Head and Heart

Director Robert Carsen brings a Canadian temperament to the world’s great opera houses
A Carsen production of La Boheme. Click for larger image.
Photo: Annemie Augustijns, courtesy Vlaamse Opera
Nine fifty-five a.m.; the stage of Zurich’s regal Opernhaus. Robert Carsen is on all fours, surrounded by a huddle of burly men. The orchestra is already tuning, but the director is not ready. Pointing, crawling, pleading his case to the gathering of hunched hulks, he is unhappy with the scenery floor. “Das ist not original . . . Non, non, nicht richtig,” he implores in a patented Euro-mélange. Though he is idiomatically fluent in English, French, German, and Italian, “the point,” he later relates, “is to make your point.” And at five minutes to rehearsal, the point is a patch of clumsily laid floor panelling around the prompter’s box. “But when does it come?” he presses on. Parquet is technically not in the stage director’s portfolio. But Robert Carsen is nothing if not a details man.

The maestro, Christoph von Dohnányi, with his distinguished white mane, is shuffling his way to the orchestra pit rostrum. The stage manager, a sprightly woman wearing a headset, attempts to break up the last-minute technical summit; this is, after all, only the first stage and orchestra rehearsal — more like a musical meet-and-greet than a serious creative session — and opening night is still two weeks away. There will be no lighting, no makeup, just a few token costume pieces; even the ubiquitous chorus has the morning off. Coolly milling about backstage, humming, swigging from water bottles, and muttering to themselves in nineteenth-century Italian, the singers greet colleagues with cosmetic charm. They know the stage and orchestra drill: give just enough to show the maestro what you can do while remaining firmly in your personal and vocal comfort zone. Most tend to mark their acting during these rehearsals as well. Not with Carsen. Even as he is tying up negotiations on the flooring situation, the tenor is getting a note on the timing of his first entrance, and a Chaplinesque gag is being worked into the secondary baritone’s short opening aria. It is announced that there will be a kritik following the rehearsal.

At two minutes to ten, Carsen dashes into the wings. Over the next 120 seconds, he shakes hands with half a dozen people ranging from suit to stained overalls clad, approves the prima donna’s shoes, rejects a servant’s wig, signs off on a production poster mock-up, reviews the next week’s rehearsal plan, and explains to an assistant the excruciating details of a close friend’s death the night before. At ten o’clock sharp, the diminutive director slips into an upholstered seat in the twelfth row, just as the mighty opening chords of Puccini’s Tosca ring through the house. By the time the heavy red velvet curtain swings up, three measures later, he is already whispering notes to two aides perched over either shoulder.

At fifty-four, Toronto-born Robert Carsen is one of the world’s most successful operatic stage directors. Though he has spent most of his career in Europe, in a profession of prima donnas, his obsession with the minutiae of the theatre is balanced by a refreshing sense of flexibility, versatility, and good old Canadian reasonableness. “I don’t throw tantrums,” he says in a measured yet indefinite mid-Atlantic accent. “Art is in the details, as they say, but theatre is also a big compromise. As a director, you have no choice but to enjoy that — to embrace it.”

In many ways, it was this attention to detail that started Carsen on the road to directing. The son of German immigrants Clementine Nahm and Walter Carsen, whose name today adorns a room at the Art Gallery of Ontario and the National Ballet of Canada headquar-ters, the younger Carsen grew up in a cultured environment: “Toronto was an exciting place back then [in the ’60s and ’70s]. The coc did some great work; Seiji Ozawa was at the symphony; then we always went to see shows in New York.” Captivated by theatre, he quit York University to pursue acting studies at the Old Vic Theatre School in Bristol, England. “I wanted to be an actor,” he recounts, “until one day, one of my teachers, an old Austrian named Rudi Shelley, pulled me aside and suggested maybe I should consider directing. I took this to mean he thought I was a bad actor, but he said, ‘No, it’s just that you actually seem more interested in what other people are doing — and in telling them what to do.’ That got me thinking.”

