Welcome Return: Sir Richard Eyre and La traviata [The Royal Opera’s La traviata, 18 June-6 July 2009]

Written by: Mansel Stimpson

Mansel Stimpson talks to the celebrated director as he personally undertakes the latest revival of his acclaimed Covent Garden production…

Sir Richard Eyre. Photograph: John Hayres

The career of Sir Richard Eyre extends memorably through film, television and theatre, the latter being particularly notable not least because of the ten years between 1988 and 1997 when he was running the National Theatre. However, it is his work in the opera house that brings about our meeting. It takes place at Covent Garden to which he has returned for the latest revival of his popular production of Verdi’s La traviata first staged there in 1994. Given that context, it might seem entirely apt that when this Devon-born man looks back to his childhood he recalls the voice of Maria Callas emanating from his father’s gramophone. But instead of it being an early influence remembered with affection as a pointer to what lay ahead, this particular memory has a very different significance for Sir Richard. That’s because it is linked to the troubled relationship that he had with his father. This is a story that has been told before and which is set out with honesty in his memoir Utopia and Other Places, but to see Sir Richard Eyre’s career in perspective it is necessary to touch on it once again.

“My father had a very, very strong personality and my mother was very much under his thumb. Her mother had been an actress, so there was something of that in her background but her parents died when she was pretty young, before she was married in fact, so they weren’t able to support her by offering a different universe to that of my father. It’s not quite true to describe him as a militant philistine because he loved listening to Mozart and to the operas of Verdi and Puccini. But outside of that he didn’t really listen to music and had no interest in theatre or films or, indeed, in fiction: I can’t remember ever seeing him read a novel. He became a farmer after being a naval officer and what he did know a lot about was horses. They were his life and his passion, but not mine. By the time that I reached the age of thirteen there was an implicit realisation on both sides that drove us apart: he recognised that I was never going to be the son he wanted and I knew equally that he was never going to be the father that I wanted. From that point on, I guess, I was carving out territory that was distinctive from his. It was at once some kind of challenge to him and a gesture that begged him to acknowledge me.”

Such conflicting outlooks might have been enough in themselves to keep Sir Richard distant from his father but, in fact, there was another element present that intensified the situation. “Apart from horses, the other great interest that my father had was in sex, about which he was very explicit. I wouldn’t say that he was obsessed by it but a large part of his life was occupied in chasing women he was not married to. Mozart aside, I think the reason why he liked opera was that he fancied Maria Callas. It was in the ‘fifties, that time when Callas crossed barriers and represented opera to people who weren’t normally drawn to it. So to my mind it was the allure of Callas that got him interested in nineteenth-century opera and that was reason enough for me to favour rock ‘n’ roll because I knew that it would annoy him. That attitude persisted when I went to Cambridge. My family’s background was middle-class and nobody within it had ever gone to university, they’d just been in either the army or the navy, so going to Cambridge was in itself an act of defiance because my father couldn’t see the point of it.”

When Richard Eyre went to university it was to read for a science degree but he soon realised that however good he was at maths and physics he lacked what it would take to make the grade by university standards. Consequently he asked if he could change to English and found himself being taught by Kingsley Amis. In addition this period marked the start of a new development as regards his interest in music. “I was already very interested in jazz as well as in pop music, but I acquired quite a wide circle of friends. They would say to me ‘you should listen to this Beethoven quartet; it’s wonderful’ and I would hesitate but then find myself listening to it. In that way I gradually got into developing serial obsessions for composers. When I got into Beethoven, I would listen exclusively to Beethoven, and so on. This went on for many years. I remember a composer-friend introducing me to Shostakovich in my forties and I was blown away by the First Violin Concerto and started to want to know everything about Shostakovich. I’m a complete autodidact and that started at university and went on from there.”

