Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Artists' processes

We had the dress rehearsal for the Houston Xerxes last night. Opera being opera, we now have a gap before the opening night, during which the most I can really do is phone the singers with some notes and explore the city. And catch up on admin.

It's been fascinating to work with this cast. Often I've felt that opera singers have a different approach to the creation of a performance from actors. The norm is that they sing the same roles in lots of different productions, so they know the text and the music well, and expect the director to provide something called "the production", which tends to mean lots of things to remember. What's been different with this group has been the open-ness to growth and process. It probably helps that they've not sung the roles before - but I think it's also to do with a particular approach which certain special singers have, which is closer to that of an actor. For somebody like Susan, direction is not just a set of notes - it's a creative dialogue which allows her to develop a performance in which music and acting are integrated and indivisible. She didn't turn up knowing the music - in fact it took her quite some time to learn it while we were rehearsing. And the reason for this is that she can't learn it unless it makes sense to her, unless it's something she can inhabit. The resulting performance is - to my, admittedly biased, mind - one of the most extraordinary things I've seen on an operatic stage.

Still working out some of the admin aspects of Re-Orientations for the autumn. As so often for us, there's going to be a last minute element to the project. I guess it's just the context in which we are operating - but it would be so nice to be free of these concerns in the way I have been on Xerxes. For a director just to direct is a rare privilege these days.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Rothko Chapel

When I first heard I was coming to Houston, there were two places I felt I really had to visit, alongside all the operatic goings-on. One was the Space Centre (which should happen on Wednesday) - the other was the Rothko Chapel. I'd known about this space for years - ever since I first started researching Rothko as a visual inspiration for The Great God Brown in (I think) 1993. He then became a major source for one of the early Border Crossings shows - the multi-media devised piece I did as a solo show, Departures / Arrivals. In that production, I played Rothko on film (though I look nothing like him!), as well as a version of myself on stage. We used imagery from his work and quotations from his letters in the form of projected text. His incredible use of emptiness to portray so much of the contemporary human condition carries on being a huge influence on me. The stage spaces for the Trilogy, and even for pieces like Bullie's House, Mappa Mundi and Double Tongue, all owe something to this aesthetic - and, more importantly, to its underlying spiritual power.

The Chapel is in an area of Houston which was bought by an incredibly wealthy philanthropic couple called the Menils, who collected art from all over the world, including an amazing selection of Greek vases and a vast array of Magrittes. Their collection is now on free display in an ever-changing exhibition space, which currently features a whole series of very funny, and very disturbing interventions by the Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan (he's the one who did the Pope being struck by a meteorite). The presence of this iconoclast is another tribute to the open-mindedness of the Menils, who were, after all, devout Catholics - they also endowed St. Thomas's University in this same area of Houston, which appears to teach everything within a Thomist framework.

The Rothko Chapel, however, is not Catholic. In fact, it isn't even Christian. It is visited and used by Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Taoists, Hindus... you name it. It is a space of contemplation, meditation, and spirituality in the widest sense. What you do there may or may not involve a deity. To my mind, Rothko's paintings are about the spiritual meaning of the deity's absence (or apparent absence), in the contemporary world. They seem to work like icons - providing a bridge into another reality - but that reality is empty. His fourteen vast canvases, nine of which form three triptychs, are open shimmering spaces of black, dark reds and deep purples. They are not about "glory" or "redemption" or "consolation". They are about our need to face up to emptiness, and to find a relationship with that vast void which envelopes our existence.

I went twice during the day. The first time there were quite a lot of people there: including one who was trying to take photos and set the attendant scurrying towards him. The second time, after I'd been to the Menil Collection, I was able to sit there on my own with the paintings. It was totally silent, apart from the attendant occasionally turning the page of her newspaper. The silence was like a noise. And the emptiness of the paintings was like a fullness - shimmering and numinous, overpowering with the presence of absence.

Outside, there is a pool, with a broken obelisk by Barnett Newman. It's set in a little garden. The sun was very hot, and the birds were singing.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The size of the space

Apparently the Americans regard the Brown auditorium as "small", because it "only" has 2500 seats. Hum.... I've worked in theatres with many more seats than that, which were much smaller. In ancient Greece, there were theatres which would fit many times into the Brown, yet seated twice that number (admittedly the ancient Greeks were significantly smaller than the Texans and less conscious of personal space). What strikes me as odd about American theatres is the amount of empty space, with the circles not even starting until the rear of the stalls. So the seats at the back of the balcony are miles from the stage. When a space uses the vertical dimension, and when it curves the circles (so called for a reason), then even very large numbers of people can be quite close to the stage. I'm finding the scale of the Brown space a big challenge. Luckily I have a cast who are used to this scale of work.

A bit of bad news on Re-Orientations. In spite of huge enthusiasm from their staff, the Heritage Lottery Fund have turned down our application. It's mainly a blow to the Education programme we'd intended to associate with the work - but it does also have an impact on the main project. Lots of the inevitable re-budgeting and emailing..... We will not be daunted!

