Interview with Don Giovanni director Oliver Mears
By Ciara Conway
Oliver Mears: ‘The only deadly sin in opera is it being boring’.
In November Oliver Mears presents his final production, Mozart’s Don Giovanni, with NI Opera before he takes up the prestigious position of artistic director at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, London. Oliver Mears has been director of NI Opera since its inception in 2010. He was presented with a blank slate which meant coming up with a clear company identity and creating work that appeals to everybody. The fundamentals in starting afresh were apparent to Mears – an immediate and direct production style, the use of local talent, low ticket prices, and challenging the pre-conceptions of opera. His productions deliver deep dramatic complexities while reinforcing the idea that opera is for everyone to engage with. He has been an ambassador for opera in Northern Ireland, has developed strong aesthetic values and cultivated a fundamental identity for NI Opera. Known for informing his productions with the locality of their surroundings, Mears brings his 1960s maritime based Don Giovanni to the Belfast stage which is sure to excite. CultureHUB wish him the best in London and look forward to Don Giovanni at the Grand Opera House on the 18-19 November.
Hi Oliver. Thanks for meeting with me. I’d like to start with the current public demand for contemporary opera on stage. Why do think it is so low?
I think that the big reason is that since World War Two there was been a divergence between the kind of music the audience want to hear and the kind of music the composers are interested in composing. Audiences remain very much enchanted by melody; modern music is now equated with something that is quite alienating and just hard to listen to. And that means that people are less likely to take a risk on seeing a new opera because they think it’s going to be hard on the ear. When you look at people like Verdi and Puccini they were very obsessive about the libretti they chose, which texts they chose when they were writing their operas and they were very preoccupied about stories and drama and maybe that’s not quite as strong as now as it once was. I also think that people many more options in their free time. There’s cinema, there’s also TV; they don’t need to go out anymore if they want to have an entertaining evening. And I think opera is a victim of that. So I think all of those reasons combined mean that there’s fewer operas written and fewer new operas that are put on. It’s also a real investment to pay for a commission. It’s expensive, and you’re never going to sell as many tickets with the same prices that you would for Madam Butterfly.
So could you tell us a little bit about the selection process when choosing an opera season?
I think there are definitely principles you have to apply when you’re choosing a season. Of course it depends first on how many operas you can afford to put on. But I think one of the principles of course is balance. You want to have a good range to offer the audience over the course of eight or nine months. So you’ll want to have something that’s in the Italian repertoire, which is Verdi or Puccini or Rossini. You’ll probably want to have something from the German repertoire: Mozart, Wagner. You might want to have something from the Baroque repertoire: Handel, Rameau; and you might also want to have something that’s contemporary, or which is post-war so
Benjamin Britten or Thomas Ades. Now in our case we only do three or four new productions a year so we probably get a mixture of those different elements. Balance is really important, and cost of course. So doing a Handel opera which has got six principle roles, no chorus, and a small band is much more affordable for a company like ours than to do Wagner’s Tannhauser which has got an enormous cast, an enormous orchestra and an enormous chorus. And also people have expectations when they’re going to see a Wagner opera, which is that it’s going to be very spectacular. And spectacle is expensive. So we’ve only ever produced one Wagner opera, which was The Flying Dutchman, and one big Verdi which was Macbeth. So we’ve always got to balance what our resources are with what our audience want.
And what’s the most challenging part of directing a Wagner opera like The Flying Dutchman?
Well, I think all operas are challenging in different ways and have different challenges. So, for example Handel, from a stage director’s point of view, it poses challenges because of the unique ABA structure. So in other words you have the musical theme, followed by a different musical theme, and then you go back to the original musical theme. This may last anywhere from four or five minutes up to seven or eight minutes. And when you’re directing a performer you need to have a journey for that performer over the course of seven or eight minutes and you have to be able to justify why this music is coming back. I guess one of the big problems as I see it is, in creating work, not just as a stage director but as a commissioner, is that I want my audience to be gripped and engaged by what we’re doing. And too often opera is considered to be boring.
Is there some kind of reaction you want from people?
Well, I think you want an emotional reaction.
A controversial reaction?
Well controversy can play a role. But deliberate provocation can lead to rather empty results on stage. Something I’ve been accused of is deliberately being provocative or controversial but that’s certainly not how I’ve ever seen it. You need to go back to these pieces and why they were written, and always they were written by composers who were slightly out of kilter with their time, or maybe particularly liberal and humanist for their times and saw their role as challenging the status quo. And I think in order to be true to these works one has to represent that on stage and acknowledge that these pieces are almost uncontrollable living breathing works that deserve to have their full complexity expressed on stage.
I’m wondering if you could tell us about your take on Don Giovanni for this upcoming production.
The production was originally produced in Norway in a place called Bergen, which is a coastal town and gets a lot of money from the oil and maritime industries, and cruise ships. Part of our aesthetic is to reflect and resonate with history, society, and culture and I guess we tried to do the same with Don Giovanni in that cruise ships are a big part of the economy and social history there so we decided to set the whole thing on a
luxury cruise ship. Because it is a self-contained environment that seemed to be like a good substitute for Seville which is the original setting for the piece. And in the original opera people are always running into each other, it seems a strange coincidence but on a cruise ship it didn’t seem so strange. And also because of the social class, particular of the era we were setting it, in the early 60s, things like nobility and aristocracy were still important then in a way they are maybe not quite so important now. So, there were all those reasons that led us to that take on it.
In Queen’s last week you spoke about your first live opera experience in London. Which opera was it?
Well, I saw a couple of operas at the Royal Opera House and I was very struck by the music. I think the first opera I ever saw was Katya Kabanova. It’s not a particularly well-known opera, it’s by Janacek and the music is absolutely sensational. Then I saw a production of Lady Macbeth, a Shostakovich opera, at English National Opera and that’s the one that got me thinking I’d be interested in doing this as a career. I started working there with a director called Richard Jones, he’s brilliant, and I was very fortunate to be able to work with him for a few years and ever since then it’s mainly been opera.
Who is your favourite composer?
Well, I guess I’ve got a few. I mean Shostakovich is probably always going to be my favourite again because it’s so raw and emotional and immediate in its effect, and obviously the great opera composers Verdi, Wagner and Mozart. Mahler is also brilliant.
What has been your favourite production with NI Opera?
Probably two. The Tosca that we did, which was our first big production we did in Derry where we moved the audience around the evening to three different venues. It was a great experience and we had a great cast. It was the first thing that we did here and there was a really great energy to it. The venues were amazing. So that will always be a special experience. Then Salome – so many elements have to come together, the orchestra need to be on form, the piece needs to be great, you need to have good ideas and all of that has to mesh together to create something incredible for a couple of performances. And that Salome was one for me that worked very, very well. So I would say that those two performances are the two that are closest to my heart.
So what do you see for the future of NI Opera?
The future will be defined by my successor, whoever he or she may be. And that’s really exciting because I’m sure they will have lots of different thoughts and ideas to me. I hope the fundamental identity of the company is sustained and that identity to me is the use of local talent, particularly singing and design talent, the idea of productions being on some level informed by where these productions are being put on, i.e. here in Northern Ireland; the idea that opera is for everyone and that opera needs to engage with everyone – the immediate level is really important as well. Hopefully those principles and values will be just as important to whoever succeeds
me as they were to me because there is an enormous amount of talent here and when one can channel it to the stage then there are some fantastic results that are possible.