Showing posts with label Salzburg Festival. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Salzburg Festival. Show all posts

Friday, August 14, 2020

Catch up with Ludwig and Levit here

While we in the UK continue to run about like headless chickens (which in many ways we actually are), the Salzburg Festival has managed to be up, running and shouting about it with well-deserved pride. In the fast-growing blackberry bushes of classical music on the internet, there is plenty of ripe fruit waiting to be foraged, stewed and savoured, and the concerts of Salzburg being streamed by are not only some of the best, but also available to watch in the UK (which not all Arte films are).

Having been working flat out to finish the editing and proofreading of IMMORTAL - which is now going into production - I haven't had time, energy or inclination to watch or listen to anything very much for weeks, so it's time to catch up, and I'm very happy to say that they have sent me the first three of Igor Levit's complete Beethoven sonatas cycle for us all to enjoy here on JDCMB. Plenty more available at Arte's own site, of course. Levit has been one of music's outstanding lockdown heroes and I am looking forward to hearing the lot in due course.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Meet Cecilia Bartoli, opera's Renaissance woman

My interview with Cecilia Bartoli at the Salzburg Whitsun Festival appeared in the i yesterday. They don't put everything online, so here it is, below the picture.

Cecilia Bartoli as Maria 1. © Salzburger Festspiele / Silvia Lelli

It is almost impossible not to love Cecilia Bartoli: the Italian mezzo-soprano is a singer with a magic edge. The voice, like the woman, has immense personality: a technicolour range, a distinctive timbre simultaneously bright and mellow, and a way of expressing emotion so direct that it can melt any heart in one phrase. 

This summer she sings two very different roles: Maria in Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story at the Salzburg Festival, and Bellini’s bel canto classic Norma at the Edinburgh Festival, a production originally from Salzburg. The latter, directed by Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser, has been a triumph internationally, resetting the action in the Second World War. West Side Story, however, drags Salzburg itself into the present day. Bartoli, as artistic director of the city’s long-weekend Whitsun Festival, has brought Mozart’s home town its first taste of this 20th-century classic live on stage. 

Bartoli arrives in a business suit the morning after the show, long hair scraped back: she is in directorial mode, her conversation as lively and warm as her singing. This is a big year for her. She has just turned 50 and, having held the Whitsun Festival post for five years, she has now signed up for another five. 

It is relatively unusual for an opera star to become artistic director of such a festival; even rarer for a female one. Bartoli agrees that it’s still a man’s world. “When they asked me to become artistic director I was astonished,” she says. “My predecessor was Maestro Riccardo Muti. It was always a man, and a conductor. I said to them, ‘Are you sure you want a woman?’ Also I’m younger, a new generation compared to the others.”

In Salzburg, 50 is the new 25. Bartoli laughs aside her big birthday: “I still feel as I did ten years ago,” she says. Born in Rome into a family of singers, she has already enjoyed 30 years on stage, progressing with remarkable consistency since her debut at 19 through a wholesome diet of baroque, classical and bel canto roles. Her recording career, though, is notable for fascinating projects – concept albums, if you like: strong programmes presented with upmarket artistic integrity and eye-catching glamour, transforming music as unlikely as Russian baroque or the repertoire of the 19th-century mezzo-soprano Maria Malibran into significant successes.

West Side Story is her first foray into any form of “crossover” – though it fulfils what she declares is a long-held dream of singing Maria. The production, directed by Philip Wm. McKinley, is now a centrepiece for this year’s summer festival, where Bartoli hopes it will have a somewhat rejuvenating effect.

“When we announced West Side Story for Whitsun, we sold the tickets in one week,” she beams, undaunted by a few iffy reviews. “For summer it is sold out too. There’s a new audience coming to Salzburg for it, and this is what we want! People from musicals will come, and people from opera, and this fusion is in the piece already. 

“What is West Side Story?” she muses. “It’s a musical, but not a musical; it’s an opera, but not an opera. Leonard Bernstein wanted operatic singers for his recording: Tony was sung by José Carreras and Maria by Kiri te Kanawa. The roles need solid singers with solid technique who can sustain the high registers without screaming.” That is especially needed with the energetic Simón Bolivár Symphony Orchestra and its conductor, Gustavo Dudamel, flaming away in the pit.

