Director Tim Albery has only been an occasional visitor to London's opera houses over the past decade. Yet just a few months after bringing a new production of Musorgsky's Boris Godunov to the Coliseum, he's back in the capital to direct Wagner's The Flying Dutchman at the Royal Opera House.
Albery's last Wagner production in the UK was his Scottish Opera Ring, produced at the beginning of the decade. This was widely interpreted as a critique of Blair's Britain, although Albery is quick to point out: 'We never mentioned those words when working on it'. I ask if his production of the Flying Dutchman will have any similar political undertow or will it aim to capture, like his ENO Boris Godunov, a feeling of temporal universality?
'The main thing, like the Ring, is that you're dealing with a myth. It's not gods on this occasion but a figure of myth, the Dutchman, who bumps into a very real world of people like Daland. In a sense, we're trying to create a world where this figure is a fantasy projection of all the people in this tiny community, a figure who both inspires fear and is attractive, offering the idea of escape from the restrictions of that world. So you want to create a suggestion of what that narrow little world is, while at the same time allowing him both to embody the myth and be concrete enough as a character.
'The community we enter is pretty modern but I suppose it's got a Baltic, Soviet-ish feeling with that; it's the present with that slight throwback feeling that you get from all the imagery that one sees in that part of the world. It's modern in a slightly wrecked way, where equipment might be there from before the Wall came down. The spinning doesn't take place in Daland's house, for example, it's in the place where the women work. The sense in this community is that there's just one place for the women to work. What the men do is they go to sea; a few people, like Erik, live on the land. But there are not a lot of choices. The space that the show takes place in is very unreal, the whole space is a dream, if you like: it's like a ship but it isn't a ship. You don't come in and say "I see, that's a real ship", or "I see, that's a real factory". I suppose what we're trying to accomplish is that it's clear from the start that we're in a kind of mythological landscape in which dreams are possible. And yet there's a lot about it that's concrete and real: men can pull ropes on a boat, women can sew in a factory and parties can take place.'
The function of dreams in the the opera, one of Wagner's great psychological innovations, is obviously central to Albery's interpretation. 'There's a dream going on in Senta's head and there's a dream going on in the Dutchman's head: he dreams of the person who'll save him, she dreams of the person who'll take her away from all of this. Erik has a dream of Senta going away with someone else; the women all join the Ballade as if they also have a dream of escape. For some of us it's just that the grass is always greener. The notion of escape and change is there for everybody; there are plenty of Dutchmen around who are living in this sort of psychological mayhem in their heads. Wagner obviously identified hugely with the Dutchman and the notion of the creative artist in the storm of creative chaos and self-destruction: being stormy is the only psychological state that those people can really function in.'
Albery agrees with the view that the opera is in many ways a 'curious hybrid'. He goes on to explain. 'When you've done the Ring, you hear bits that look forward to that conversational mode where you're never quite sure where you're going musically. That feeling emerges sometimes and then other times it reverts back to something that feels, in that context, incredibly old-fashioned. So it's a bit disarming to work on in that way, when you're just getting into staging it like the Ring and then there's a conventional duet and you have to find a way of dealing with that too: it's not easy.'
The Royal Opera will be giving the work in its one act version as originally conceived by Wagner; performing it with intervals, it becomes clear, was never discussed as an option. Albery concedes that it might be 'quite a long sit' but explains that it suits the 'terse way the story's told and this forward momentum it has all the time. It's only really the long duet in the middle act that has that sense of spread, where you feel it could become Ring-like. It is actually a fifteen-minute scene but you could imagine, if it was the Ring, that it would be lasting forty minutes, like the scenes between Brünnhilde and Wotan. You get that sense of time changing shape like you do when you watch the Ring. Whereas the rest of the evening you're hurtling along at a much more manic, nineteenth-century mode.'
The conversation moves on to the cast and I ask Albery about working with Bryn Terfel, who is taking the title role. 'Interestingly it's not a role he's done that often', he points out, 'which for someone of his status is unusual. That's nice because sometimes people have done a role a huge amount and it can feel quite fixed and settled and, although I don't think he's that kind of person anyway, it can happen. But at the same time there are people like Hans-Peter König who has sung Daland many, many times but is still ready to do anything and willing to be inventive with the role. And Anja Kampe has done a handful of Sentas despite being at the beginning of her great success in Europe. I've never done it before and so, weirdly, I'm the neophyte, if that's the right word. The singers are really willing to help, not in terms of how it should be staged but simply by sharing their insights into what's happening emotionally. It's great to work with such generous people.'
