Honesty Is The Only Policy: Carlos Wagner on directing Thomas Adès’s opera Powder Her Face [11-22 June 2008]

Written by: Mansel Stimpson

In London to direct Thomas Adès’s Powder Her Face in Covent Garden’s Linbury Studio Theatre, Carlos Wagner talks to Mansel Stimpson…

Carlos Wagner

Carlos Wagner is back in London – at the behest of Thomas Adès. When the composer viewed a DVD of the production of his first opera Powder Her Face produced by Carlos in Antwerp and Ghent, he clearly approved of what he saw, for it was he who suggested to Elaine Padmore (Director of Opera) that Carlos should handle the Linbury Theatre staging. Although new, it certainly derives from what Carlos did first time around as he readily acknowledges. “The solution I came to then made so much sense to me that I didn’t want to let go of it. Besides, since that was what Tom liked so much, it would be wrong not to base myself on it, although, of course, we have a different cast and I think that with them the piece has become even more humane. But the concept behind my approach now, as then, stems from what struck me at once. I think that if you just read Philip Hensher’s text the Duchess – who is, of course, based on Margaret, Duchess of Argyll – doesn’t come across as a particularly likeable person. Indeed, I believe that in real life many people who knew her didn’t like her very much. But the music that Tom Adès wrote is so unbelievably moving every time she appears that I couldn’t envisage making her into an unpleasant character. That would be inconsistent when the music displays great sympathy for her.”

Finding one particular thing that can lead him to the heart of a work is an approach much favoured by Carlos, although it was no foregone conclusion that directing opera and music-theatre would be so central to his work. “I wouldn’t have chosen it, and yet I’m exactly where I need to be.” His initial difficulty in finding the right road stems from his background. For the last three years Carlos’s home has been in Barcelona but he was born and brought up in Venezuela, the son of German parents. “You couldn’t think of another two such opposing cultures, the German and the Venezuelan, and being brought up with both just opens you up to everything. But I did feel very lost for a while and didn’t really know where I belonged or what I wanted to do with my life.” What this led to was the study of dance, fine arts and acting in Munich, in Barcelona and in London at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama – for Carlos had left Venezuela at the age of seventeen.

“After the Guildhall course, I started acting, did a bit of television and was even in a movie. But I was never really satisfied. That was because I realised that I wanted to have more control over the whole thing. I was in my early twenties when a very good friend who knew that I was educated musically and spoke all the right languages suggested that I should go into opera. I confess that at that time I didn’t know very much about opera at all, but at the Royal Opera House we had a friend who was an usher and he would let me stand at the back and I would come here three times a week at least. Then I got really excited about the whole thing. Quite soon after that I was offered little shows with regional companies and semi-amateur groups and then I was at English National Opera for four years and did things like Don Giovanni at Holland Park.”

Thomas Adès. Photograh: Nigel Luckhurst

When Carlos comments on what most attracts him in stage-work what he says is of general application yet it also makes one understand why his work in opera so outweighs what he has done in straight theatre. “I like to play with that borderline between naturalism and abstraction and the shifts between the two. In opera recitative might well be staged very naturalistically but then the moment comes when it goes into an aria, which is not natural and needs some abstraction in order to sustain it. Equally, I’m drawn to handling new work because I like to discover fresh territory, and in any case it’s my philosophy that much more contemporary work should be done. Audiences can be put off by the very idea of contemporary music though, so the challenge is to stage new works in accessible ways that draw audiences in and seduce them visually, after which they may well find that the music is much less daunting than they had thought.”

Such an approach suggests that Carlos might be less keen to direct established classics and, indeed, he once felt that way. “I always said to myself ‘oh, I hope that nobody ever offers me La bohème because I just wouldn’t know what to do with it’. I love that piece but you feel weighed down by the knowledge that thousands of productions of it have been done. And then somebody did offer me bohème and it proved to be one of the most wonderful experiences I’ve ever had. I just thought that I’d go ahead and do my bohème regardless of whether or not it was particularly new or different. My criterion was that I must be honest to the piece and in fact when I realised that the main theme of the opera centred on poverty and need we did after all bring a very fresh look to it.

“I did exactly the same thing again with ballo in maschera in Bordeaux: I looked for one strong idea that would guide me through the piece and once again something new emerged. It’s true that it proved controversial, with half of the audience screaming ‘bravo’ and the other half booing violently. I hadn’t expected that, but it was quite exciting and at least we had shaken the audience up. You can never please everybody and you shouldn’t try to, but if in a work like ballo you get somebody coming up afterwards and saying that they’ve understood Oscar’s role in it for the first time then I’m happy. The most important thing is to be able to feel that what you have done is honest. The one really bad moment in my career came when I did Tosca, and for a series of reasons I compromised. It was a success in that it sold out, and of course that was more because it was Tosca than because of my production. But in any case I wasn’t happy and since then I’ve promised myself that I will always do exactly what I want to do, short of anything dictated by financial reasons. If somebody says to me ‘this is too daring for us’ or ‘too modern’ or ‘too obscene’ or even ‘too conservative’, I shall just say ‘I’m sorry but that’s how I want to do it’.”

