Commanding Lady: Francesca Zambello and The Tsarina’s Slippers [The Royal Opera’s The Tsarina’s Slippers (Cherevichki), 20 November-8 December 2009]

Written by: Mansel Stimpson

Mansel Stimpson talks to the versatile director Francesca Zambello as she embarks on a production uniting the Royal Opera and the Royal Ballet…

Francesca Zambello. Photograph: Daniel Chavkin

I like to think of myself as a highly organised person, but in this respect I feel sure that I cannot begin to match Francesca Zambello, the only stage director who can claim to be equally famous for her work in opera and in musicals while from time to time also taking in plays and works conceived for television. She’s undoubtedly the captain of her ship and one with a sure hand on the tiller. When we meet at Covent Garden to discuss their new production of Tchaikovsky’s The Tsarina’s Slippers her schedule is such that she can only allot me something under forty minutes rather than the ‘more’ that I usually seek. As if to reassure me, she tells me when I arrive that despite this shorter time I will get all that I need. She’s right, of course, because this highly professional woman knows exactly how to handle an interview. She may control quite rigidly her replies – I’ve rarely met an interviewee whose answers so conclusively lead to a full-stop – but, unlike most people when interviewed, there’s no slack, no comment that couldn’t be quoted in full and be of interest to the reader.

When interviewing singers it is never surprising to learn that they started in a choir after which people began to notice some special quality in the voice, but it’s often a more complicated route that leads to somebody becoming a director. Not so, though, with Francesca. “I was always interested in storytelling and even as a child I was very active in it. I would write plays or stories and get my friends to put them on in the basement, make the costumes and provide the music. So clearly I was directing at an early age.”

That she should have been drawn to musicals when very young was natural enough because her mother was appearing in shows on Broadway, but her home was not one where the taste in music was circumscribed. “My grandmother was a classical pianist and, although I wouldn’t call myself a good pianist, I did study the piano while growing up, along with the flute and the clarinet. So love of music was definitely part of my childhood and I bless my family for that. We went to all kinds of performances – theatre music, classical music, everything – but nowadays it’s just not part of people’s worlds to the same extent.”

Costume designs by Tatiana Noginova for Zambello's Tsarina's Slippers for the Royal Opera, 2009

Although Francesca was born in New York, her father was Italian and at the age of ten her life changed significantly. “We came to Paris because my father was on business there and we lived not only in Paris but in Vienna, Frankfurt and London. I graduated from high school at the American School of Paris and then went to Colgate University in New York State.” This varied background was something that proved crucial in developing Francesca’s outlook since it is undoubtedly rooted in a mix of American and European sensibilities. “Learning a lot of languages early on is very helpful and it gives you a perspective on the world which makes you more understanding. Language is one of the tools you need to direct, so being able to communicate in more than one language is very useful, but even more important is the cultural vista that you get by living in more than one country at an early and impressionable age. I think that now as an adult I’m open and accepting wherever I’m working. And that’s part of it, because you have to adapt to whatever various cultures bring you: audiences are different everywhere, as are the ways in which people work, actors act, singers sing, dancers dance. Indeed, that’s one of the amazing things about what I do: the whole polyglot international tapestry of it.”

Getting started as a director can be difficult, but Francesca was fortunate in being able to work with a number of directors, not least assisting Jean-Pierre Ponelle in a number of theatres. “When I met up with him he was a major opera director and I became more and more interested in opera at that time. I like realism in acting, but I like too something that can involve a bigger visual canvas. I was drawn to opera both by its way of story-telling and by the possibilities in it for less realism.” Becoming resident at the San Francisco Opera as a staff producer was a natural step forward, but in some ways the most significant venture for her in the 1980s lay elsewhere. “I got very lucky and ran my own theatre for seven years. It was a small theatre in Milwaukee, Wisconsin called the Skylight Music Theater. Milwaukee is a small city in the middle of the country, but there was a lot of music there on account of people who had come for Germany and Scandinavia. We did eight shows a year: some operas, musicals, Gilbert & Sullivan: so a real mix. It was invaluable because I got to direct everything and, while a director can learn by watching people, you only get better by doing it. That way you come to understand more about words and music, how to put things together, how to story-tell and how to make something work on stage. It’s hard to explain but all artists have to discover how to bring into existence the ideas that come to them, the question being how do you write it, or paint it, or, in my case, direct it?”.

A backcloth for The Tsarina's Slippers. Design: Mikhail Mokrov

Many directors specialise to some degree but Francesca is not drawn to that and, indeed, embraces this country (her homes are New York and London) for that very reason. “In England there’s more of a mix in the theatre of people doing all kinds of things, and I don’t think that anybody should be pigeon-holed. After all, conductors conduct symphonies as well as operas and I feel that a director needs a spectrum of work – something big, something small, with music and without, something text-driven, something operatic. I’ve always worked in different parts of the theatre. For some years I did more opera but recently it’s become more balanced, and that’s probably as much from a desire to reach a broader range of audiences as it is to work on different kinds of material. But whatever one does one is always looking for something that touches you emotionally, or at least I do. Only then do ideas about it emerge. If you try to direct something about which you don’t feel passionate, it doesn’t work and that’s because you need your passion if you are going to ignite other people.”