This new production of the Flying Dutchman comes after November's Boris Godunov and a new production of Nabucco at the Reisopera in the Netherlands. They are all breakthrough works both for their composers and in terms of the development of the genre, although Albery points out that there's been no deliberate strategy in choosing them.
'To some extent as a freelance you don't have the luxury to choose, and it's chance playing its cards. I'm reviving Don Carlo for Opera North for the third time later this season and going from Nabucco to that is quite interesting. Don Carlo is infinitely more sophisticated in every possible way. So I'm really looking forward to that, much as I enjoyed going back to Nabucco having done it a long time ago, and doing a new production where we made a lot of vast improvements on the time before. The process of Verdi's development is amazing. That's not to say I don't love Nabucco, because I do; its very naivety is part of its charm.'
Nabucco was the last new production Albery brought to Covent Garden, in 1996, a co-production with Welsh National Opera that received a hostile reception in London after being presented in Cardiff.
'We did it at the Welsh first and it was a hundred times better, for lots of reasons. In my opinion it was a far better cast when we did it in Wales. We had Jonathan Summers who is a fantastic Verdi performer and he was in his prime then, I'd worked with him before, he was fantastic as Nabucco. When we did it here, the casting was simply poor. I will say this quite openly: I thought the man who played Nabucco was disinterested; you kill an evening if that part isn't done with incredible commitment. So that was problematic and, if I look back now, it probably wasn't the right show for Covent Garden at that moment, whereas it was very much the right show for Wales, because, even though the whole Brian McMaster regime had gone, that was still a place where you expected something to happen. Somehow the way it was cast and the way it came together there was appropriate for what the production was, and Covent Garden was probably not the right place to have co-produced it with.'
We move on to Albery's relationship with Opera North, which gave him his first production in opera – a co-production with Scottish Opera.
'My relationship has been going with them for over twenty years. There have been several management changes but for some reason it's remained a consistent relationship. It's a very happy place to work for me; they're incredibly consultative and they treat directors very seriously. You're considered completely the equal of conductors and are involved in casting decisions from the very beginning: they would never cast anybody without your agreement. And that's very unusual in this world, I don't really know any other house that can honestly say hand on heart that that's the truth. They're also very adventurous about repertoire, I did Croesus by Keiser and La finta giardiniera there when that opera was considered a complete rarity. Over the years I've done a lot of very odd things there and it's fantastic that they're so brave about repertoire and the way they go about things. It doesn't always work out, but I really admire the adventurousness.
'We're plotting some sort of American series and considering all sorts of operas that people don't know over here. We may or may not end up doing them but it's great to be involved in those open-ended conversations where there's no agenda apart from "hey, let's come up with something interesting."'
Does Albery find himself naturally drawn to the challenges of works that are out of the standard repertory?
'Certainly back in my theatre days, to put it crudely, if you offered me Cymbeline or Hamlet, I'd probably try Cymbeline. My instincts are that it's always more fun, interesting or challenging to take the pieces that either aren't known or are thought of as insoluble. I'm a great champion of German theatre, for example, and I did [Lessing's] Nathan der Weise in Toronto not so long ago. These are great, great pieces that people don't know and I prefer to do that to the 400th Hamlet. That's just me and there are other directors who wouldn't understand that. It's just a different way of looking at life, it's my taste.'
Albery tackles Otello later in the year in Dallas and is relishing the challenge of taking on such a main-stream masterpiece. But he adds with amusement that he's been offered Berlioz Les Troyens three times in his life. 'I've only actually done it once, in a three way co-production that also went to France. I was asked about it some eight years after that, though, and I was going to be doing it in Chicago next year, but it got cancelled for financial reasons. So that's the oddness of freelance life, you wouldn't put much money on being asked to do that three times in your life!'
Does he see these more problematic works as a speciality? 'I've certainly got a "reputation", if that's the right word, for doing big chorus operas. If people are looking for a steady hand to get chorus opera on, I'm probably going to be on someone's list, just because they know I can do War and Peace or Les Troyens.'
With top price tickets for the Flying Dutchman weighing in at well over £200, I ask Albery for his thoughts on opera in the during the Credit Crunch. 'I can tell you the facts', he says bluntly. 'I've had emails from friends in America telling me about the minor opera companies that up until now have gone. New York City Opera have laid off loads of people, LA Opera have also laid off people. I'm going back to work in Santa Fé on a revival of a show in 2010, I think, and they've sent very stern emails saying that I'm not to expect any fee increases from when I last worked there, that sort of thing. So there's clearly a lot of markers going down at the moment. It's exactly as they should be doing, because times are tough.