In the production two Marias take the stage: Bartoli sings from the sidelines as the older Maria looking back on her first love when she was 16. Maria 1 sings; Maria 2 does the action and the dancing. On stage throughout, Bartoli has the presence and the emotional all-givingness to pull off the tricky presentation and ensemble work; the bigger challenge, she says, was singing with a microphone. “I never had this experience before,” she admits. “You have to play much more with colour, with nuances and with the words. It’s not a question of projection – it’s more about how to be delicate.” There was no question of not using a mic, she adds: “West Side Story was conceived like this from the beginning; it was always done with amplification.”

In contrast, Bellini’s Norma, which she is bringing to Edinburgh, is a masterpiece of subtle, bel canto writing. It was one of Maria Callas’s signature roles – her searing soprano a very different timbre from Bartoli’s mezzo. Usually Norma is a soprano and Adalgisa, for whom Norma’s lover leaves her, is the mezzo. Dramatically, Bartoli points out, Adalgisa should probably be the younger woman. “But in many castings Adalgisa sounds older than Norma, and in many cases she’s also older in the passport.” 

“This Norma is special because we have a period-instrument orchestra and try to recreate the cast that Bellini had for his premiere,” she explains. Bellini’s first Norma, in 1831, was Giuditta Pasta: “Many of her roles are today considered repertoire for mezzo-soprano,” Bartoli says. “I thought maybe we have to reconsider the role of Norma and try to present what Bellini composed, without any influence from the later 19th century. Bellini is closer to Mozart than to Puccini and his singers’ background would have involved Rossini, Mozart and Handel." 

“I hope we will now start a new era of performing bel canto opera with period instruments. It’s a real dialogue between the stage and the pit. Today often you have an orchestra of 100 people playing full out and you’re alone on stage trying to fight this...”

Bartoli has never had much trouble doing so. Her style makes up in detail and projection for anything she may lack in heft, and she has paced herself so carefully that she has avoided the physical and vocal problems that sometimes beset others. “This is the boss,” she smiles, tapping her voicebox. And looking further into the future, ten years at the helm of the Salzburg Whitsun Festival would qualify her for bigger artistic directorships, should she so wish. “I know how demanding that would be,” she reflects. “Maybe I’ll open a restaurant!”

Cecilia Bartoli sings Norma at the Edinburgh Festival, 5-9 August: . West Side Story is at the Salzburg Festival 20-29 August:

Friday, February 26, 2016

Sir András goes to Salzburg

A rather wonderful interview with Sir András Schiff has just arrived in a press mailing from the Salzburg Festival and I thought you might enjoy it as much as I have. Here he is in the Mozart D minor Concerto, to start us off...

Salzburg Festival President Helga Rabl-Stadler in Conversation 
with Sir András Schiff 

Helga Rabl-Stadler: I had the pleasure of hearing you once again during the 2016 Mozart Week. It was wonderful. I have a question regarding the details of that concert: wherein lies the challenge and the attraction in playing two concerts on three different pianos within 24 hours – programmes featuring Mendelssohn and Mozart on grand pianos by Graf and Walter and on a modern Bösendorfer? As you did on a CD in 2013, when you played Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations on a 1921 Bechstein grand and then on a pianoforte built by Franz Brodmann in Vienna around 1820. 

