Ahead of English Touring Opera’s visit to the Assembly Hall in October, Christopher Rolls – who directs the company’s production of Albert Herring – explains why we should all experience opera.
Tell us a bit about your background.
After school, I went to Edinburgh University where I got involved with student theatre and developed a true taste for performance. It was only later that I discovered a history of amateur theatricals in my family! After Edinburgh, I decided that it was directing I was most interested in, as I was intrigued by the overall vision for a production. This led to an MA course at Middlesex University which had an international slant. In 2005 I was lucky enough to be made Resident Assistant Director for a year at the prestigious Donmar Theatre in Covent Garden. Under the artistic leadership of Michael Grandage, I got to experience first-hand that rare alchemy of craft and intuition that takes place between artists in a rehearsal room. Since then I’ve been clawing my way forward in a tough and competitive industry, but I’ve been lucky.
What’s the most challenging part of directing an opera?
Stanley Kubrick once described making film as like trying to write War and Peace in the back of a dodgem. I suspect most opera directors can empathise with that. The challenging part is to understand the opera from the inside out – and that comes from understanding how the composer is forwarding the action through music. The second challenge is getting a team of artists to all pull together in the same direction. That’s about effective communication.
And the most enjoyable?
For me, it’s when a singer is so familiar with their character and confident in their role within the production that they are able to fly. There is a certain undeniable quality when you feel that there is a right fit between singer and character, between character and story, between story and production.
Opera has in the past been viewed as elitist – do you feel this image has changed in recent years?
Yes! Why do we think of opera as elitist? I’ll tell you. Ticket prices. If you take away this barrier (though it’s hard to do – opera is expensive to produce) all the silly notions of elitism begin to fall away. Music is the most democratic of arts. How could it not be? Now we’ve got operas being performed in pubs in stripped back versions, in parks, in the open air, being shown live in cinemas… All of these things show that it’s not just about red plush seats and a £12.50 glass of fizz in the interval. There is also, sometimes, the barrier of language which some find off-putting. But if us directors do our jobs properly, audiences should be able to understand the story even without spending the evening staring at subtitles. Companies like ETO are all about access and taking the operatic repertoire to new audiences. We need more of it.
What’s the appeal of opera?
The unique blend of music and drama. In a play, the words can lead to great passion in a performer, but when a singer sings a certain phrase or sequence of notes, they produce an emotion that is – literally – beyond words. There is something about music which cuts straight into the emotional core of our beings. It is immensely powerful and liberating.
ETO’s The Emperor of Atlantis and Albert Herring can be seen at Assembly Hall Theatre on Monday October 29 and Tuesday October 30 respectively. Call 01892 530 613/ 532 072 or www.assemblyhalltheatre.co.uk