You might expect Calixto Bieito to resemble a cross between Count Dracula and Quentin Tarantino. The Spanish director, often called “the bad boy of opera”, has become notorious for extreme productions that often feature explicit sex and violence, their concepts including a cannibalistic post-nuclear Parsifal and a present-day Don Giovanni that involved vicious scenes of rape, drug overdose and murder. Audiences at his shows are no strangers to sights that have variously included toilet activities, nudity and a great deal of blood. Now, in a co-production with the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, Bieito is bringing his staging of Beethoven’s Fidelio to ENO and traditionalists are quaking in their boots.
Yet when he emerges from rehearsals in east London, clad in his trademark black, it turns out that Bieito is a pussycat. He’s a soft-spoken family man with a social conscience and anxieties about threats to democracy and free speech; and he acknowledges that he often takes a bleak view of life. “I have to be careful,” he says, “because I sometimes suffer from melancholia, and this is why my work can become quite dark.”
Nevertheless, he seems mystified by the degree of hostility that’s been expressed against his work. One critic referred to his Don Giovanni as “the most reviled opera production in the recent history of British theatre”; others believe he is out to shock. He insists not. “I promise I have never tried to shock people in that way,” he protests quietly. “I don’t think that doing a show to shock people is the right way to approach it. The direction must come naturally from inside you. It’s as if you find the hidden meaning of dreams emerging.”
Such dreams can be fairly horrifying. That Don Giovanni, he says, illustrated “what happens every Friday night” among young people across Europe, “though with a very sad ending”. The arrival of the Commendatore to threaten the Don with hell became a drug-induced hallucination, reducing Giovanni to a helpless wreck; the other characters then murder him. “I have strong emotional responses, and for me this Don Giovanni was sad because there was a sense of no hope,” Bieito comments. “There is no hope in young people killing another young man – and it was based on a real incident. I was completely surprised at the reaction.” But it’s worth remembering that other critics responded to the production with words like “stunned admiration”, and I, for one, found its raw and desperate humanity extraordinarily powerful.
British reactions to Bieito have generally been more prurient than those in Germany, where modern, provocative productions are de rigeur. But if Britain’s tastes are conservative, those of the US are even more so. Bieito is soon to work with New York’s Metropolitan Opera, in another co-production with ENO, but the details of what, when and how are closely guarded – possibly due to the likely degree of resulting fuss.
Bieito was first drawn towards directing while a pupil in a Jesuit school, where he says music and theatre were crucial parts of education. He left drama college after one year, “because it was too posh for me”. Music has been central to his life since childhood; his mother insisted on piano practice, his father had a passion for Italian opera and his brother became a professional musician. Despite his father’s influence, Italian bel canto is apparently Bieito’s blind spot: “I enjoy watching it, but here I feel I have nothing to say. I can’t direct an opera if I don’t love the music.”
Despite managerial belt-tightening in opera houses around the world, Bieito is essentially optimistic about the future of the artform. “Opera is an art of the future – it brings together so many elements – and I hope that we will survive together, with some brave intendants,” he says. He recognises that in difficult financial times decision-makers might become risk averse, but feels this is not necessarily a sensible path: “I did my Carmen 13 years ago and now it is being taken up everywhere,” he points out. “That means something is changing. Even if the intendants start to be more conservative, it’s not possible to stop the new feelings of the people.
“It’s a completely wrong thing when people say ‘this opera has to be done like this’ – usually it only means that the costumes look a little bit old,” he adds. “You cannot reproduce the atmosphere of the first opening of a Mozart or Verdi opera. They were very modern in their time, very involved with people. Verdi was known in all of society.” That is the kind of immediacy he is after.
His Fidelio could prove chewy. In Beethoven’s opera, the heroine Leonora’s husband, Florestan, is a political prisoner; she disguises herself as a man named Fidelio to infiltrate the prison and rescue him. Bieito’s staging, unlike his hyper-realistic Carmen and Don Giovanni, is complex and symbolic, set in a labyrinth that some reviewers of its Munich performances compared to The Matrix. “All the characters are lost in the labyrinth, imprisoned,” he says. “Sometimes our minds are our prison. I find Fidelio’s story quite weak if it is approached realistically, but if you take the philosophical side more seriously, then you can say much more about human beings today: what freedom means for us, or love, or loyalty, or justice. That is very important to our democracy.”
Above all, Beethoven’s idealistic humanism in Fidelio strikes a special chord with him. “I think we need a new humanism in Europe in the very open, cultural sense, and Fidelio gives me the opportunity to talk about this,” he says. But his characters do not live happily ever after: “It is very hard to believe in the possibility of justice,” he says – melancholic again, thanks to his cynical view of politics in Spain.
“There are people who’ll say ‘I don’t like Calixto Bieito, I don’t like anything he does’,” he comments. “I don’t know how to convince them. You cannot go to an exhibition thinking it’s going to be crap and you can’t go into a restaurant thinking ‘Oh, the food will be terrible’. This I cannot change. But I’m talking about these topics: justice, love, liberty, loyalty, freedom. We have to value these issues and we have to protect our democracies very strongly from corruption. I think, when it’s not just commercial, art is a way to freedom.”
Fidelio, English National Opera, from 25 September. Box office: 020 7845 9300