András Schiff: The older I become, the more interested I am in the historical, old instruments. It is not true that today’s instruments are better – on the contrary. Being able to play Mozart’s Walter grand piano is a gift, a great privilege. It feels like returning to the source. However, one must pay close attention to the hall where one is performing. The Mozarteum is ideal for the purpose; at the Festspielhaus it would be unthinkable. Old instruments offer an enormously rewarding experience – afterwards, you play the same music on a modern grand piano quite differently, with the right tempi and true sensitivity. 
Helga Rabl-Stadler: Will you choose different pianos for your three concerts this summer at the Salzburg Festival? And if so, why? On August 1 you play with one of the world’s best string quartets, the Jerusalem Quartet. On August 3, you offer something very special indeed, performing with the Salzburg Marionette Theatre, and on August 31 you appear in the finale of the 2016 Salzburg Festival, as the soloist in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major with the Gewandhaus Orchestra Leipzig and Herbert Blomstedt. 
András Schiff: This time I will play a new Bösendorfer; I am an old friend of that company, and they have managed to develop an outstanding new model. Incidentally, it is the same instrument on which I played the Mozart and Mendelssohn piano concerti during the Mozart Week. 
Helga Rabl-Stadler: Last year you were celebrated in Salzburg for three concerts under the motto “Last Sonatas” (of the First Viennese School). This year you will perform with the Salzburg Marionette Theatre for the first time. How did this come about? 
András Schiff: The Salzburg Marionette Theatre is wonderful, I have always admired it, for example its old production of Die Zauberflöte. Philipp Brunner and his parents are old friends of mine. As a small boy, he founded a marionette ensemble with his friends in Berlin, based on the Salzburg model. In Mondsee, where I was artistic director of the Music Days for ten years (1989-1998), I was able to invite this group for Debussy’s La Boîte a Joujoux. The children did a fantastic job. Many years later, Philipp became artistic director of the Salzburg Marionette Theatre. Thus, it was logical to develop this project further. The production of La Boîte is not brand-new; we have already performed it in New York, Vienna and elsewhere. However, Papillons by Robert Schumann is new. It is a highly unusual programme. Children are welcome, but it was developed with adults in mind. 
Helga Rabl-Stadler: You are esteemed the world over as a pianist, song accompanist, festival director, teacher and conductor. In chamber music concerts you often lead ensembles from the keyboard as a conductor. Are you happy to have a conductor guide you when you are the soloist? 
András Schiff: I do not imagine myself a conductor – but, if you please, neither was Mozart. When he performed his piano concerti, there was no conductor far and wide, but he led the ensemble from the keyboard, as a first among equals. His music does not tolerate anyone beating time. With my Cappella and a few other orchestras, I can communicate so intimately that we understand each other with few words, even without words. That gives me great joy. But of course I love working with such excellent maestri such as Bernard Haitink or Herbert Blomstedt. The only trouble is that there are very few like them. 
Helga Rabl-Stadler: In 1982 you first performed at the Salzburg Festival – so far, you have given 52 concerts here, plus one at the Salzburg Whitsun Festival. What does this Festival mean to you? 
András Schiff: Salzburg and the Festival mean very much to me. 52 performances – I would never have guessed. That is a great honour, for which I am grateful. We lived here for a long time and have many good friends here. And, above all, Salzburg is the city of Mozart! 
Helga Rabl-Stadler: You have directed and founded festivals yourself. What does a festival have to offer, compared to regular seasons? 
András Schiff: It is already inherent in the word: a festival is a “fest”, a feast, and everything is different from everyday life. “It must be something wonderful.” It is not surprising that we have so many of them today. In a beautiful place, far from the stress and strife of daily life, people are better able to concentrate on art; they can absorb more. On the other hand, there are those festival lovers who attend several events every day, only to have forgotten in the evening what they saw or heard that same morning. Enjoyment is good, but within measure. Less is more. 
Helga Rabl-Stadler: You are an explorer, someone who searches through the original sources and seeks new connections. Can you reveal where your next journey of discovery is headed? 
András Schiff: As a musician, one has to travel a lot, and today, the good Lord knows that is no pleasure. I enjoy my time at home all the more – and all too rarely. Thus, my journeys of discovery are metaphorical ones. One delves very intensely into certain composers and their time. My next project will focus on Brahms, his late piano works. 
Helga Rabl-Stadler: You are from Hungary, live in Italy, were knighted in Great Britain. Where do you feel at home? Was it a painful decision for you when you determined not to perform in Hungary anymore for political reasons? 
András Schiff: In principle, I feel that I am a European, a Central European. I am interested in other cultures, but my home is the Occident. What is happening with Hungary is very sad, and very little will change in the foreseeable future. However, I am optimistic that I will be able to return within my lifetime. 
Helga Rabl-Stadler: Are you still in touch with György Kurtág, your teacher who turns 90 this year, and what did you learn from him? 
András Schiff: Only by phone. To me, Kurtág is the greatest, most important living composer. As a teacher, he was enormously important to me; I came to him at a very young age, when I was 14. Even the first piano lesson, on the three-part Invention in E major by Bach, was unforgettable. After about three hours, we had advanced no further than the third measure. There are few people who experience music so passionately and intensively as Kurtág. I also owe my passion for Schubert’s songs to him. 
Helga Rabl-Stadler: Your wife Yuuko Shiokawa is a violinist from Japan. Do you think it is easier to be married to an artist who understands the problems of an artist’s life? 
András Schiff: Yes, certainly. It is almost impossible for an outsider to comprehend these problems. 
Helga Rabl-Stadler: You are known for reading a lot. In which language, or languages, do you read? What is the last book you read? 
András Schiff: Yes, I am a passionate reader. I read Hungarian, German, English, Italian, occasionally French. My last book was Erfolg (Success) by Lion Feuchtwanger, a wonderful satire about Munich and Bavaria, very timely! 
Helga Rabl-Stadler: You perform from memory most of the time; is your memory better than everyone else’s? Doesn’t one feel more secure when one has the music in front of one? 
András Schiff: My memory is pretty good, but surely not better than that of many others. Just think of Daniel Barenboim! It is congenital, so to speak. However, one does have to work hard at it. I find it much more difficult today to learn something by heart than I did thirty years ago, since my head is pretty full and one doesn’t want to forget the most important pieces either. For me, playing from memory is a liberation, allowing me to communicate better with the composer and the audience. After all, a piano recital is not a lecture. It is my choice, and there is no need for apology or shame. 
Helga Rabl-Stadler: Which are your favourite concert halls in the world, and why? 
András Schiff: There are a few. The Musikverein, the Mozart Hall at Vienna’s Konzerthaus, the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, the Rudolfinum in Prague, the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, the Philharmonic in St. Petersburg, the Tonhalle in Zurich, and – last but not least – the Mozarteum in Salzburg. 