The instincts for observation and persuasion Shelley noted in the young Canadian were honed into skills through an intensive phase of assisting: “The old adage that it takes about fifteen years to become an overnight success . . . well, that happened to me,” he concedes. With only rudimentary piano skills, he had never really entertained the possibil-ity of working in opera until, in 1980, he landed an assistant director’s job at the Spoleto Festival in Italy. This led to a longer-term association with the Glyndebourne Festival, a prestigious summer opera festival in Sussex, where Carsen assisted many of the important British and American opera stage directors of the day.

Rarely does the term “break” accurately apply to the career of an artist. In Carsen’s case, remounting or reviving another director’s production got him noticed. Based on a successfully managed revival for his house, Hugues Gall, the general manager of Geneva’s Grand Theatre, gave him his own assignment: a new version of Arrigo Boito’s Mefstofele. “He took a chance on me,” says Carsen, “but I was ready.” The production scored a major success, leading to three more commissions for the Grand Theatre. The Mefistofele was picked up by the Metropolitan Opera in New York and four other companies, while its director became a hot ticket on the European opera scene, with a quick succession of engagements in Bordeaux, Lyons, and Aix-en-Provence, and a cycle of Puccini operas in Antwerp. When Gall moved on to head the Opéra national de Paris, he brought several Carsen productions from Geneva, and during his Parisian tenure hired him for seven more.

Many of these early productions were the fruits of collaborations with designer and fellow Canadian Michael Levine. “The relationship between director and designer varies from collaboration to collaboration and from piece to piece,” explains Carsen, who, as director, acts as the front man for his creative team, and is at liberty to choose the set, costume, and lighting designers he deems appropriate for each commission. “Essentially, the designer is there to give a physical life to [the director’s] ideas,” he says. In Levine, he found a partner who could create scenery “full of emotional depth,” he says. “Our job is to do justice to the piece. That means reading it together carefully, listening closely, and defining for ourselves what the piece is all about.”

This credo has occasionally landed him afoul of audiences and critics who accuse him of making himself more important than the piece. His productions often shift the action from their original settings to different locations and epochs. Occasionally, characters not in the composer’s score will be interpolated for symbolic elaboration. There is neither an ocean nor an island in Carsen’s production of Ariadne auf Naxos, but a row of mute doubles emulates the gestures of each protagonist. His Tosca transfers the action from nineteenth-century Rome to Milan circa the 1950s. In 2004, the Salzburg Festival was scandalized by the transformation of Richard Strauss’s elegiac Viennese comedy into an austere, bunker Der Rosenkavalier. Some in Italy were shocked when Carsen’s Venice production of La Traviata replaced Verdi’s romantic evocation of nineteenth-century Paris with a contemporary location populated by characters in street clothes; his 2006 production of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide made headlines for its row of political leaders, including Blair, Bush, Berlusconi, and Putin, singing and high-kicking in their underwear.

In response to his critics, Carsen is polite yet unapologetic: “I am not trying to make things up or ‘fix’ these pieces,” he offers respectfully. “So many of our conceptions, or preconceptions, of operas simply do not correspond to what’s actually in the pieces . . . The ideas for these productions come entirely out of the text. For example, Richard Strauss wrote Der Rosenkavalier four years before World War I. The Feldmarschall, who is never seen but casts a huge, frightening shadow over the whole piece, is the head of the Austrian army. From Hofmannsthal’s text, all we know about Faninal [the ingenue’s father] is that he sells arms to Holland. These militaristic aspects are written in by the librettist. He didn’t have to, but he did. So it only seemed logical we address them.”

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1 comment(s)

Jim DavisJune 23, 2009 08:36 EST

This is one of the most interesting pieces relating to opera I've read in a long time and I have quite happily sent it around the world.

All I can say is...More, more, more.

Jim Davis, Kiev, Ukraine

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