Written by: Mansel Stimpson
Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s new opera has its world premiere at Covent Garden on 15 April. Its director, Stephen Langridge, talks to Mansel Stimpson…
Ask Stephen Langridge about his early life and he will tell you that he played the French horn and that he sang. No surprise there, perhaps, given that he is the son of the tenor Philip Langridge and that of his two sisters one plays the cello and one the double bass. But, even so, it appears that music was not his priority: “Drama was my passion: it was the thing that made me tick.” Consequently it was drama that he studied at Exeter University taking a course for which the curriculum was fashioned to suit the individual. In Stephen’s case this meant that music kept coming in, even the composing of it, with the work that he was devising for others tending towards music-theatre.
Nevertheless, recognition of where this was leading did not occur until his third year at Exeter. What happened then points unexpectedly towards the work on which he is currently engaged at Covent Garden: “I saw an opera of Birtwistle’s, Punch and Judy. It was a touring production but with amazing performances that made you recognise what a really full-on piece it was. Those involved in it did not behave as though they were in an opera: this was music-theatre of total commitment and it made me realise that this was where I wanted to be. It was Harry’s Punch and Judy that showed me what I wanted to do.”
Eventually the time would come when working with Birtwistle would play a special part in Stephen’s career. But before seeking his comments on that it is another aspect of his work that I take up with him. Certain items on his CV stand out as indicating strong social concerns: his involvement in educational and training work not just in the U.K. but in Europe and in Africa, a special interest in compositions that feature children as performers and his participation in projects that bring some form of music-theatre into the lives of such diverse individuals as prisoners and the disabled.
This brings to mind an interview that I did with Stephen’s father when he stressed how important music is because it had a power for good that made it especially valuable in today’s troubled world. Consequently the question that I posed to Stephen was whether or not he and his father shared what is in essence a common outlook. “Yes, we do. I firmly believe that music-theatre is a form capable of engaging the whole of the brain and of the spirit. Music itself can go deep and can reach the subliminal unconscious while a text can simultaneously affect another part of the brain. When both are working well together you get a total imaginative workout. That’s important because I believe that the imagination is the defining feature of humanity. It’s when the imagination fails that we get into real trouble, and we can all think of places in the world where leaders and societies have failed to imagine the consequences of what they are doing.
“As for those special areas in which I have chosen to work, I’m keen to retain my involvement with them. John Lunn’s trilogy of shows which I did for Glyndebourne and which involved children and teenagers was an attempt to address the gap in that repertoire, and we still do Britten’s Noye’s Fludde, a fantastic piece of work from the 1950s. Every year I work with a group called Share Music and that deals in forms of music-theatre that integrate disabled and non-disabled young people. I have done some plays too, and it was lovely in the case of Julius Caesar to get hold of a Shakespeare. I worked on it in a prison where it got sixty inmates involved. In the event, that piece had a musical dimension too, with another twenty or so inmates writing music for the play. For me, that musical aspect always seems to be there: even if I think it’s not going to be, it is.”
The new Birtwistle work, The Minotaur, is the third opera of his that Stephen has directed, although his first involvement in such a piece came much earlier when he assisted on Yan Tan Tethera over twenty years ago. Each of these subsequent stagings has seen Stephen as director working with the designer Alison Chitty. The collaboration is a very close one as is their joint liaison with Birtwistle. Stephen has nevertheless found each of these experiences distinct in kind. “The first one I did was The Mask of Orpheus. It had already had a production ten years earlier so the text – and by that I mean music and words – was complete. Since the piece existed already, it was a case of coming up with a production that was a particular version of it. In contrast I became involved with the chamber opera The Io Passion before anything was written – at a time when it was no more than an idea, literally something noted on a serviette in a café. Over the next three years we work-shopped it with actors, so it was a case of being involved from before it existed right through to the first performance. The present piece, The Minotaur, is different again because it was already on the way when I came in, but certainly not complete.”
At this point two points emerge that emphasise how complex the journey can be from a work’s inception to its final realisation. The first concerns The Minotaur and it’s the fact that the libretto by the poet David Harsent has gone through more than forty versions. The second is contained in an historical anecdote. “Harry has said on a number of occasions that when he was writing the opera that became The Mask of Orpheus it started out featuring Faust. Then one day when on his way to a meeting about it he realised that he wanted it to be Orpheus instead, so he had to say ‘It’s not Faust now; it’s Orpheus – but it’s still the same opera’. That’s interesting. But there’s no doubt whatever that Harry is very keen to tell a story and he’s drawn to established tales and especially to Greek myths.
