Deep into rehearsals for La Traviata, the German director doesn’t want to talk about what she is preparing to unveil at the beginning of December, but would rather talk about the place music and opera occupy in her personal life and career. One thing, however, is clear: in this new production, Andrea Breth wants to distance the story of Violetta from all the clichés and expose the violence and scandal that are at the heart of Verdi’s work.
Can you remember your first experiences of watching an opera?
Yes, it was before I even went to school. My maternal grandmother was an opera singer: she lived in Weimar, then in the GDR, and I would go and visit her sometimes. She took me to the Hoftheater, Weimar’s state theatre. The curtain went up and there was an enormous ship. I shouted with joy so loudly that she took me out because she was embarrassed. That was my first encounter with opera.
And later on, once you had embarked on your career as a director, did you dream of putting on an opera? Were you hoping that someone would make you an offer?
It was a little more complicated than that. A long time ago, when I was still very young, I directed Strindberg’s The Father. So Klaus Zehelein, who was the chief dramatist at the Frankfurt Opera House, offered me the chance to do Madame Butterfly. I refused because I felt I didn’t know how to resolve the questions peculiar to opera. I continued to refuse offers for a long time when I was working at the Schaubühne in Berlin, because I had to look out for the theatre and not my ego. That’s why it took me so long. When I left the Schaubühne I decided to have a go: as a director I got interested because of the music and what is particularly at stake in opera.
So when exactly did it all begin and how?
In 2000, Leipzig asked me to do Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice. The story intrigued me, the music was marvellous and I thought the choice of singers interesting. I said to myself a work with only three soloists was not a bad idea for a beginner. But when I started directing it I had very ambivalent feelings. I suffered a lot from the time constraints: in opera you always have to be aware of time passing, which I’m not used to because I work for far longer with actors. But this imposed timescale, which can sometimes be constraining for theatre directors, I actually found exciting in the end. Also with opera half the work is already done: I am no longer responsible for the length, the rhythm whereas in the theatre you have to think about those things constantly, to determine the pauses in the performance etc.
When you are working on an opera do you feel that, in listening to the music, doors are opened to you which could prove useful for your theatre work? Do you find that your imagination is fed by this something rather special that is found in opera and not in the theatre?
Yes, the libretto is important, but it is, above all, the music that prevails because of, principally, the interior spaces that it opens up for the production. And if you can find the form that suits the music that backs up the music, then you approach the staging differently. You end up at different destinations, different emphases which can eventually be very useful in the theatre. One feeds the other and, for me personally, it helps me to move forward in my work.
When you are invited to direct new productions do you need to be interested both in the music and the libretto to accept?
Normally, yes. When Klaus Zehelein asked me to do The Bartered Bride, I remember saying to him on the phone, after I had read the libretto “No, definitely no!” But we all know how persuasive Klaus can be and he asked me to listen to the piece. It was then I realised how wicked and violent the story is, and that it was nothing to do with folklore. The music stands out as truly formidable. Let’s say, however, that in general I am very careful in my choices: I wanted to have enough success in my career so that I would be free to choose what I did. I can’t do all the operas; for me, Wagner, for example, is out of the question, I couldn’t do it.
Why is that?
I’ve had lengthy discussions with Daniel Barenboim about this. He obviously loves Wagner and I have worked with him on several occasions. It’s linked to my upbringing, to my mother’s story and to National Socialism – even if Wagner had nothing to do with that. At my parent’s, Wagner was virtually taboo. I grew up with Mozart; my father was a great lover of music and Sundays always began with Mozart and then only after that could we have breakfast (a smile). The staging of The Ring by Chéreau really fascinated me but I have a problem with the music. It’s loud, it’s heavy. It makes me feel physically sick and that does not feed my imagination. Wagner doesn’t inspire me.
When you are creating a new production, you have to work with singers that normally you haven’t chosen…
It varies enormously. When I work with opera houses where we talk at great length about the characters, I can. I wouldn’t accept being told that the singers and orchestra have been hired before the director. I really appreciate opera houses like Brussels where the boss and his deputies understand the director’s way of working. I can meet all the singers beforehand and, if necessary, work with them in advance to find out, from my point of view, if they have the acting skills that I consider essential. On the other hand I never intervene concerning the voices, for that I lack the competence. But if in the theatre the only criteria is the voice that won’t work for me. I really do see opera as musical theatre. Up until now, save for some unimportant exceptions, I have always been lucky to come across singers who love to act and who, moreover, act well. I am delighted by this development in musical theatre; that there are more and more singers who are also interested in acting, who want to learn, who are curious. When you can really get them to act the part well, and if, as well, they sing beautifully, then the spoken theatre has really got competition.
Do you think, in opera, you will be able to bring out the same nuances and details in the singers’ performances as you can in the theatre with actors?