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Salzburg: I am a Festspielhave

I'm just back from the Salzburg Festival, where I heard more amazing singers within 72 hours than you'd believe possible. Three very different operas from three different centuries, each focused on war, actual or between the sexes - usually both. My review-proper will be in Opera Now magazine. In the meantime, here's a little taste of the trip.

Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Die Soldaten proved perhaps opera's most devastating experience: an all-out tour-de-force, assaulting senses and emotions alike. Good to see TV cameras there last Sunday, as this production is a great achievement that requires preservation on film; nothing, though, can really capture the impact of experiencing it live, from a seat almost beneath the largest of several outsize tam-tams. This opera musters every last shred of force available to an orchestra, a cast, a lead soprano (the magnificent Laura Aikin), a conductor (heroic Ingo Metzmacher) and the human ear itself to get across its message: the horrors that these military men foist upon the hapless Marie, and the failure of a variety of parents to prevent it. The composer took his own life in 1970. Books on Zimmermann are in short supply, and there seems to be nothing in English, but Alex Ross provides some valuable insights here.

Other question-marks hang over Carmen. Updated to Franco's Spain, it starred Magdalena Kozena as a red-haired firebrand partnered first of all by her husband, Sir Simon Rattle, in the pit, and secondly by Jonas Kaufmann, whose Don Jose was a puzzling matter possibly determined by directorial decisions rather than tenorial ones.

Finally, Handel's Giulio Cesare, with Andreas Scholl as Julius, Cecilia Bartoli as Cleopatra, Anne Sofie von Otter Cornelia and Philippe Jaroussky Sesto. These people know how to Handel you. A perturbing moment towards the end when one reckoned that the Salzburg Festival and all those great singers should know better than to put drinks on a piano. But otherwise...these guys and GFH together moved me to tears several times - Cornelia's first aria, the duet for her and Sesto, Cleo's 'Piangerai' - and left me at the end of five hours almost ready to beg for more. Gulp.

Inside the venues: phenomenal music-making, imaginative productions (some more than others) and world-class performances. The setting: mountain scenery, evening dresses, outsize jewellery, facelifts, sponsors' parties, pre-show drinkies choice of Moet on one side of the road or Taittinger on the other.

And the Festspielhave? In case you haven't seen all this before, the Festspielhaus bears Roman-style lettering above the door, declaring it the 'Festspielhavs'. This is where the Festspielhaves go in. The promenade of the audience around the champagne stalls often attracts onlookers. Those are the Festspielhavenots.

