On Friday 21 December 2007, Opera North will play host to one of the most important operatic world premieres the UK has seen in the last few years. After Flight, his acclaimed opera for Glyndebourne, Jonathan Dove has created a new opera based on the Pinocchio story, and it promises to be a riveting spectacle for audiences of all kinds. The production premieres in Leeds, then travels to Salford in February before coming to Sadler's Wells for several performances later that month. I caught up with director Martin Duncan and mezzo-soprano Victoria Simmonds, who is playing Pinocchio, to find out more about the production and the score - and why Opera North's challenging programming helps it continue to be first amongst the country's touring opera companies.
The creative team's hopes for the opera are clear enough. 'It seems like Jonathan Dove has done that rare thing in the opera world and created a work which is suitable for adults and children alike' explains Duncan. 'He was determined about that from the start.'
But the director also makes it clear that this isn't going to be a plastic stage rendition of a cartoon. 'What Jonathan and Alasdair Middleton (the librettist) did was to go back to Carlo Collodi's original book about Pinocchio. I think most people are aware of the story only from the Disney movie, but the book is a far deeper thing. Collodi wrote weekly episodes about Pinocchio and didn't know where the story was going. At one point he left Pinocchio for dead but there was a public outcry and he was forced to write a further thirty episodes about him!' Victoria Simmonds admits that the comparison between Disney and Collodi isn't all that important to her, however: 'I can't really say that I've watched the Disney version since being a child so I haven't been "working against it" as such. But it's certainly the case that he's not such a sweet little thing in the opera. He's mischievous, and the things that happen to him are dark and serious. It's still enormous fun, but Jonathan and Alasdair haven't shied away from having sinister episodes.'
Duncan goes on to elaborate the structure of the piece. 'In the opera, after Pinocchio is created from a piece of wood by Geppetto and is given life, he goes off on a series of adventures - that's why it's called The Adventures of Pinocchio. We see him encounter a vast array of interesting characters, and it's full of cliff hangers because of the episodic nature of the original stories. You keep thinking, "is he going to survive and escape?". He's looked after by the Blue Fairy, who keeps returning in different guises: at the beginning she appears as a dead person, then as Pinocchio's sister, then as the mother figure. Eventually, she gives him life as a real boy, and he learns the meaning of goodness and altruism. There are all kinds of characters in it - foxes, whales, cats - with whom he has various encounters, but in the course of the episodic structure there is the through line of the central character. It's often very dark and scary, which the Disney version was going to be originally, until Disney himself came along and said it all had to be ironed out. But I think children enjoy the scary stuff, so long as they know it's all going to turn out happily in the end.'
Both interviewees feel the music is very special. Simmonds explains that 'each character's got his or her own style; and there's a theme in the orchestra for Pinocchio, for instance. It's quite conversational and natural and it moves quickly, yet there are episodes where it's more reflective. It's not overly Romantic, but it's got its big lyric moments.' And Duncan feels that 'although it's a family opera, he's not patronising; Jonathan writes the music he writes. But it's marvellously accessible - fantastically colourful and varied. The orchestration is brilliant and there are some almost Wagnerian climaxes at times, but there's also plenty of tuneful, toe-tapping stuff that families will love. I think it's especially clever how he uses music as a visual element: when Geppetto is making Pinocchio out of a piece of wood, there are all kinds of wooden, scraping sounds in the orchestra, and the Blue Fairy is depicted by chiming bell sounds.
'I think Jonathan has created something very special in this piece' he continues. 'It reminds me of another fairytale opera, Prokofiev's The Love for Three Oranges - Pinocchio is the modern equivalent and I see it having a long life. Next year, the production is going to Chemnitz in Germany, and Minnesota Opera is interested as well.'
Opera North has pushed the boat out on this production, as Duncan says. 'Technically, it's very complex. Because of the episodic nature of the libretto, there's a new location every four or five minutes and ten or more locations in every act, which is very unusual in opera. I've just seen the set arrive, and we've got to make it work now, but it looks wonderful. You're taken to all kinds of places - Geppetto's home, the forest, in the water, under the water - and the costumes for characters such as the cricket and the pigeon [pictured] are incredibly beautiful.' Simmonds agrees: 'I haven't worked with such an exciting team in a long time. There was a buzz on the very first day for the model showing and it hasn't let up. The pictures of the set and ideas were really inspiring. It's a very active production for me - I have to run and sing, and cartwheel and sing. I even love some of the deliberately 'low-tech' effects which are really fun - the audience can have a good laugh while trying to find out how they work!'
