Filmmaker Sally Potter is no stranger to opera: her first film, Thriller (1979), investigates the story and score of La bohème from Mimi's point of view. She set her later feature film The Man Who Cried (2000) in an opera company in WWII Paris. Tenor Dante Dominio (John Turturro, voiced by Salvatore Licitra) sings many of the Romantic tenor leads, including Nadir from Georges Bizet's The Pearl Fishers. But Dante is an Italian fascist, and his politics are in stark contrast to the heroic roles he sings. This critical attention to the original art form of opera, and its cultural meanings, are part of what Potter brings to her production of Carmen for the English National Opera this September. She describes her relationship with the art form as a:
'feeling of ironic detachment towards the narratives of high opera and the meanings that seem to be encoded in the dramatic conventions that come out of the nineteenth century and before. But there are the musical truths that go beyond the narrative conventions and take us somewhere else, even if we don't want the music to take us there. Music can work on the unconscious, and narrative can work on the conscious - and in the disjuncture comes the artifice of opera. When the two are unified, you get a very total experience.'
Potter's films are committed to achieving this 'total experience,' so one would think that she jumped at the chance to show her directorial flair and knowledge of opera on one of London's great stages. As one of Britain's foremost and original writer-directors, though, Potter has been focused on creating independent film since the early 1980s, and has turned down offers to do anything that would distract her from that arduous but satisfying path.
'I had no independent ambition to direct an opera,' remarks Potter, 'except' - tellingly - 'perhaps one that I might write: I've been wanting to do that for decades. But the idea of directing a classic like Carmen honestly and truly was not in my head. But John Berry [director of the ENO] approached me repeatedly and insistently. I did really feel that after making a film called YES , I really could not carry on saying no to everything!'
The score for YES, which Potter produced, brings together culturally diverse musical forms to speak to and for her characters as Bizet's opera does. She also composed instrumental pieces for it with Fred Frith, and she has written lyrics for key songs in Orlando (1993) and The Tango Lesson (1997). Potter also has a background as a singer, with improvisatory groups FIG and the Marx Brothers. Add to this her training in dance and choreography, and it becomes clear why she's the perfect choice to take on Carmen, which, Potter says, 'demands to be danced. You feel it moving in and out of moments of spectacle, or moments of shapes of bodies or massive groups of bodies.' Bringing together her varied background and expertise was part of what persuaded her to accept the challenge.
'The attraction was first of all revisiting my own theatrical roots from a long time ago; secondly, creating an opportunity to work with Pablo [Veron, who starred in The Tango Lesson] again, in a different way; and thirdly, as a kind of practice session for if I was going to do Orlando: The Musical, which I've had in mind for a while. So: re-finding muscles.'
But, Potter argues, opera is also a way of thinking about the origins of film, and particularly her interest in early cinema which can be seen in her first feature film The Gold Diggers (1983), which references Charlie Chaplin and early musicals. In fact, all of her films incorporate sung and danced elements - and YES even has a Chorus, in the form of the Cleaner (Shirley Henderson), who narrates the story confidentially to the camera.
'I used to think that opera was the precursor to cinema in that it was the original multimedia form before there was a lens, an attempt to bring together narrative, singing, moving, the visual image, design. The form goes back a long way, to the Greeks, because of the relationship between the chorus and the soloist that is omnipresent in the classic operas. It anticipates what film can do about layering and working with all the senses. Cinema picked up where opera left off.'
The experience of directing an opera presents a compelling opportunity 'to take on an epic theatrical form.' But it also presented challenges for the independent auteur: not only is Carmen a pre-existing text, but one that is well-known and well-loved. Part of the challenge, then, was 'to work with a given that you can't cut, because your secret weapon as a director is: if it doesn't work, cut it.'
Which is not to say that this will be a production of Carmen like any seen before. The libretto (apart from its dialogue) and music may remain intact, but - through a year of intensive research and preparation, including a trip to Spain with designer Es Devlin and the commissioning of a new translation of the libretto in contemporary English by Christopher Cowell - Potter says that she has 'tried to unravel the opera from its encrustation, its successive layers of cliché that have drowned it, and taken it away from its roots, back to the imagined intentions of Bizet.'
Like Bizet, who constantly struggled to preserve his ambitions for the piece in the face of the Opéra-Comique's economic and time constraints, as well as the pressure of censorship, Potter finds herself balancing the realities of directing an opera with her conceptual ambitions.
'What I've discovered about opera is that, because it's so expensive, because there's so many people involved, the working time is insanely short to put a piece together. I feel a bit like I'm walking in the dark, but I'm learning as fast as I can how to bring that big, lumbering pantechnicon of a thing through the process to the quickest clarity that's possible. Which is a long distance from the original ambition - finding a new interpretation that's going to take it back to its roots, a wake-up call to its deeper themes, a complete revision of its stereotypes of femme fatale. I want to bring the deeper themes to life without artifice, on the other hand to avoid phoney naturalism where people pretend on stage, which I don't like, without going self-consciously into self-referential Brechtian 'This is only an opera, folks.' It's a very complex challenge which I'm in right in the middle of... in the early stages of the middle of... well, late early stages as I'm nearly half way through rehearsals, end of the third week with five weeks left to go.'