Margaret, Duchess of Argyll (born Ethel Margaret Whigham, 1912-93)

It’s a measure of the complexity of the subject-matter in Thomas Adès’s first opera, a chamber work in two acts (eight scenes and an epilogue), that Powder Her Face (first seen in 1995) doesn’t have a single theme that dominates. It’s a portrait of the Duchess (here portrayed by Joan Rodgers) that is tragi-comic but ultimately sympathetic as Carlos had felt from the music. But it’s also much more: a comment on sexual hypocrisy, on class, on the age-old theme that money doesn’t always buy happiness and on the different standards imposed by society for so long when considering lax sexual behaviour by men and by women. “When I did Salomé I was reading up on Freud and came across the comment that the one thing that society cannot deal with is when the woman turns into the predator. I find that that applies here: for whatever reason, this woman behaves the way she does and then, when her sexual habits become public knowledge, the whole thing becomes a scandal because the hypocritical society around her, repressing their own sexuality, can’t handle it. At the very least, they are no better than the Duchess. She is a human being, one with weaknesses as well as strengths and someone confused in her head, but what right do the others have to judge her?

“They have double standards, these people, and those such as the Judge and the Duke turn into grotesques before the end. It’s appropriate to stress that because by doing so you support the music that is telling us that the only human-being on that stage to whom one can relate is the Duchess. Given that, it’s interesting that quite late-on the text incorporates an interview in the 1970s during which the Duchess says things that by then couldn’t possibly be said. She is clearly racist, but by showing that the piece is being honest since it acknowledges that the person with whom we are meant to sympathise is certainly no saint. It also brings out the point that towards the end of her life she had become a total anachronism, and that’s important too. She had been at her prime in the ‘thirties and in the way she dressed and how she looked in public she tried to stay there for the rest of her life.”

Even those relatively unfamiliar with contemporary opera may have heard of Powder Her Face because in illustrating how the Duchess would pay for sex it incorporates a depiction of fellatio, thus following trends in literature, film and theatre by bringing sexual explicitness into opera. While the music itself indicates vividly what is going on, a question arises here: what is expected of the director, should he aim to shock or should he ask the audience to accept what is portrayed as a part of life? “The way I’ve done it is totally different from other productions. I find that simulated sex is usually embarrassing and doesn’t achieve what you want, and it is always a question of what response from the audience is being sought. If I want to shock them then I provide something for which they are not ready. On the other hand when, as here, you want them to treat the scene as a relevant aspect of the Duchess’s life then you have to guide them to that response. In fact Powder Her Face also involves fantasy here because I think that the Duchess is a sex addict and for such people the actual sex act is not the important thing: what matters is the fantasy that’s going on in their heads when they are pursuing their addiction. So I had to show that what she is doing in reality has only very little to do with what she is yearning for. Earlier in Scene 4 there’s a moment when she asks for wine and then for meat, requesting to be filled up. Now you could play that as a piece of sexual innuendo, but by then it’s apparent that another deeper meaning is being expressed, namely that she has a desperate void within herself that needs to be filled with something meaningful, But the only way she knows how to get it is through sex, and that’s a very recognisable pattern: you don’t have to go to the Duchess to find that.”

Carlos Wagner

Finally, we touch on two other aspects of the opera, the first being the decision to use three out of the four singers in several roles apiece. The libretto refers to the Electrician as Waiter, the Hotel Manager as Duke and the Maid as Mistress thus hinting at something more than a cost-cutting exercise. “I took that on board because those links underline the hypocrisy: thus the confidante and the lounge-lizard who adore the Duchess in the ‘thirties are discovered to be the same people as the rubbernecks who condemn her later. Even more significantly I have the Hotel Manager, the Duke and the Judge each appear first as a silhouette in a door and only after that does the individual’s identity become apparent. That heightens what is in the text, nowhere more so than at the close when the Hotel Manager turning her out is almost like God banishing Adam and Eve from Paradise. We are all afraid of this big, big dad who some day is going to turn up and say ‘You were a very bad boy’. So from a realistic if stylised expression of the exterior world it moves onto another level altogether.”

The final point concerns the fact that this is an opera by a composer and a librettist both of whom are openly gay, so I wonder if those aspects that have ‘gay appeal’ need to be emphasised. The fact that Conor Murphy’s highly stylised set places the Duchess in a powder box with her feather boa as the puff and features a grand staircase that pays homage to the movie designs of Busby Berkeley might suggest a dominating emphasis of this kind. Carlos, however, firmly rejects any such idea: “The gay elements are all present, but if you go further and underline them then it turns into a gay romp, and I certainly didn’t want that. So much is already there – the fascination with a kind of fallen diva, the obsession with sex – but that’s implicit and you don’t need to do anything else with it. If you camp it up, then I think that you can just forget it.” In 2006 a reviewer in Time Out dismissed the opera as camp, spiteful and sneering. Bringing his honesty to bear, Carlos Wagner is ready to prove that verdict to be a total misjudgement.

  • The opening night of Powder Her Face is 11 June 2008 at 7.30 and runs until 22 June (15th & 22nd at 3 p.m.)
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera

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