In conversation with Gabriele Lavia

'We're always talking foreign languages with each other. And that's good because it means that there's always a desire to understand the other.'

31 October 2011

Gabriele Lavia

I met with director Gabriele Lavia on the day before the premiere of the San Francisco Opera's new production of Don Giovanni. One of the most important figures in Italian theatre, Lavia brought with him a team of long-term collaborators – set designer Alessandro Camera and costume designer Andrea Viotti – with whom he has explored numerous dramas and operas in theatres all over Italy. With the same team, Lavia has recently directed a new production of Verdi's Attila which premiered at La Scala last June and conducted by Nicola Luisotti. This highly-anticipated production will be staged at the War Memorial Opera House in June 2012.

Always occupying a central role in Italian culture, Lavia's career has traversed the second half of the 20th Century. He has won awards for his work as a film director, but the core and passion of his career has always remained the theatre. In his work as an actor, he has been directed by prestigious artists such as Luigi Squarzina and Giorgio Strehler. He frequently stars in his own productions, with a repertoire ranging from Molière to Shakespeare to Beaumarchais. He has staged numerous operas as well, and his productions have appeared in the most important opera houses. Verdi, Mascagni and Mozart might be seen as his most favoured composers: he has directed, among many others, Luisa Miller in Naples, Cavalleria Rusticana in Verona, Le nozze di Figaro, Così fan tutte and Don Giovanni at the Tokyo Suntory Hall, and several Verdian masterpieces at La Scala. He has also held important institutional positions: he was the artistic co-director of the Eliseo Theatre in Rome, artistic director of the Stable Theatre of Turin, and artistic director of the Festival of Taormina Art.

Lavia is a charismatic figure, and his lifetime devotion to the stage is manifest in his passionate engagement with issues about the life in and of theatre. Our conversation starts from considerations on this new Don Giovanni, and extends over a number of topics that are crucial in his conception of stage direction, acting, and the role of theatre.

First of all, I am curious to hear about his experience at the San Francisco Opera, which also marks his debut in the United States.

"All the artists here are great professionals, and they're incredibly nice and friendly people. You can tell that they love the job that they're doing, that they're happy. And I had a great time with the singers... I've always found myself at ease with the singers. My relationship with opera started a long time ago... it's so many years ago that I can't remember. My first experience as an opera director was at La Scala – I did two years in a row there. It was in the 70's or in the 80's... I can't do too many operas because I'm always so busy in theatre and it's difficult to find the time. But when there's an occasion, I do it. I love it.

And I love using music on stage. Sometimes I even use too much of it. Sometimes I don't use it at all. For example, after our Don Giovanni, I'm going back to Rome and put on stage Schiller's I masnadieri. It's a show that premiered a few months ago, and there I have only pop-rock music, very violent music. There are lots of electric guitars, it's all live. Right after that, I'll do a play by Pirandello, titled Tutto per bene, in which there's only a music that one hears from afar, a guitar music – very sad, almost obsessive. I love listening to music in the theatre. And in the cinema. I... I just love music," he smiles.

What about his relationship with Don Giovanni, and with this Don Giovanni in particular?

"Maestro Nicola Luisotti and I have known each other for years, we've collaborated in the past. And this Don Giovanni was a great occasion to work with him again. We'll be doing Verdi's I masnadieri together in Naples in March. That production is very important for the San Carlo Theatre, and I'm very happy that we're doing it together.

Gabriele LaviaThis is my second Don Giovanni. The first one was in Tokyo, always conducted by Nicola, in a production that was very different from this one. It was a central stage, with the audience all around it, and the orchestra on stage. We could say that Don Giovanni is a story of the profound... so I set the action on a bottomless stage, in a way that the story would take place in the sub-stage, with the usual objects that you can find there – old tables, dusty chairs, pieces of old settings. And it was in contemporary costumes.