“That has extended to his work at the National Theatre where he has been connected with productions of The Bacchae and The Oresteia. He was saying that he doesn’t know why he’s so fascinated by these myths. Of course, when you take up a tale like that of Theseus and Ariadne and the Minotaur the central issue becomes how you are going to treat it. But by choosing material of that kind you have a bridge to the audience in that you are not offering some complex plot that’s totally new, but my own guess is that Harry is drawn to subjects like this not by some intellectual reasoning process but simply by instinct.”
Prior to talking to Stephen I have had the opportunity to read David Harsent’s impressive libretto and to remind myself of the story of the Minotaur, the creature who is half-man and half-beast and who has been consigned to a labyrinth where he feeds off innocents who are sent there as a blood sacrifice. Ariadne is his half-sister (his birth had come about when their mother had mated with a bull) and it is she who seeks to send Theseus the Athenian prince into the labyrinth to kill the Minotaur. The myth does not end there since, having consulted the Oracle, Ariadne plans to send Theseus in bearing a ball of twine which will enable him to find the route back. Her intention is that she will subsequently set sail with Theseus and thus be able to escape her family background in Crete. “Crete is my cage”, she declares, thereby evoking a parallel with the Minotaur’s imprisonment in the labyrinth.
It’s another line of Ariadne’s that memorably defines the mood of the piece: this is in the second of the opera’s thirteen scenes when she comments that “all roads take you closer to what you fear”. For Stephen as director responding to the words is, of course, central to finding a way in. “As you look at the piece you get into the detail and at first it seems to become even more complex. But then you start to get an overview and soon things float up that can give you a hook. And, yes, this is a piece in which people are imprisoned in some sense. There is a continuum or a momentum which is not of their own making. All three of the central characters are living out an existence that has been more or less defined by the failures and the disgrace of the previous generation. Thus, the Minotaur is an emblem of somebody else’s shameful lust. But in the opera David and Harry have made the Minotaur more than just the object of other people’s fear: he’s also a caged sentient beast who is a victim as well as a perpetrator. Then there’s their take on Ariadne. She’s first seen on the seashore as the waves wash away her footsteps and for a moment she can express a sense of escape with nothing at her back and nothing mapped out in front of her. But she too is both perpetrator and victim, driven by fear and anger yet struggling to break free of a violent cycle that has its own momentum.”
If the words are an important guide, so is the music itself. “When you start doing a new piece you’re guessing: you look at the score and imagine how it will sound even though you’re only hearing it on the piano. But from that you can get a sense of structure – of elements of repetition, for example, that may not be immediately apparent from the words. Because Alison and I have worked with Harry on other projects we have come to know him well, and that’s one of the keys for us in responding to the music that he is producing. It was part of the process to go down to see him and to come up with various possibilities. We’d ask him if this or that represented what he had in mind and if, sometimes, he’d say it didn’t then we would instantly accept that because who knows better than Harry? And it’s not just at the planning stage that we listen to Harry and David, it’s what we’re still doing now when it’s on its feet in rehearsal.”
Before we close, two areas in the opera call for special comment, the violence that builds at the end of the first of the two acts and Birtwistle’s use of two dream-sequences (the latter bringing out the anguish of the Minotaur whose human side surfaces in these scenes). As to the violence, Stephen has this to say. “There’s really no point in attempting something akin to the films of Quentin Tarantino. Our job is to provoke the imagination of the audience. We want them to imagine fully the horror of it and for that you need to create a truly powerful drama but one that by not literally presenting it in detail leaves room for the imagination. As for the dream sequences, it took a lot of thought before we hit on a form that would represent the piece properly. It’s important because the opera is as much about interlocking dreams as anything else, dreams in which the characters meet each other in a subliminal unconscious world. To encompass all the things that are required in this dream space we’ve used not only a mirror but video and we’ve done it in a way that’s difficult to describe but which will, I hope, be clear when it’s seen.”
Being set in a primitive world, The Minotaur sees its characters desperately trying to understand what the Gods are saying, but it’s also a piece in which the Gods look down and laugh at what is happening and, as in Wagner’s The Ring cycle, human life can be seen from all sorts of angles. Nevertheless, Stephen is aware that the work’s emphasis on the closeness of the division between man and beast (“next to nothing” is the phrase used in the text) is an invitation to the audience to care about the people, and that certainly includes the Minotaur whose death concludes the work. “This monster may have killed and raped, but he has been predestined to this horrible life and you care about him in the end because of the injustice of it.” There’s one other image on which to conclude and that is Stephen’s comment on working on a world premiere like this. “What we are doing is a kind of midwifery. We’re just trying to make sure that the thing emerges into life properly. We’re not even trying to define too closely what it is: we just want it to be there and to be itself.”
- The opening night of The Minotaur is 15 April 2008 at 7.30 (19 April at 7 p.m.) and runs until 3 May
- Box office: 020 7304 4000
- Royal Opera