In part one of my recent interview with Director Andrew Sinclair, he shared his insights and experiences directing San Diego Opera, from Aida to the 2014 opening of the powerful verismo opera Pagliacci. In part two, Sinclair delves further into the subject of character in opera.
EM: In Pagliacci you gave a whole new spin to the ending when, instead of Canio, Tonio declares, “La Commedia è finita.”
AS: Opera is about people. It’s not about how it looks. These days, not all, but for a lot of contemporary directors, it’s a very visual concept. Once in Europe, at the end of Tosca Act Two, I didn’t do crucifix and candles. Which I think probably caused a scandal with the public. I know Toscas who did not want to do crucifix and candles because they just don’t feel it. So I said to the soprano, “Are you absolutely wedded to the idea of doing crucifix and candles? Maybe there’s something else that works.” And she said, “Andrew, when I sing Turandot in Germany, I make my entrance as Turandot from the stomach of a giant teddy bear. There’s a huge mobile phone next to me on which Calàf answers the riddles. Why would I worry about crucifix and candles?” (Laughs.)
EM: I feel the same way. As you said, it’s about the characters, and it sounds like your approach was the best for the situation.
AS: I also like to think what happens when the opera’s over. What happens to Butterfly’s child, for instance. I think he has a terrible existence. Because Kate doesn’t really want him. There are a whole lot of ways you can do the end of Butterfly, too. There’s no doubt she kills herself, but there’s a production somewhere else where I think she kills Suzuki, kills the child… I don’t know, talk about Euro trash. And in certain operas like Butterfly, I prefer to run acts two and three together.
EM: We did that at the Met, too.
AS: A lot of sopranos say it’s hard. Butterfly’s a mighty “sing” for any soprano, but to have a break and then try and crank up the tension again in what is really a very short act - it’s much better to play it straight through.
EM: The music between the end of act two and the beginning of act three is seamless anyway. I think that kind of inexorable march to the end works for Butterfly.
AS: Exactly. It’s like you spend the night watching with Butterfly, Suzuki and the child. And it’s the same with Salome. It takes place in real time. You live through this bizarre evening and you really feel you’ve been through the wringer.
EM: As far as doing Pagliacci on its own, I think it works well, but I can’t imagine doing Cavalleria Rusticana on its own.
AS: Nor can I. Of course they’re paired with other pieces. Pagliacci is sometimes paired with Tabarro and Schicchi, but if you’re going to do two there’s no doubt Pagliacci and Cavalleria are going to stand very well together. But Pagliacci is the stronger piece.
EM: I do have a soft spot for Cavalleria.
AS: So do I. When I first started loving opera I preferred Cavalleria. But I think I didn’t understand the problem with it. The first time I did both “Cav and Pag” was in Singapore. I already I knew I was going to do a new production of them for Australian Opera. The difference between what I did in Singapore and what I did in Sydney was phenomenal because I started looking at the drama differently. The first was conducted by Karen Kamensek, who’s doing Ballo here, and we had a fantastic time.
EM: Speaking of Singapore, I know you’ve also worked in Hong Kong. Do you find differences working in Asia as opposed to in Europe, and if so, what would they be?
AS: In Asia they don’t plan ahead so much. It’s all done in a short period of time. As a director you have problems because singers don’t want to display affection on the stage. They don’t want to kiss on stage.
EM: That’s tough in opera. And what about committing murder?
AS: Well, I was very interested when the Chairman of Singapore Opera said, “I want to do Salome.” And I went, “Really?” And he said they have to get used to the fact there are other popular operas, not just Bohème, Traviata, and Carmen. So they asked me to do Salome. Then they asked if I knew anyone who might sing the role. “We don’t have anyone in Asia.” I wasn’t sure whether they meant vocally or just someone who would be prepared to do that sort of part. We were very lucky because we had a wonderful Salome. Very experienced soprano. Then they asked if I knew someone who would sing Herod. And maybe Jochanaan. So I ended up casting the four main roles which was quite interesting. Then they said that sort of opera was not done by Asian conductors unless they conduct in Europe all the time. So I found them a conductor as well. It was all very interesting. But I was very nervous about doing this piece. I remember having dinner with someone from Management, about six months before we did it and I said, “I think you’re very brave, it’s wonderful you’re doing it.” And he said, “Yes, do you think you could maybe wrap up the head?” I said, “No. If you need the head wrapped you’re talking to the wrong director.” The Jochanaan was coming from London, so the people who made the head for Covent Garden were able to send the same head. We got to the final scene, and Salome said, “Andrew, I have to have more blood.” I mean, the thing was just gushing with blood by the end. Nobody batted an eyelid about it in the opera house. But there was a moment in the dance where she pushed Herod back on the steps of the cistern and put her foot in the middle of his chest. And the audience just gasped (laughs). Dominatrix.
EM: Totally her character.
AS: Absolutely. I had the most wonderful time doing Salome. She’s a very interesting person. You can’t play a murderess without showing why she does what she does, and what kind of background she comes from. A very dysfunctional family, the debauchery of the court. She’s had no proper childhood. And someone kills himself over her. I had her just step over Narraboth’s body like she didn’t even notice. She doesn’t understand what Jochanaan says but he’s an escape, a life away from here. She makes advances to him, she reminds him of what desire is.
EM: He stirs up everything in her. And there’s nothing she can do about it.
AS: Exactly. He gives her a sexual feeling which makes her feel vulnerable. And she doesn’t want to feel vulnerable.
EM: Her ego can’t take it either.
AS: That’s when she decides to have revenge. She doesn't know how, but she thinks, “If I silence that voice, I regain power.”
EM: A pretty powerful and unexpected emotion from a fifteen year old.
AS: At the end, she says, “Why don’t you look at me, Jochanaan?” The lips are not moving and suddenly she realizes she’s killed the one person that provided her with escape. And when Herod says to the guards, “Kill that woman,” she says, “Yes. I have nothing to live for.” And she becomes a sympathetic figure. A very confused teenager.
EM: It’s shocking to think young girls can be capable of that. No wonder Salome closed after one performance at the Met In 1907. It’s not real but you still get caught up in it.
AS: Speaking of real, I worked with one singer in Lucia, and she was worried about something I was doing. “But if I do that, well…” she said, “The public thought I had a wonderful marriage and in fact my husband was quite violent with me. I’m afraid if I do that somehow they’ll know.” And I said, “I’m not going to tell them unless you tell them.” I didn't push it and she came the next day and said, “You’re right. We have to go all the way.” And she found it cathartic.
EM: There’s no other way in opera. Even in the pit, I felt the same way. You can’t help but be drawn in by the characters and their pain.
AS: Yes. It’s all about the people.
Photos used by permission of San Diego Opera
Erica Miner can be contacted at email@example.com
Erica Miner can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org