This setting, on the other hand, is completely different. It's composed of many, many mirrors, in which characters are reflected, spectators too. In each scene, these mirrors decompose and redefine the space in different manners. The scene is metaphysical, and the only physicality is given by the presence of grass, during the whole opera. Everything unfolds in a strange openness. In this Don Giovanni, we live in a world that is..."


"No," he corrects me, "more than Magrittian I'd say... a little weird" – un pò strano was his Italian expression – "and had we to define it, I'd say it's metaphysical, and therefore symbolical as well."

As he was explaining his ideas, I started thinking of the notion of meta-theatre, and if this would be a key to understanding how he conceives his productions – or perhaps, Don Giovanni in particular. But, of course, that was my own understanding of it. Does he think that the audience will have his same vision, or will be able to read his ideas in the drama? Is "his" Don Giovanni going to be the spectators' Don Giovanni?

"My experience, that now is of almost fifty years of theatre, led me to understand that I never understood anything about theatre. I don't know what it is, and I envy those who know what it is. But I have realized something: nobody ever understands what a director wants. The audience doesn't understand it, the critics don't understand it. And, I believe that, after all, this is not such a bad thing. In fact, it's a plus. Why? Because it means that you are never able to be understood, which is what happens in life, to everyone. We're always talking foreign languages with each other. And that's good because it means that there's always a desire to understand the other.

You ask me what I wanted to tell ['raccontare'] with this story, with this opera. I answer: I don't know. I could tell you a series of absurdities, perhaps very intellectual, philosophical absurdities. But I prefer to say that I don't know. Some works are born in a way in which everybody contributes to the whole concept, including the staging. But this Don Giovanni is a very complicated, highly choreographed mechanism – when you have mirrors going up and down, everything needs to be choreographed in advance, scene by scene.

Nevertheless, theatre is a collective art. And, during rehearsals, every spectacle assumes a unique form. And this is not a limit, but rather a virtue of theatre. The idea of the director as a demiurge that dictates, establishes things, would take life away from theatre. It strips away the specificity, the raison d'être of theatre itself."

These topics remind me of some of the aesthetic and physical dimensions usually associated with the live event: the art of theatre exploits gesture and space and, as Lavia remarks, it exists as a collective enterprise that is also enjoyed collectively. This could be perhaps compared to the more solitary and horizontal, so to speak, experience of literature.

Gabriele Lavia"Literature, the novel," Lavia comments, "is not a close relative of theatre. It's more closely related to cinema. A screenplay, after all, is a novel in which technical terms prevail. Novel and cinema belong to each other. Like every novel, every film could be narrated 'as a once upon a time' ['c'era una volta'], because everything we see in cinema already happened. Novels and films can tell stories, events that will take place in thousands of years. Yet, even if the action takes place in 5021, there's always a moment in which the character, the spaceship captain John Barrymore, said. You need the past tense. Because, in literature and cinema, everything is 'once upon a time.'

In the theatre, this 'once upon a time there was...' doesn't exist. In the theatre, there is. Always in the present tense. Even when we are putting on stage Don Giovanni, this opera set in the past, in the moment of the performance the representation demands the present tense. And the present tense exists only as present tense, everything is born there, in that very moment. As absurd as it may sound, Mozart's music happens in the present time. It grabs that voice – the voice of our Lucas [Meachem], of our Kate [Lindsey], of our Ellie [Dehn], of our Serena [Farnocchia]... And that voice is unique. It's not the voice of which Mozart was thinking. We are re-writing something based on the model of Mozart. For however much this might seem absurd, every tradition is a re-writing. We transport the 1787 Don Giovanni to 2011. Tradition, transportation, transfer, betrayal ['tradizione, trasporto, trasferimento, tradimento']... they're all synonyms. Every tradition is, by definition, a betrayal."

So, by means of this constant translation – this betrayal – theatre cannot but make itself new every time...