'But like everybody says, we're nothing like there at the moment. I read the business pages this morning and thousands more jobs have gone in all sorts of industries and I see no reason why what we're interested in shouldn't be affected. Because the crude fact is, if you're thinking of going to the opera tonight and it's going to cost you – if it's Leeds thirty or forty pounds, if it's here at Covent Garden it's going to cost you God knows what – you need money. It's going to be different for the Royal Opera House with no city bonuses or places like Leeds with ordinary middle-class people losing their jobs. So at some knock-on stage it's going to affect everybody. It depends how long it lasts and you don't know, I don't know, and it's pretty clear absolutely nobody else knows.
'Personally, for what it's worth, I'm very interested in generating my own work, which is about being as pro-active as possible about inventing projects. And that's something I've been doing outside the opera world. More site-specific one-off projects which are related to theatre and music. I've been plotting a big show on Lake Ontario for a festival in Toronto using multiple choirs and a big free show for five thousand people down on the shore which will be part of a big summer festival. I'm trying to invent other projects outside the regular work structure that will catch the mood and be fun and exciting to do as well as enticing to a big audience.'
Although he enjoys a wide variety of projects, Albery's obviously impressed with the professionalism that reigns behind the scenes at at Covent Garden. 'I'm dumbstruck with admiration at watching what they do. At the moment, in particular, because it's so much better than when I was here last time. Just the work rate, energy and commitment of the crews here in dealing with this ridiculous turn-around is amazing. I was in here about ten this morning for an eleven o'clock rehearsal and they'd ripped down last night's show and built our sets for an eleven o'clock start. They do this day in, day out. They're doing it again tomorrow and we're working all day on Sunday and they'll be doing another show on Monday. It never stops yet for me all they care about is just making our show as good as they possibly can. We're just one tiny part of the grind that they're living through. So it's very easy to knock these big houses for whatever it is, but the way the people in them work is amazing.'
It's evidently a big contrast with another of Albery's forthcoming projects. 'I'm about to go and do a production in a disused warehouse in May of a new music theatre piece where there'll be almost no infrastructure. We'll blunder our way towards hopefully putting on a fantastic event and having good fun in a completely different way that bears no relationship to working here. And for a freelance it's great to do both of these things. But yes, it's like everything in life, there's the good in all these types of things and I'm always wary of knocking the one at the expense of the other.'
When I ask Albery about any other works he's particularly keen to tackle, he admits that his hit list is 'really quirky' and typically it embraces operas that are a long way from the standard repertory. 'I love The Bassarids by Henze and there's a piece that Paul Daniel put me on to years ago called Saul and David, by Nielsen. I've only ever listened to it once and I remember thinking: that's tricky, interesting and strange. I was listening to Wiliam Bolcomb's A View from the Bridge, a really nice piece of work, really charming and slightly like a musical. I'd like to do another Keiser opera, because the music for Croesus was heart-breakingly beautiful. We got very mixed comments in the press: about sixty percent said what a wonderful discovery and what lovely music, and then forty percent patronised it as not being as good as Handel. I thought that slightly missed the point since it's a different genre, it's much closer to Singspiel, like a precursor of Magic Flute. It's just so delightful and moving in a simple, head-on kind of way.'
Albery's background in spoken theatre seems to have played a role in his having refreshingly fluid view of the operatic canon. Although he spent time in regional repertory theatre – 'I've done some Alan Ayckbourn plays in my day, and enjoyed it' – he speaks with particular fondness of his time running the ICA theatre. 'A lot of the work we did there was work where you started out almost without a show and then during the rehearsal process, with a mixture of writers, actors, dancers, choreographers, composers, you created an event'. Speaking to him, it's clear that it's the challenges, not necessarily traditionally associated with opera, that inspire Albery in his work. He talks of the 'grind of travelling around' and the 'glamour that wears off incredibly fast when you just want to get home. But then again', he adds, 'I wake up every day thinking I'm very lucky being able to do this'.
By Hugo Shirley
Photo Credits: Tim Albery (© Mark Hamilton), ENO's Boris Godunov (© Clive Barda), Nabucco at the Reisopera (© Marco Borggreve); Madama Butterfly, Macbeth and The Fortunes of King Croesus at Opera North.
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