Not entirely. An actor is totally different. I think we are often wrong to even want to make comparisons. However, where there is no difference between musical theatre and spoken theatre is at the level of the sub-text. What thought is behind a sentence or a couple of words? It is completely possible in the musical theatre, providing we are not contented to just say now he or she will sing this aria and it will work one way or the other – no it doesn’t work like that. That is asking for a disaster. We can see that sometimes on CDs. When an artist just sings prettily but without any thought behind it, it is boring. And that doesn’t help the singers. I have a great deal of respect for them and I listen to them. When a singer who I trust tells me that he/she can’t sing in such and such a position, I don’t insist on it and I modify my idea. I don’t insist that it is essential for me that they do it that way. You have to come up with something else. The support you give a singer is different to that which you give an actor. To have to sing a piece for ten minutes requires a great deal of effort from the singer and we have to give him/her the best conditions possible. Another example: I can’t move them twenty metres back on stage because I think the effect would be more beautiful – well you know all that. In my opinion, the staging must serve the story as well as the music. Otherwise, there’s no point in doing musical theatre.
In what way has your experience with opera influenced your work with the actors in your theatre?
It has at a certain level. Not in the way I see the actor’s performance, but at a more conceptual level where you become more daring. You find other ways of staging something. Practically, I’m not sure, but I notice that sometimes it makes me move away from a certain kind of realism. It’s always directly linked to the poetry. I always say that the director is a secondary artist, whether that is in opera or spoken theatre. What is paramount is the text and, on the other side, the music. Not my personal feelings.
Why do you say that?
Because I often notice that directors give themselves too much importance. We are neither authors nor composers; all those difficult tasks are not our responsibility. It is, therefore, a craft that is there to serve a cause. That is our mission.
When you have to decide in which period to set an opera – like La Traviata which was written over 150 years ago – what is it that leads you to take one route rather than another?
The big problem with La Traviata is that the music is so incredibly beautiful and everyone knows it and thinks they can sing along with it that we forget how cruel the story is. Therefore you have to straight away head in another direction in order that the plot has higher visibility and is heard. That’s why I would never leave it in the period in which it was composed because there would always be the risk that the set would only be seen as a thing of beauty. It is worth noting that Verdi was not allowed to set it in his own period. In order to stage it he had to set it in the past. The other problem is how to get across to today’s audience the scandal that this opera created at the time. It is a scandalous story and conveying that is fundamental. But you have to approach every production differently. When I did Schiller’s Mary Stuart I didn’t feel the need to present Queen Elizabeth in the guise of the head of the Deutsche Bank. I have a problem with productions that want to fit into the current political situation. That is not what I am trying to do here; the costumes will be a mix of different periods from Degas to the modern day. The importance is to show the wealth of that world and the intellectual and moral emptiness of that society. It is something that I can see clearly today. And that does interest me; we are living in an era where everything comes back to money. There is no third force; we had God, then communism, then socialism and now money.
And love, as Alfredo would say…
Huh! That is so fleeting…
What do you expect in terms of collaboration from the conductor of the orchestra, when you start working on a new opera?
It is quite difficult because conductors spend most of their time in aeroplanes. However if we can’t work together you can do whatever staging you like and the absolute opposite will be happening in the orchestra pit. It is has the potential to be a disaster. Personally, I like to work with conductors who are interested in what happens on stage and not just in the music. It is important to understand each other at that level. It can be a battle but even in those cases it has always proved an interesting encounter. Moreover, I wouldn’t work with just anyone; I would rather say no.
Do you listen to a lot of music?
Yes, all sorts. It varies. When I am working on a show, it can happen, that on the way to the rehearsals in the car, I find myself always listening to the same thing. That creates a certain feeling in me and I need to listen to it all the time in order not to lose that feeling. After, during rehearsals, no. I listen to a bit of everything even Elvis Presley. On the other hand at home I listen to a lot of classical music. Opera as well, but I know opera a lot less well than I know plays for the theatre. I love going to concerts, I find that more magical than listening to a CD. I don’t go to pop concerts, and maybe I’m wrong not to; but what I really love are classical concerts...
When you are working with your actors, do you give them music to listen to, to get them to understand, by a different route, what you are trying to tell them?
Not necessarily what I’m listening to. But I have some amazing sound collaborators and there is always a composer working with us. And when, for example, I want to create a certain atmosphere – or when they are speaking for hours, I insert some music to give them time to breathe. And this music will be underlying the performance, to create an atmosphere or to make us hear a train in the distance. It’s a feeling that an actor can capitalise on. And that can also help. You can’t just say to someone “Now you are going to be in a very good mood” – it’s not that easy. However if you give him some music which provokes that mood the actor will be able to reproduce it (the audience don’t hear this music). Yes, I work a lot like this.
You were talking about Mozart, the music that you listened to every Sunday before breakfast. Many directors think that it is an extremely difficult task to translate Mozart’s operas for the theatre on account of their subtlety. What do you think?
I totally agree with my colleagues! Mozart’s music is extremely difficult. It is obviously never easy to stage and work from his repertoire. Janacek’s Katya Kabanova, for example, was not easy to stage but it pales into insignificance beside the complexities of staging Mozart’s music. Before I leave this earth I absolutely want to direct Don Giovanni. I know that it is for me. Dark, everything there is dark. Why does it speak to me in this way? No doubt that is part of the analysis…
Recorded by Christian Longchamp