Barbara Wysocka. Photo: Adam Tuchliński (detail) View full image

To be honest

As Barbara Wysocka’s new production of Katia Kabanova opens this month at Opéra de Lyon, she answers some questions about the opera and her art

What do you love about Katia Kabanova as an opera and about Janáček?
I like to work with good literature, as it allows me to dig deeper into the emotions and complexities of the characters. In this case, the libretto is very close to the play The Storm by Alexander Ostrovsky. That is a relief: because there are many adaptations of plays into opera where the composers simplify the literature, which does not help their theatrical potential. I like it that Janáček did not destroy the story to adjust it to the music, but he created the music to tell the story. The music and the literature it is based on allow us to develop the whole world of the play, but especially the interior story of the main character.

What do you see in the heroine?
Katia is usually portrayed as crazy or sick. I don’t think she is either. She knows exactly what she is doing. The world changed a lot since Ostrovsky wrote his play and Janáček his opera. I don’t like to show women as victims. I always try to give them strength and power, even if they die in the end – so often it is their own choice. I try to give power to female characters. I am taking the heroines seriously and I accept their choices. Katia is not taking her life because she cannot live in the society anymore. She is taking her life because she cannot live without love.

What are the main differences between directing opera and theatre?
Theatre is much more free and creative – it is the director who chooses the rhythm of the performance. In opera my role is rather to create images, to create space for the music. I think it makes sense to compare opera to film, because both use image, emotion and precision as their main channels of expression. I try to pay attention to the emotional story, no matter if I'm in front of the camera or directing a singer on an opera stage. Both in film and in opera, most of the work is already done, the script is written, the camera angles are chosen, the music is in the score – but what I add is the human element, which is really the reason people come to the movies or to opera, right?

What is the role of art in a time of war and pandemic? How has your approach to art changed over the last few years?
My approach to art has definitely changed. I am barely able to work in art and to create anything at all. So much art has lost its attractiveness to me after experiencing the deaths of people close to me during the pandemic and the massive destruction of Ukraine by Russia. Exactly one year ago, in Warsaw, we were working all day and night to help all the refugees: we were making food, going to the train station and inviting families who had just lost everything to stay with us for as long as they needed to. It was an effort of the whole community to at least help those who had fled, to give them a safe space to rest, to call their families, to eat for a few days before they figure out how to move on. So how do you go from that to directing opera? It is kind of hard to justify this kind of work when you’ve been picking up mothers with kids who were freezing at a train station. So the question is: how is opera vital to our lives? Life is too short to waste it on things that are not vital.

What makes you want to take on a project?
My agent.

Which projects do you agree to?
I always agree to work on projects where I can see the possibility of a new interpretation, where politics is involved, where I can feel the potential for a great work process and for good team work. I like to work on a good literature and to find a thoughts transporter for me. It has to be material that can exude strong emotions. The content has to be serious. Katia Kabanova dissects the patriarchy in the small, Russian town of Kalinov on the Upper Volga. This is exactly the Russian hinterland whose citizens are making the current war possible, whose sons are being sent to their deaths. Is it any wonder that Katia kills herself? This is the culture that produced the murderous lunatics and millions of non-human beings along the way.

What is your goal when you direct?
To be honest. To create a safe work environment for people. To keep priorities.

Is it ever possible to feel satisfied as an artist?
Sure, I think plenty of artists are satisfied. They make money and perform in front of rich people and satisfy themselves and others.

Are you ever satisfied as an artist?
No. I think that being satisfied is not safe for an artist.

Which experience has taught you the most as an artist?

Barbara Wysocka’s new production of Katia Kabanova opens at Opéra de Lyon on 28 April.