"...and this is a great possibility of theatre. Every interpreter not only does change himself or herself, but also the whole opera. Take a painting, The School of Athens. Raphael decided to have Leonardo Da Vinci playing Socrates. Were there another character embodying Socrates – Einstein, Andy Warhol – the whole painting would be different. The fact that our Lucas is Don Giovanni affects the whole opera intimately.

When I say that, one could reply: 'So Mozart is not that important, after all.' Yes, he is. Mozart is really important. Because it's Mozart who offers the possibility of this constant change. If we look at the etymology, for 'change,' we find two different Greek terms: rythmos and metabolé. This latter implies a great change, a 'metabolism.' This figurative metabolism is the source of a cultural metabolism. And it's this metabolé that allows theatre to be that art which cannot die, ever. Cinema, the novel, they will become something else – they already have, with new media – they will die, as we know them. Theatre, precisely because it holds within itself this continuous change, can never die. What is theatre? Theorists might know. I, the only thing I know is that theatre is theatron, locus of the look ['luogo dello sguardo']. That's the only thing I can say."

Theatre exists only once you do it.

"There's no other way. I don't believe that the author is the most important thing in theatre. In the history of dramaturgy, it is different, the author is fundamental. But dramaturgy is something other than theatre. Theatre is the mise-en-scene of dramaturgy. You can't imagine dramaturgy without Chekhov. But Chekhov's plays become a different thing if I stage them. If I only read them... it's more beautiful! Because they have no limits. If I give them limits, if I give them a perimeter – from the Greek, perì, 'boundary,' 'around' – I set boundaries, I put limits around their form."

In this existence in the present tense, theatre necessitates a spectator, an audience. What is the position of the spectator in theatre compared to the one at the cinema? I recalled an old interview in which Lavia himself noted the fact that theatre can never be as seductive as cinema: this latter can exploits techniques, such as montage, that affect us in a way that is different from that of the actor's body on stage.

"Cinema is seductive, yes. But when we say seductive ['seducente'], we can also use a synonym – entertaining, diverting ['divertente']. What does divertire – to entertain, to divert – mean? It comes from divertere – to deviate, to detour. To take something and move it to another place. Cinema has this power of taking the spectators and diverting them 24X a second. Cinema takes you elsewhere. The spectator is always diverted into an elsewhere. Theatre is already that elsewhere that does not divert the spectatorinstead, it converts. 'To convert,' from its etymology, has the following meaning: 'to take you precisely there,' in that very place. There, where you are.

And who is the con ['with'] of the conversion? With whom are you moving to that elsewhere? Yourself. Theatre forces you to meet your origins. It was born in this way, as the locus of the look – and not the locus of the sight. In life, when I'm looking at a person, I don't see a person. A person is looking at me, and in turn I see a being who is interested in me, who is bored with me, who is opposed to me... But what is it that is looking at me in the theatre? Myself. In the theatre, I am converted by my being; and, in that being, I recognize my selfhood – in philosophy, this is called ipseity. This is the function of theatre. And this happens only in theatre. People forget about this because theatre seems to be too specialized, too important, too deep. When everything is an industry, mass media can't understand the power of theatre. But theatre is the most crucial event in the history of humankind. This is the reason why theatres were placed outside the polis, outside the city. Because in the theatre you recognize yourself, what you are. You go to the polis, and there you are together with everyone. But when you see Oedipus, Agamemnon, the Maenads... you see the most profound part of yourself. Once you know who you are, you can go back to the city, and you can live with all the others. Theatre is irreplaceable. And even if some think they don't know it consciously, they know it unconsciously."

What about the moments in which we do not recognize ourselves? Is it possible for theatre not to happen?

