Concert stagings, puppets, Dido and theatricality

I love fully staged operas. Sets, costumes, darkness, lights. Sometimes I even love the directorial concepts (particularly if they’re my own). But concert stagings can be as good, sometimes better. More dramatic. Clearer. More engaging. Why?
I think the answer to that provides clues to what can make any theatrical or operatic production good, whether it’s in a theatre or not. What matters is whatever the person sitting in the auditorium is allowed – invited – to imagine in the moment. Not what I, as a director, or what we, as a creative team, specifically want to make people think. It’s about how the person in the audience experiences the story being told. Nothing else really matters.
I was in the Barbican in the 1990s when the late Richard Hickox performed Billy Budd with, among others, Simon Keenlyside, John Tomlinson, Philip Langridge, and the LSO. It was the most dramatic evening of opera I can remember. The Sea Interludes alone were worth a full night in the theatre. There was a little use of space, some very small costume elements (everyone was in black but I think Claggart’s jacket was velvet). It was utterly clear, compelling and moving. A few months later I saw a fully staged production. Clearly expensive, impressive in some ways, but not half as good. I was constantly being told what to think, right down to Captain Vere being drunk at the crucial moment (something not suggested in the original), and my own imagination struggled to be engaged.
Of course those singers were steeped in the piece. It’s difficult to imagine a more ideal cast from the past 30 years or more. What concert stagings aren’t is an excuse to rehearse less or work less hard at a strong cogent interpretation. In fact, rehearsing a concert staging arguably takes more work. Where possible it’s good to prepare it as if for a ‘full’ production – with moves, an idea of costume, anything that can make it feel and look real. Then take it all away, and with the orchestra on stage (how wonderful it was to see the players in those Sea Interludes), concentrate on pure storytelling through the music.
On the other hand, as a public, we are intrigued and excited by the new. So what is there that can allow the audience their own space to experience a story, that can allow the music its full power to influence and move, and charm them into even greater awareness, enchantment and engagement? How the director and creative team open up the story is of course key.
I have worked with puppets since 2001, when a production of Indian Queen I was singing in got me thinking about what was, and wasn’t, good about them. In 2004, keen to explore the same questions as we are considering here – how to maximise, how to spellbind, while championing the integrity of the music-making and not interfering – I performed Schubert’s Winterreise with a puppet, some animation, surtitles, a fortepiano and a guitar under a full moon in the beautiful Theatre Royal in Margate (this had its most recent incarnation in the US last autumn, where the instruments had grown in number to include, among others, a penny whistle, a double bass and a tree branch). Puppets only work if the audience believes in them. And that moment of magic when the puppeteer suggests a movement so plausible that the whole theatre is transported into thinking that what they know to be artificial is actually living and breathing – that magical and wonderful moment – is also when their ears open wider and their imaginations can be flooded by the music and their own ability to suspend their disbelief.
Puppets, as Tom Morris (of War Horse fame) said, also die so well. The puppeteer leaves the puppet motionless and the character dies. No more looking for the slight heave of chest, or knowing that in a moment the actor will stand, bow, and leave the stage.
We may or may not use puppets in our production of Dido in the Barbican in October, just as we may or may not use them in Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo next summer, though their classical stories and famous death scenes make them strong candidates. We’ll do what we can to inspire the audience to engage with their whole beings in the story, and try to tease open their ears while we do it. But I’ve a feeling they could be just the way to take our concert staging to even more dramatic heights.

Article appeared in Opera Now, October 2018

Next: Dido, day 2, with rehearsal pics