Richard Eyre's and the ROH's La Traviata. Photograph: Catherine Ashmore

When talking about how his career in the arts developed, Sir Richard stresses that he had no calculated strategy but learnt where it was that he wanted to go through the opportunities that came his way. Thus, it was his own instincts that called a halt to the acting career that he undertook for about three-and-a-half years after leaving Cambridge. “I did television, I was in a couple of films and I was involved in quite a lot of theatre, so I was mostly in work. But there’s a difference between being an actor and being a singer or musician. In the latter case talent is quantifiable and if you are not really very good it’s obvious. With an actor it’s much more subjective. You need to have the confidence to convince the public with what you are doing and there’s a sort of self-monitoring device that tells you if you are achieving that. My self-monitoring device came into play to such an extent that I began to feel paralysed onstage, so I decided that I had to stop. But that coincided with my directing a few of my fellow actors for a Sunday night production which was seen by a number of people who were running theatres and who then offered me work as a director.”

Following his professional directorial debut staging Ann Jellicoe’s The Knack at Leicester, he had spells in Edinburgh and Nottingham taking charge of productions generally: if this was not triggered by choice exactly, it certainly became a preference. “It was a generational thing because I started as a director in the late-‘sixties and in those days unless you were some extraordinary prodigy like Peter Brook you effectively found yourself becoming your own producer by running a theatre. Quite a lot of regional theatres were very good and you could get a very talented company together and do really good work. It was that experience of controlling one’s own company and of selecting plays and actors that made me realise that such work felt more satisfying than any short-term arrangement whereby you visited somebody else’s world and worked with somebody else’s actors.”

It was an out-of-the-blue offer to produce Play for Today that led to Sir Richard’s departure from Nottingham and into a period in which he did much work for television (the award-winning Tumbledown being a memorable example). However some theatre work featured as well at this time and films came along too. Such a mix was to become harder to sustain as time passed, but it was a link with Nottingham that would be decisive for the next step in Sir Richard’s career. “Peter Hall brought my production of Comedians to London and then asked me to become an associate at the National theatre where I did Guys and Dolls and a few other things. I became artistic director there in September 1988 after Peter had sort of promoted me as his candidate, which was quite a bold thing to do because I wasn’t ex-RSC or anything like that and I didn’t have an international name. Officially I held the position for ten years but effectively it was a twelve-year period during which my mind was concentrated exclusively on theatre.”

Nevertheless, it was during this decade that Sir Richard directed an opera for the first time, that production being the very one that is being revived now. So how did it come about that La traviata for Covent Garden should provide him with this new kind of debut? “It was Georg Solti. He actually pressed me over the years because he had absolutely fallen in love with my production of Guys and Dolls. Earlier I had dragged my heels about opera on stage. I was by then very interested in opera but I listened to it on records and for a while I adopted the preposterous view that staged opera fatally lacked what film and theatre had. When thinking that I was applying the wrong kind of criteria, those that relate to naturalistic, behaviouristic acting and which are relevant only to those other media. It took me a while to recognise that opera is its own thing: it has its own criteria and its own truth. I was also hesitant because I felt that neither my Italian nor my music was good enough, but Georg who was proposing various operas finally came up with Traviata which I adored and which I knew reasonably well. So it was he who brought me to the marriage bed. I said: ‘Yes, I’ll do it – but we must have a great Violetta’. And then Angela Gheorghiu came into the picture, and it seemed exactly the right thing to be doing.”

Although Le nozze di Figaro at Aix-en-Province is the only other opera he has directed to date, Sir Richard has totally overcome any doubts about the effectiveness of staged opera. “I think it has the capacity at its very best to reach parts of the sensibility that other art forms don’t. It’s partly because of the presence of two things simultaneously. There’s that incredibly powerful concentration focused on a single vulnerable, beautiful human voice and there’s the vastness of the resources involved: the scenery, the space, the orchestra. That in itself is hugely moving. I’m not saying that I’m not immensely moved sometimes in the theatre but I do feel that the power of opera to evoke emotions puts it in a world of its own.”