Gabriele Lavia"Sometimes we're not good at making the theatre happen. It's very difficult to represent the origins of humankind, to make this myth happen in front of the spectator. Are we able to do that? It's a really difficult thing. Because we are dealing with our body. And this is the problem of the actor's art. In the moment when we are on stage, we have to make our body – 'to make' in the Greek sense, poiein, to make, to create, to 'poetise.' We have to create, to poetise our body. We have to make our body human. It's not easy, on the stage, to make a human body out of a body. As it's not easy to paint apples, pears, shoes. Van Gogh painted peasants' shoes. He painted them, he let you look at them, and through them you see a world of suffering, toil, sweat, pain... Or those pears and apples by Cezanne... though them, you also see the room and the world around – only by looking at them, and letting your self be looked at by them. That's not easy – to turn pears, shoes, in those pears, those shoes. To turn your body into that body. And, sometimes, I think that it's more difficult to be an actor than to be a painter. Because you don't have to be beautiful to paint beauty. The body, exposed on stage, is so damned physiological. We have to fight with physiology. It's impossible to be an actor."

People do it. You do it.

"I try, but I never succeed."

Earlier in our conversation, he touched on the issue of the intersection between media – cinema and theatre in particular. In the recent decades, the encounter between old forms and new media has become one of the standard ways of experiencing opera and theatre. What does he think of broadcasting theatre and opera into the big or small screen?

"Opera is complicated, because, unfortunately, it's very expensive, and there are many, many aspects to take care of. If you film it, acting becomes even more crucial. And singers would love to train more and act more, but there's never time. There should be a more theatrical preparation, because it's always theatre that we're doing. But I see that something is changing, the tradition is changing. I see that lots of singers are wonderfully trained. In our Don Giovanni there are singers from different schools, but you can see that everyone of them is seeking a physical availability.

On the other hand, I don't think that a TV direction can ever do justice to an opera. It's a different thing. Unless you say, 'Let's make a film out of this opera,' – that's wonderful, because you can stop any time you need, you can adjust the lighting, you can tell another story... Don Giovanni would be perfect for that, as you can see from that wonderful Joseph Losey film [from 1979]. Così fan tutte even more."

Direction affects any work drastically, then. And yet, as he remarked earlier, the figure of the director can never fulfil the role of a demiurge, proposing a univocal or totalizing concept. This is perhaps even more evident in the theatre, which exists in a plurality of live experiences – those of the actors and of the spectators.

"Yes. Theatre, luckily, escapes directing. Or better, if I may say, direction is a necessary illness of theatre. It's an illness that will be overcome when a conscious actor is born. And us, directors, will get out of the way. There are so many schools of directing theatre, but the only way to know a text is to go and read the text. If you want to know Plato, go and read Plato, and abandon yourself to it like you're in the water. If you don't, you will always have a certain way to look at things, one vision, one point of view. Of course, we can't do without a point of view in the Western culture. History of humankind has gone in that direction, we need a point of view. Descartes fooled us all. We're bound to consider everything around us like objects, placed in front of us, for us. And that's terrible. The director's vision, the critic's vision... there's something arrogant in all of that. And sometimes, some visions try to shock in any possible way... sex, blood, urine... it seems like the work of a provincial director who wants to shock at any cost. But how can you shock a humanity that managed to create the atomic bomb?

After all, Reiner Maria Rilke was right, when he wrote, in one of his elegies, 'All other creatures look into the open with their whole eyes. But our eyes, turned inward, are set all around it like snares, trapping its way out to freedom.' This is the Western world, and it's been following this direction since the advent of Judaism-Christianity, with the idea that man is the subject, and everything else is man's object. These are ideas that brought the Western world – its consumerism, its capitalism – where it is now, to its end. Mine are simple words to describe a complicated situation. And you cannot simply find answers, because that's too easy. But you need to ask yourself some questions."

By Marina Romani


Photo Credits: Alessandro Camera's set design for the SF Opera production of Don Giovanni; Molière's Le malade imaginaire, Compania Lavia Anagni (last photo). Credits are unknown from the remaining images. This website does not own these credits. Please contact the website if you want the photos to be credited or removed.



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