On a very different note - I phoned my Dad today, because it was his 82nd birthday. He'd spent it... at work. Dealing with Council business, answering memos and emails. I can't help but be impressed.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Queen of Spades

Will Lacey and I went to the opening of HGO's Queen of Spades last night. Will had seen the production before - it was originally done in Wales by Richard Jones: I'd never even seen the opera. One of those increasingly rare moments when I get to encounter a classic piece that I don't know at all (it's about twenty-five years since that happened with my last Shakespeare!). I know Onegin very well, having worked on and written about the Glyndebourne production - and there were times when this evoked memories of that.... Tchaikovsky clearly had a thing about old nurses putting young girls to bed. But generally this piece is much more nihilistic, fatalistic and altogether strange than the earlier opera.

This makes it an ideal piece for a Richard Jones production - and, as he often does, he's set it in an early 20th century grubby world, with more than a nod to Freud's Vienna and Berg's Wozzeck. There are some stunning theatrical moments - the old Countess dying like Marat in a bath; her ghost returning as a huge skeleton; Herman's nightmare being viewed from above, with the bed vertical on a painted perspective back-cloth. And the tenor, Vladimir Galouzine, is extraordinary. After the first scene, Will whispered "That has got to be the loudest voice in the world". Not only that, but he is also an incredibly intense actor, and, in spite of singing more than everybody else put together, he doesn't sound remotely tired at the end. Wow.

It was also great to see the HGO Chorus doing a different show. They are every bit as good in this as they are in our Xerxes.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Funding for Palestine

We're planning a possible new project in collaboration with Ashtar Theatre in Palestine. If we're to pull this off, we really need to get another EU grant, and the deadline is fast approaching. I'm trying to co-ordinate this at the same time as rehearsing Xerxes. I realised yesterday that there are lots of documents requiring signatures from our partners - and have just spent a couple of hours emailing them all out for printing, signing, and sending on. It's a logistical nightmare with limited time available to pull it off. Technical rehearsals start tonight, but at least that means I get a day off tomorrow and some free mornings over the weekend, when I can work on this. Coffee may become quite important, I think.

The opera is getting more exciting by the day. Sonia and Will are very interesting on the process. Apparently, it's quite rare for an opera director to examine the text with the singers. Most "direction" is actually choreography. So, I gather I'm making some ripples here - though in a good way!

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Texan times

I'm trying to keep up with my Border Crossings work at the same time as directing Xerxes here in Houston. Not easy - since the rehearsals are intense, run for six days a week with a variable day off, and often include evenings. And I have a three-session day tomorrow. Still - somehow this week I managed to get an application in to Cultures Action France towards the costs of Denise and Micha's work on the Trilogy, and to begin another EU application for a project we're hoping to do in collaboration with the Palestinian company Ashtar. A lot of their work is in the tradition of Boal - very interesting as a politically open and egalitarian approach to devising. The forms for the application are, of course, very complicated! I have until May to submit, so I ought to make it. The best time for working on this seems to be in the morning when we have an afternoon and evening rehearsal - that way I remain awake!

Xerxes is proving very exciting. It's partly because the cast is so great, and partly because the rehearsal method that has emerged from my collaboration with Will Lacey is really allowing us to integrate music, text and drama in a much fuller way than is usual in opera. The virtuosity of singers like Susan Graham isn't just showy for the sake of it (though it's certainly very impressive!) - we are also making ornamentation which is about the character's intention and emotional state. Very inspiring.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Xerxes in Houston

This has nothing at all to do with Border Crossings: it's completely a freelance job. I'm in Houston, Texas, directing Xerxes for the opera company here. It's the old Hytner production, which I've revived several times in London - but here it doesn't have the status of something from the company's stable, so we are able to be much more free and inventive. I also have the most amazing cast of opera singers I've ever been lucky enough to work with. Susan Graham is Xerxes, and David Daniels is Arsamenes. Probably the greatest mezzo and certainly the greatest counter-tenor in the world. Then there's Laura Claycomb, Heidi Stober and Sonia Prina - every single one of them world-class voices. And nice people with it. Mind-blowing.

I'm enjoying the working relationship with Will Lacey, the conductor. He's very open to a proper creative dialogue, so we can make the music work dramatically, and make the drama work musically. It's a rare privilege to be allowed in to discussions about ornamentations, and to work so closely on the musical, as well as textual, considerations in the Recits. And, in Handel, Recit is the key to everything.

Houston itself is also mind-blowing, but in a very different way. There's little that's picturesque or culturally elegant about the city - it exists because there's oil in Texas, and money all around it. Every day I walk past the old Enron building. Halliburton is here (although the official headquarters moved to Kuwait just as Obama came into office...). The airport is called George Bush International. You get the picture? I do feel quite foreign here!