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CultureCritic interviews Robin Norton-Hale...

CultureCritic | 22.July.2011 | 14:03

Robin Norton-Hale received an Olivier award for her last opera production: directing her own translation of La bohème, set in a student bedsit and staged in a Kilburn pub (it later moved to the Soho Theatre with equal success). Her next venture sees Don Giovanni transported to the world of City trading, and opens in August. We asked her about just how she tackles the classics, and why opera should be funny...

What attracted you to Don Giovanni?

The anti-hero is really appealing - the character that you shouldn't like but end up slightly rooting for. Giovanni is a really despicable character. When I've said I'm doing it a lot of people say, ‘Oh, directors graveyard' because everyone wants to do Don Giovanni. But it's quite difficult; Giovanni himself is a bit of a blank, but that's what makes him interesting. He's successful with women, and, in fact, with everyone, because he just reflects back at people what they want to see. To be charming, you don't necessarily have to have that much of a personality.

It is often described as a hybrid opera. Do you think it's comic or tragic?

That's another reason why it is a directors graveyard; getting the tone right is difficult. We certainly expect our operas - perhaps plays, less so - to sit neatly in one or other box; it's either a complete knock about comedy or a tragedy. Don Giovanni is neither - it's both. I was really pleased people said about my production of La bohème that they hadn't thought of it as funny before. Everyone thinks it's a tragedy, but there are huge sections when it's just a group of boys messing around with each other, it should be funny. Life isn't all one thing or another.

What were the difficulties you faced in translating the opera?

Rhyming English automatically sounds a bit twee, and this certainly rhymes much less than the original, but I think that a lot of it will be quite funny. The challenge is to take people with you. The moment in bohème when it changes from a big fight and a dance to Mimì coming in and being really sick... There were often moments when people were still laughing from what had previously been happening, and then realised it had changed. If you can take people with you then it doesn't matter if you have that unevenness, or comic effort.

Will there be any surprises?

I have made some quite bold decisions about the characters and their motivations. The whole question of whether a rape occurs in the first scene is hard. It is sometimes made to seem like Anna's being ironic or lying. I didn't want it to be a ‘classic' rape to use Ken Clarke's phrase. She had been flirting with and possibly kissing Jonny (Giovanni). He's said he'll come back and see her later and she hasn't said absolutely don't. No means no, at whatever point you say it. Deciding how much of that to put into the words, which is obviously completely inauthentic, in that it's not in the Italian at all, was challenging.

Is Don Giovanni a moralising opera? Have you put any moral emphasis in the story?

The ending feels a bit tagged-on in terms of morality. We have been invited to laugh at others with Jonny, and therefore the audience are made to be culpable. That's clever in the original, but the really Christian ending means it's potentially problematic. It feels a bit like Mozart wrote not a Christian opera - it's more pagan or pre-Christian. The person he's killed comes back to haunt Don Giovanni, rather than God. God is never mentioned; we never see ‘the forces of heaven'.

What is your background, and are you more comfortable directing opera than theatre?

I studied English, so my background is play text ­- very much word-based. When I became a director I absolutely intended to do opera and theatre, maybe with more emphasis on theatre because there was just a much bigger theatre fringe scene. Before becoming a professional director, I worked as the press officer for English Touring Opera, so I felt very comfortable in that world.

How do opera and theatre differ?           

If you're talking about truthfulness to character, it doesn't matter which you're doing, you're using the same psychology. I suppose opera has an additional level of unreality because people are singing. But in a way that can give you freedom. If you're asking the audience to suspend their belief to that extent then maybe you can play around with them a bit more, and be a bit more theatrical.

There's a big difference between Don Giovanni and La bohème in terms of realism. Bohème comes from the verismo tradition, which was a bit like kitchen sink drama: normal people, normal conversations - almost soap opera. In bohème, most of the time, no one ever says anything more than once. It's written like a play. Don Giovanni is much older, people have arias where they repeat themselves a lot. Part of the reason bohème was so successful is that for people who were used to going to theatre and not opera, it was just like a realistic play. Part of the challenge with Don Giovanni is its potentially more artificial style.