In the case of Tchaikovsky’s The Tsarina’s Slippers, Francesca’s latest staging for Covent Garden, her passion for it is not something new. She previously directed this fairy-tale opera for the Wexford Festival in 1993. At that time Wexford was being run by Elaine Padmore who is now The Royal Opera’s Director of Opera. “Elaine and I always said that we wanted to revisit it some time and to do that in a bigger theatre just so as to be able to do the work more justice. We felt too that any such undertaking should be one that could give proper emphasis to the ballet music in the piece. There’s a lot of that in the second half especially, some of it in Tchaikovsky’s recognised ballet style but not all: there’s a ballet of undines and underwater creatures, a minuet, a polonaise, a Cossack dance, a Ukrainian folk-dance. That’s a lot.”

A storyboard for The Tsarina's Slippers. Design: Mikhail Mokrov

Although known of under its Russian title of Cherevichki, The Tsarina’s Slippers remains something of a rarity despite being a work that pleased its composer who nine years after its lacklustre debut took the trouble to revise it, this later version premiered in 1887 being what will be heard at Covent Garden. Like Puccini, Tchaikovsky is a popular composer who has sometimes suffered from a kind of snobbish disdain on the part of would-be intellectuals but Francesca reserves her own disdain for their attitude to these men of genius. “I think that Puccini is one of our staples and now with Tchaikovsky we have this incredible opportunity to present a work that is scarcely known but by someone whose works are produced in every opera house and by every ballet company. The music is magic: fantastic, gorgeous themes; tunes and melodies that you will take with you. So I’m hoping that it will catch on and ultimately join the repertory. Once the Tchaikovsky opera you heard was always Eugene Onegin and if you go back twenty or thirty years The Queen of Spades was hardly a repertory piece at all. I think that we’ve really come to embrace Tchaikovsky more and more in the opera house and doing his lesser-known works is part of that.”

I ask Francesca if she has any explanation for The Tsarina’s Slippers being such a rarity. “Well, although there’s a love story in it on which I’ve probably focused more this time, it is a comedy and that’s not something one associates with Tchaikovsky. It’s deceptive too in that initially you may think it feels small. The fairy-tale element does remind one of Swan Lake and Nutcracker but in contrast this is decidedly a comic fairy-tale.” The production’s use of the title The Tsarina’s Slippers tends to encourage thoughts of Cinderella but even if Covent Garden is offering it as a kind of pre-Christmas Christmas-treat it would be wrong to link it too closely to the pantomime tradition. “It’s based on a Gogol short story which immediately conveys a kind of magical and fantastical world, one in which a witch is in love with a mortal and where a peasant, Vakula, is asked to prove his love by getting the shoes of the Tsarina – something he is able to bring off not by stealing them but through an act of kindness. This is not the Gogol we know from The Nose, it’s in no way political satire. Instead, it’s Gogol the folkloric story-teller.”

Costume designs for a Cossack by Tatiana Noginova for Zambello's Tsarina's Slippers for the Royal Opera, 2009

In addition to fulfilling the hopes that Francesca and Elaine developed at Wexford, this Covent Garden staging builds on last season’s successful experiment of finding works that, like the double-bill of Dido and Aeneas and Acis and Galatea, enable The Royal Opera to share the stage with members of The Royal Ballet. This time the mix is taken even further on account of the work’s Russian aspect. “We have twelve dancers of The Royal Ballet, two of whom are principals and we have a boy from their White Lodge school, but we also have Cossack dancers and most of the singers are Russian and will be conducted by Alexander Polianichko. Peter Katona, the head of casting, and Elaine and I all knew that we wanted to cast a lot of Russian people who would convey the eccentric and quirky larger-than-life characters, thereby bringing a wonderful tone to the piece. I’ve done a lot of Russian operas and wanted here to capture something that truly belonged to that Russian world of Chagall. That fact is also reflected in the fantastical designs and in the costumes, both by Russians.”

One other feature of this production of The Tsarina’s Slippers is that it involves a number of children as extras. I had noted that Francesca’s recent work covered not only a new play for the Seattle Children’s Theatre but films of Amahl and the Night Visitors and The Little Prince and stagings for Disney of The Little Mermaid and Aladdin. Was this a conscious desire on her part to do works for and with children? “It’s on purpose: absolutely so. I think it’s important to do shows from time to time that speak to young audiences and their families, and I hope that there will he kids in the audience at Covent Garden. The production is very visual and moves very fluidly and quickly and, although bigger isn’t always better, in this case I think the work gains from the simple but wider palette compared to what was possible in Wexford. Having those kids in the show is great because they have an invaluable experience through being on stage, one that they will take with them for the rest of their lives.”

One final word relates to Francesca’s career generally. “There’s definitely a shortage of women on this side of the table. Among audiences there are more women than men and it’s sad that there isn’t more equality when it comes to directing and producing. It’s hard, and it gets more so as you get older. As you go into different venues and different levels of working, you find fewer and fewer women, and that’s frustrating. But happily I’ve gone ahead and would like to keep it that way.”

  • Eight performances from 20 November to 8 December all at 7 p.m.
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera

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