This is the first time that Victoria Simmonds has worked for Opera North and she's loving every minute of it. 'I only knew a few of my co-stars beforehand', she tells me, 'but they're all lovely, and I'm not just saying that for the sake of it. Even the chorus has been really wonderful - they are very positive about this production because they have lots to do and are particularly important in it. Jonathan Summers, who plays Geppetto, has been in the business for years; you can learn so much from people like that. He's so supportive and really cares about you. He's always saying "take it easy".'
Meanwhile, Martin Duncan explains what his role as the director of a world premiere opera is. 'It's been like putting on a huge musical in an opera timescale. Billy Elliott had four weeks of previews; we have four sessions on the stage, four orchestral rehearsals and we open!
'I feel very strongly that my role is to interpret Jonathan and Alasdair's voices onstage - to produce it the way they want to see it and be true to their intentions. When you're staging a new opera for the first time, I don't think it's right to impose conceptions on it. You must be true to the story and the writing, which is why I've been through the whole thing with the designers, for example, to make sure that we're translating the opera to the stage in a true way. That's what I see as my chief responsibility. There's a fine line between music theatre and opera, and the company is loving being involved in something on this scale.'
The pair explain how they came to be where they are today. According to Martin Duncan, 'it was not a conscious decision to become a director. I worked for twenty years as an actor and composer for the theatre, and I played the double bass and keyboards in the pieces. I directed my own musicals and it was all escalating. People kept saying "You should get into opera" and I said "Very nice, but how do you do that?". Then in 1990 Opera North came to me. I was very lucky because ENO and Opera North were looking to hire theatre directors for opera productions at that time - they wanted more theatrical bite. So in 1990 I did a double bill and that was it! I never acted again, though not by choice. It was simply that I suddenly had about ten operas to direct and didn't have time to do anything else. I later ran the Nottingham Playhouse and the Chichester Festival Theatre. I just count myself lucky to have had all these wonderful opportunities, and Opera North has been particularly fantastic. They have the daring to say "Let's do this unknown masterpiece", which is how I ended up directing something like The Thieving Magpie [which Duncan directed there to great acclaim], whose overture is really famous but which nobody really knows as an opera. Yet the story is really great!'
For Simmonds it also took a while to reach her career in opera. 'I used to sing in the church choir and things like that. Gradually, I started to think of acting as a career because I love being onstage. Then I was taken to Opera North and Welsh National Opera on tour - there was no one formative moment, but I was drawn to what I saw and heard and I went on from there. I'm very lucky; I love working with people who are pulling together to make something work. Some days it's just like any other job and you have a bad time. But then you get a really great job like Pinocchio to remind you why you did it in the first place. Singing and being onstage is fabulous.'
Simmonds' only future UK opera engagement that she can talk about is La Cenerentola at Garsington in 2009. She says she would love to have another go at Carmen, which she played for Raymond Gubbay at the Royal Albert Hall ('I might have done a couple of performances at ENO but it clashed with Pinocchio'), and to sing some Handel is also an ambition of hers. Duncan has a full year ahead: 'I'm coming back to Opera North next year to do a new production of A Midsummer Night's Dream as part of the Shakespeare festival, which is great. Then I'm going to direct Pinocchio in Germany - in German with a German cast, which could be jolly interesting, I think! Then at the end of the year I'm going to Cologne to direct another new piece called Adriana's Fall. I love working on new operas, because when you do Traviata or Figaro, everyone knows it and the critics have all seen them fifty times, but a premiere is a new experience for everyone.'
He also says he'd like to set up a repertory theatre company in an unusual venue in London, where the same group of actors would perform lots of different works. 'It could be like when Larry Olivier had the same company of actors like Maggie Smith and Derek Jacobi when they were young, and all the productions were performed by great people right down the cast. The public absolutely loves getting that sort of relationship with a company and it's a long held dream.'
To conclude, Duncan puts the scale of Pinocchio in the context of Opera North's resources and the atmosphere of opera in the UK at the moment. 'I think it's fantastic that Opera North have permitted a daring project like Pinocchio in this day and age. There are twenty-eight named parts; the orchestra is massive; even ENO aren't doing this kind of thing nowadays. But I think it will really pay off, and it's very much in the tradition of Opera North. In the seventeen or eighteen years I've worked with them they've always forged ahead into the unknown, and it's remarkable to mount a production of this scale in these times of revival-heavy opera seasons.'
Pinocchio premieres at Opera North from 21 December 2007. The production continues until March 2008 and some tickets remain over the holiday period.