Your previous productions have made use of the bar area of the Soho Theatre and have been staged in pubs. What attracts you to performing in these settings, and do you prefer ‘non-traditional' stage?

I wouldn't necessarily say prefer, they're just really exciting for the audience and therefore exciting as a director. I do think that the traditional, raised, proscenium arch stage can act as a barrier - it's another level of detachment. When we first performed bohème, it was just that we were performing in a pub theatre and because there are loads of pub theatres. And a production that I would do at English National Opera would be completely out of place at the Cock Tavern. I had to think ‘what are the advantages of this tiny space with no money?' We could make people feel like they were in a students' living room and that these students were like people they knew.

I've set Don Giovanni in modern London, and Soho Theatre is lovely, modern, purpose-built and quite glossy - and so I want to use that setting. Giovanni's quite a glossy character, so it's appropriate. In terms of design, we've tried to make it recognisable, so the audience can say, ‘they're quite Sloaney' or,‘that's clearly a city-boy' or, ‘this one's dressed like she's going to Glastonbury'. It's slightly heightened reality.

Why have you updated it to a pre-credit crunch moment?

Don Giovanni is partly able to get away with the things he does in the original is because he's this incredibly rich aristocrat and therefore, to a certain extent, above the law. Certainly, when he does anything to a peasant, he's untouchable. To update it means removing that level of class - so how is he able to get away with it, why does he think he's able to? It seemed that bankers, for a certain amount of time, thought they were immortal, and could do what they liked and play with other people's money. This seemed like a reasonable parallel.

How else do you think the opera has a contemporary relevance?

In London particularly, what you wear, where you hang out and what music you listen to really places you in your ‘tribe'. Giovanni is so successful and manipulative because is able to move between these sets of people. It's interesting for a modern audience to maybe recognise themselves, although these aren't such real characters as in bohème - this is more divorced from reality, but perhaps more disturbing for it.

What can we expect musically?

It's accompanied by piano played by the musical director Emily Leather. A composer called Harry Blake has written an electronic piano score to enhance this and will be on stage with laptop and keyboard. Some samples take from the original score, so there are moments of big orchestral sound, and there are also synthesisers, feedback - quite modern, very un-Mozartian sounds.

Updating the setting and using contemporary music, are these things related to making the experience open to a more modern audience? There have been a number of contemporary operas recently, are they just aimed at attracting new audiences?

I think there's quite a big difference between putting on a new, big budget production like Two Boys or Anna Nicole, and doing a new version of an existing one. A brand new opera doesn't necessarily mean a brand new audience. I don't think it should. It's a mistake if ENO are doing Two Boys in order to get a new audience, they should be doing it because it's important to do contemporary operas, and on a grand scale.

I'm completely not ‘anti' traditional productions. I want the ROH and the English National Opera to continue to put on Don Giovanni with the full orchestra and in the original language. But over the last few years, people have been saying that this isn't the only way to do opera. People don't blink about massively cutting Shakespeare but they get very upset when you do it to opera. I don't really understand why, opera should be strong enough to take it.

Are there any operas that are too inaccessible and need to be reworked before people can get involved?

Obviously there is a massive difference, for a modern audience, in how accessible a Handel opera is compared to a Puccini one, or a Benjamin Britten from 1950. That's one of problems: the genre started in 1600 and is still ongoing, but people talk about opera like it is one uniform thing. We don't talk about theatre in that way. If you're doing a restoration comedy you instantly think about how to make it accessible to a modern audience. We should think about that with opera and not think that means rejecting opera. This is just my version of Don Giovanni, it's not an opera manifesto.

What is next for you? Will your brilliant Visions of Kerouac go to the West End?

We were talking to various theatres about that. It's on a side burner slightly. The producer and I are now working on The Taming of the Shrew together, for the Southwark playhouse, for which rehearsals will as soon as Don Giovanni opens. I would call myself a feminist, so many people have asked me why on earth am I doing that horrible misogynistic play!

Don Giovanni opens at the Soho Theatre on 11th August and runs until the 17th September. Buy tickets here and read the latest reviews here.  

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