Despite the challenges, Potter is deeply engaged in thinking through the pleasures and emotions offered by Bizet's music, and she has a powerful take on his use of popular dance forms.
'For all its moments of musical lightness, it's a very complex piece. It's very impassioned, so one can tell comes out of the depths of personal experience related to the deeper themes, and empathetic imaginings too - and curiosity, really, about other musical forms as well. The popular success of the piece comes out of its melodic strengths. It's really closer in many ways to popular song than to opera. But just as slaves in the United States sang and there's a joy and a beauty, there's an undertow of melancholy and desperation, an undertow of the shackles around the ankles dragging them down. I think that's what's in the music of the opera too. The journey of these characters from the beginning to the end is a tragic one. It's called the tragedy of Carmen, but within that implacable inevitability of the facing of death and the reality of their oppression, there are these moments of their absolutely explosive joy and vitality.'
Potter argues that the desire for freedom is at the heart of the opera, and even 'the chorus sing about freedom when they're actually in a very confined life.' The sense of confinement will be represented on stage by video surveillance images projected on a gauze. 'We in the UK live in the most surveillance driven culture of anywhere in the world at the moment, so it's entirely appropriate.' While the projection allows Potter to make sense of the operatic convention in which 'the soldiers are singing about looking at women upstage, with their backs to them,' it also shows her exploring contemporary state surveillance and celebrity culture, and the price of visibility.
'Escamillo in his aria talks about the 'dark seductive eyes' looking at him from above. That's his prize. But in his last lines, he's about to split and fall just like Don José did: the crack is showing. Carmen is also a solitary figure, a standout figure, with the focus of all that longing on her. It's a very lonely position. It's also the power of not being looked at, the power of rejection, the turning of the back, which fuels a lot of the relationships throughout, which are always based on this polarity of attraction and rejection.'
A conversation of eyes, as well as voices, will be reflected in Potter's other major innovation in the staging: doubling the characters with dancers, led by Pablo Veron, bringing to the fore Potter's sense of the opera's central theme of:
'shadow, echo, reversal, the twoness of things, that unify in fact into one. Don José and Carmen are two aspects of one human being, Escamillo and Micaela are the shadow selves of those two central characters, the chorus are a sort of multiplied collective shadow of those, and all of those can be thought of as a multiple self within this one lifetime of human experience. And I think that's in the writing, and in the music writing as well, because the themes often overlap, interweave. They're set against each other in counterpoint, but at times they're overlaid, if you listen carefully to what the music's doing.'
This thoughtful approach to the music's meaning extends to the new understanding of opera she has gained through working with her performers, including mezzo-soprano Alice Coote and tenor Julian Gavin, and the 56-person strong ENO chorus, who excite her admiration and respect. With Carmen's passion in her voice, she makes a brilliant argument for the continuing relevance and power of opera as a celebration of the power of the human voice and body.
'I think that opera is not a form of escapism, any more than any other art form is really escapism. I think what you have is you have a highly specialised area of skill that's highlighted in opera, and which the whole thing is a framework for, which is the powerful human voice - the power of the human voice. Opera singers work without amplification, in enormous spaces, and the technical demands, the musculature and the training is quite extraordinary. There's also the danger, the exposure of hitting a duff note or getting it slightly wrong. It's a celebration of what can happen when we push one part of what the human body can do without any props, without even a musical instrument, just the voice itself - the whole epic spectrum of human experience all focused down into there. I don't think that's escapism. I think that's people experiencing vicariously their own inner power to vocalise. So it's a liberation from silence and voicelessness at its best.'
Re-imagining the femme fatale and the moving from nostalgia for old Seville to a 'timeless UK present,' Potter's Carmen promises to liberate not only the opera but her audience from opera as a 'great big, expensive, élitist lumbering art form that seems to be just about the few. It certainly wasn't at the beginning, it was populist.' 2007 sees metropolitan opera houses in a new, and newsworthy, cycle of engaging film directors such as Woody Allen, Anthony Minghella and Michael Haneke, as well as Potter. Like them, Potter is one of the rare independent arthouse directors whose films have achieved both critical and popular success. and her engagement suggests that the ENO could be reaching out by taking opera thrillingly to its roots, in more ways than one.
By Sophie Mayer
Sophie Mayer is a postdoctoral fellow in film at the University of Cambridge and author of The Cinema of Sally Potter: Moments of Exchange (Wallflower, 2008). She writes on cultural representations of women for Sight & Sound, Vertigo and online magazine Shebytches.
Sally Potter is writing a blog and answering questions in forums at www.sallypotter.com and carmen.eno.org, the latter being ENO's special interactive minisite going behind the scenes of the new production of Carmen.