conductor who wants to be part of the process is just a dream – at the moment I’m working with Sesto Quatrini, and he is there every day. I have been blessed with the conductors I have worked with so far. I love it when there is an active exchange in the rehearsal room.

The most important thing for me is to be prepared, because making an opera is such a roller coaster ride and the period from day one to opening night goes so quickly. You live and breathe what you’re doing and there’s no time for anything except eating and sleeping. If I’m prepared, I can stand strong and go even further than I imagined. The process and the people lift you up.

What would you change about the opera world, if you could?
I’m a newcomer, so I’m not necessarily placed to talk about change – I can only make the work I think needs to be made. However, modern operas often look dated visually, as if they were created in the 90s, and the director is only looking at the opera world and has missed what’s happening in, for example, the arts, pop culture and fashion. A new creation should be informed and a director should bring in those elements in a natural, fluid way.

Many productions keep alive the idea of reenactment, and that’s a pity. We can enjoy DVDs of old performances, but for me, opera is only relevant if it touches on urgent topics. This is a delicate exercise, though. I also hate it when a contemporary idea or topic is glued on top of an opera. Ideas must be thought through, and everything should come from the music.

I would like the opera world to take more risks. For that to happen you need an enlightened opera house director, but you therefore need a board that is prepared to hire an enlightened opera house director. Often the board or the audience are too old or stuck in their ways to do that and things stay the same. Everyone is satisfied because the audience cries at the same point in La Traviata as they did 15 years ago, and they can wear nice clothes and sip champagne during the interval.

I’ve never seen a field where the audience and press can react so violently to change. There is a hardcore group of opera people who hate anything new. Even in a small country like Belgium, I would guess that two thirds are open-minded and a third are hardcore. That’s what you get if you isolate the craft from what else is happening in the world and in other cultural fields. I’m optimistic, though. There are many exciting houses that take risks, and it’s impressive how many young makers are now working with opera. Look at what they are doing at the O Festival in Rotterdam, and at all the young directors experimenting with what opera can be. I’ve seen many young people in the audience at La Monnaie, discovering the wonders and magic of opera. So there is change – we just need more and faster.