Laurent Pelly. Photo: Hugo Slegers/La Monnaie De Munt (detail) View full image

The joy of opera

With his new production of Rossini’s Il Turco in Italia opening at Madrid’s Teatro Real at the end of May, Laurent Pelly tells us about his approach to directing opera and why he is full of hope for the future

When did you fall in love with opera?

As a child I sang in a choir and learnt the oboe and I’ve always loved live music and theatre. I directed my first production when I was still at school – a theatre piece with live music. The first opera I staged, in 1998, was Offenbach’s Orphée aux enfers with Marc Minkowski in Lyon and Geneva, so I was very lucky to work with magnificent interpreters right from the start.

What’s your process when you work on a new project?

The process is never the same because each piece is different. Many masterpieces don’t need a special interpretation whereas others need work. With stories that are more antiquated, I have to invent a particular dramaturgy. For example, I am currently working on Die Fledermaus, which is very old fashioned – it’s like Vaudeville – so I have to think about how to make it relevant to today and how to wake the genie in the music. How do we make audiences laugh at a story that now seems a bit bizarre and not very interesting?

The project I am currently rehearsing at Teatro Real – Rossini’s Il Turco in Italia – is also very dated. The music is extraordinary, especially in the hands of great interpreters, but the story is a bit cheesy and old-fashioned, so I need to find a reading that adds something. With other works, such as Les Mamelles de Tirésias or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the stories guide you and their drama and power lead you to make certain choices.

The first thing I do when I work on a new production is listen to the music – it’s all about music, music, music. I’m staging the music, not the story. The characters must come from inside the music and not necessarily real life. Opera is not real in any way, and to help people understand the story the singers need to have the music inside their bodies so they can get the most out of it.

How do you get the best acting out of singers?

No two singers work the same way so the way I work with singers is very variable. Some singers are strong actors and others are not. It also depends on the difficulty of the music. It’s important that I help singers interpret the piece so they can find an approach to performing the role. They often have extremely difficult scores to learn and I have to help them find a way to focus on the acting and performance, which helps them with the complexities of the music.

I admire singers hugely because their metier is difficult and terrifying. They are all alone with an orchestra of 60 musicians in a hall full of 2,000 people, and from the word ‘go’ they have to be interesting, funny, sad or tragic. I find it miraculous that any singer can do all that. I listen and watch them carefully and try always to work with respect and diplomacy.

How do you help singers with comedy?

The most important thing with comedy is rhythm, and rhythm requires great precision. I arrive at the first rehearsal with a sketch of the staging. We develop it together, finding out what works and what doesn’t, to find a good way through the piece. Sometimes the personalities of the singers don’t correspond with the idea I have of the characters, so we may have to go back to basics and build together. The singers may understand their roles in ways that as the director I hadn’t thought of, so there has to be a mutual exchange and reflection to find good solutions.

Some singers are better at comedy than others. With some, it’s clear we speak the same language and have the same ideas, whereas with others it’s more difficult and I have to start the process at ground zero. Some are strong comedians and know just how to play it, so they manage without me saying anything. With others, if I say nothing, they are imprisoned by the emptiness and become frightened.

Comic timing has to be precise, but it’s also important that an actor or singer feels free on stage. At the beginning of rehearsals I give them a precise framework and while it might be difficult for them to stick to this, once they are used to it, they can then be free. Comedy can’t be done any other way because it is all about rhythm.

It’s harder for a singer to be funny than to be tragic. There have been times when I’ve had to direct a singer who isn’t funny at all and is only interested in their voice – how they project and their legato – especially in bel canto. If you sing Rossini’s opera buffa too seriously, it’s beautiful but very boring. A director can’t fix everything though – a singer is an interpreter and they have to be inventive. If someone sings Bartolo in The Barber of Seville without a bit of comic imagination, it doesn’t work.

How is it different working with singers and actors?

Working with singers and actors is the same for me. The main difference is time. With theatre, I can rehearse the same scene 10 or 20 times, changing things along the way, even up to the day before the premiere. That’s impossible in opera. There is only time to set a scene once and it’s ‘in the can’. The production goes on stage about two or three weeks before the dress rehearsal, and from that point you can really only make technical changes: you can move a singer to the front or back of the stage or correct something, but nothing more.

There are also technical constraints to do with aspects of singing such as breathing that affect the staging. I don’t like productions where the singers don’t look as if they are singing. I use the music to create theatre. For me, music is performance. Music equals acting. Music is theatre.

Do you ever have to resolve conflicts as a director?

Conflict is very rare in my productions – I’m very diplomatic! I have been working with many of the same creatives for years now – including Chantal Thomas, Agathe Mélinand, Christian Räth, Jean-Jacques Delmotte, Joël Adam – so we know how we all work together. Occasionally there might be a difference with a conductor, but not very often. It’s important to respect the different people who are involved. What I find amazing about opera is that when it comes to the moment of performance, there are up to 200 people working together, including musicians, technicians, stage hands, make-up artists, lighting crew – and for the two or three hours of the show, everyone pulls in the same direction. One of the great pleasures in my life is that everyone is happy to be there, working together. I believe that the audience perceives this enjoyment and it makes them happy, and that is important to me. It is just as important as the work on the production itself.

Do you consider the audience when you create a new production?

I only think of the audience in the sense that I think of myself watching the performance. When I watch a run-through, I imagine that I know nothing and see if I can understand what’s happening on stage. If not, then I have work to do to make it comprehensible. Or if I’m staging an ancient text that is difficult to understand, I think of the audience, to make sure they will know what’s happening.

Do you think about politics or social issues?

I don’t consider politics a great deal, although more so with theatre than opera. I don’t like productions that impose an idea on to a work just for the sake of it. Everything we do in opera should depend on the piece, rather than the other way round. For example, with Die Fledermaus, one could think about patriarchy and the relationship between men and women, because the men in Die Fledermaus are horrible macho men. There are directors who rationalise it to what’s happening today, but for me that’s not the central idea. It’s a bizarre, weird story, and you can’t force it into the light of today.

What are your hopes for the future of opera?

I count my luck every day. I spend my life with music, stories, costumes and amazing collaborators, while outside the world is exploding. I often think about this, and how important it is to give pleasure to the audience. I think the joy of extraordinary opera performances will always exist. The economics of opera are changing, and it’s certainly more complicated today, with more co-productions in attempts to become more cost-effective, finding ways to reduce costs and also to become more ecologically responsible. Theatre and opera as living arts are unique and they will never disappear because they represent what it is to be alive. When people have a chance to see the spectacle, they change their way of thinking. It gives them something to feel and a sense of magic.

Laurent Pelly’s Il Turco in Italia opens on 31 May at Teatro Real, with costumes designed by Laurent Pelly and Jean-Jacques Delmotte, and Christian Räth as Assistant Director.