Sir Richard Eyre's and the ROH's La Traviata. Photograph: Catherine Ashmore

Now that the standard of acting on the operatic stage is so high, the gap between theatre and opera is less wide than it once was, so a director’s approach in each setting has many similarities despite the involvement of a third party in the opera house. “The conductor is the prime mover of the event, the one who is present and who’s creating it. But Traviata more than some operas is very close to being a play set to music. There are duets between Violetta and her lover Alfredo and between Violetta and her lover’s father Germont which are supreme pieces of dramatic writing, with dialogue set to music that exactly mirrors the emotions. It’s as complicated as Chekhov, and I think that’s also true of the Mozart operas with words by Da Ponte. I like to work with singers who need to justify to themselves why they are singing something: singers who, if there’s a repeat, don’t just accept it as a repeat but ask what is happening the second time around that hasn’t happened in the first instance. I find that it’s not unlike working on Shakespeare: you have to understand the way in which words and music are irretrievably linked and are tied to an expression of emotion and thought.”

The depth of Sir Richard’s approach is confirmed both by what he tells me about working with Solti in 1994 and by his enthusiasm for the work of Antonio Pappano who is conducting this revival. “Tony is a really super-league opera conductor, absolutely terrific. Sometimes – and I think it is quite an interesting and crucial distinction – he will say to a singer not ‘when you’re singing this’ but ‘when you say this’. He’s very conscious of plausibility and ready to point out that something is not working and needs to be sorted out by me. The thing about good opera conductors in that they see the thing as seamless: it’s not compartmentalised. When I started with Solti on the original production I asked him to take me through the score and we did that in his studio in Hampstead over a period of about three days. He’d sit at the piano while I turned the pages and he’d sing it, and we would just talk about what was going on. It was a masterclass.”

After so many successful revivals overseen by others one may wonder why Sir Richard is back in person this time around. As it turns out, there’s a story behind it. “I met Renée Fleming about five or six years ago through an actress friend of mine, Laura Linney. I happened to speak to Laura about how wonderful I thought Renée was, and she said to me: ‘Oh, she’s a friend of mine’. On hearing that I didn’t hesitate to say that I would give anything to meet her. So Laura fixed it up. We had dinner together and in the course of it she said to me ‘I would love to sing Violetta in London in your production’. So I said: ‘How fantastic: if you come and do that, I will definitely rehearse it’. To have her here and also to have Tony with whom I had wanted to work makes it absolutely wonderful. And on top of that to have Tom Hampson and Joseph Calleja is thrilling, because all three singers have this fantastic appetite to explore a text in the fullest possible sense, that is to say musically, verbally and psychologically. Despite the difference in the mode of expression, working with such singers is quite similar to directing actors like Ian McKellen, Jonathan Pryce or Ian Holm. You are talking about thoughts and about motivation and how it translates into behaviour. What is different is that on the whole opera singers don’t have the same way of approaching a character since an actor does it through the psychology while they do it through the music. But there’s very little difference, I would say, between working with Renée on the role of Violetta and doing it with an actress for a performance of La Dame aux camélias – she is so concerned to do justice to the interior life of the character.”

Everything that has been said adds to one’s enthusiasm to see this revival be it in the opera house itself or on one of the big screens for the 30 June performance. Happily, it also looks as though Sir Richard will be paying more attention to opera in future. “I’m doing Carmen at the Met in December and I hope that opera will start to play a bigger role. It will mean that by the end of this year I will have done the three best-known operas in the world, and I would like to find new challenges.” I ask if he has any particular works in mind should the opportunity arise. “Well, I was going to do Pelléas et Mélisande with Solti. He wanted to do it, and he said to me ‘We do it together if alive’ but, sadly, it was not to be. But there’s also Verdi. Falstaff is beautiful and I’d love to do Otello, which is staggering: it’s better than the play.” This last statement may not win approval at the National Theatre but for opera-lovers it holds out the hope that Sir Richard’s work in the opera house has far to go.

  • Seven performances – from Thursday 18 June until Monday 6 July at 7 p.m. (6.30 on Saturday 27 June)
  • BP Summer Big Screen Presentation on Tuesday 30 June (details on following link)
  • BP Big Screens
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera

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