Pretentious though it may look, it's not all snob value. On my second and third evenings my neighbours were enthusiasts who were there on their own purely for love of music and interest in theatre. One was a retired lady from west of Paris, the other a mechanic from the Salzkammergut. And there is kindness aboard, too. Exiting Die Soldaten, I was brolliless in a downpour that put Salzburg's famous Schnurlregen to shame. A Californian lady festival-goer spotted me and offered to share her umbrella across the bridge. That's never happened en route to Waterloo Station. (Below: the view of the Castle from the interval crowd outside the Felsenreitschule. The dog is a Festspielhavenot.)

The atmosphere has changed a little since my last visit, some 20 years ago. Back then, almost every shop window bore a poster showing one or more of the musical stars visiting the town. The buses carried advertisements proudly welcoming Maurizio Pollini and Krystian Zimerman to Salzburg. The record shops were full to busting. Today? The sides of the buses plug designer outlets and free parking. I only spotted one record shop in town, and it specialised in world music. Zimerman's recital had been cancelled due to illness (Leif Ove Andsnes replaced him). Sponsor logos are plastered everywhere - gone are the graceful days of discretion in philanthropy (though it's nice of Nestle to provide Kit-Kats for the journalists in the media centre). And a gaping division is all too evident between the down-at-heel atmosphere on the outskirts of town and around the station, and the dripping-with-gold-and-designer-shops historic centre. The one thing that hasn't changed is the number of tourists and the amount of Mozartkugeln on sale.

A more welcome addition is a big screen in the Domplatz that relayed Die Soldaten live on Sunday, and on other evenings showed film of operas from festivals gone by. And I may have missed a trick by not taking the Sound of Music tour bus - apparently you all sing 'Doe, a Deer' and there's a quiz to win a packet of Edelweiss seeds. But the way time panned out, it was a choice of that or a jog along the river, and the latter won. Had to burn off some of that chocolate.

Check the November issue of Opera Now for my detailed review of the three performances.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Director Sergio Morabito talks about THAT PRODUCTION of Rusalka

The Wieler-Morabito production of Rusalka at Covent Garden has proved a lot more controversial in terms of critical response than The Death of Klinghoffer at ENO. Some critics, including my Independent colleague Ed Seckerson, have given it just one star out of five - though often there's a proviso of four for the musical performance and universal plaudits for Yannick Nezet-Seguin. The Telegraph has turned it into a salacious "oo-er, opera set in brothel gets booed" story, which is on the front page of the paper's website (still, you'd more or less expect that from the Telly). Mark Berry, over at Boulezian, is a voice of strong approval. And the Financial Times gives it five stars. I guess that means it has "divided opinion"...

My article previewing the production last week was based on a wide-ranging interview with Sergio Morabito, one of its duo of directors, and revival director Samantha Seymour. I thought it might be interesting, in the light of all this fuss, to revisit the original transcript for more detail. It's longish, and Sergio's English is quite Germanic, so get yourself a cuppa...
(Images: Royal Opera House/Clive Barda)

JD: Sergio, how and why did you decide to give Rusalka this very modern type of production, full of symbols? 

SM: Jossi Wieler, my directing partner and I, always try not to impose something, not to force something – we try to develop the aesthetic of a production out of the interpretation of the written and the musical text. What was decisive for this experience was that we discover that we need to find a balance, to balance it very carefully and not neglect the fairytale moments, which of course are important. Everybody knows the Andersen tale of The Little Mermaid and we try to go with it and play with it. But we decided together with the stage designer not to have a naturalistic setting, but we try to evoke this summer night’s dream kind of atmosphere, which is part of the score that you can’t just overrule. So we have a simple space which can transform and as a second layer we have the video projections which are conveying much of this fairytale atmosphere. Even in the costumes we play with it with these moments – we went back to Andersen and Rusalka really has this fish tail and tries to get rid of it and turn it into human legs. I think everything lies in a certain playfulness. 

But it’s important to realise the opera is a very dark fin-de-siecle reworking of this ancient story. This is crucial: it’s really dark fairy tale. It’s really desperate – without any hope. The ending is one of the most hopeless endings until now in opera, because of what she’s experiencing. This incredible development of Rusalka from a young woman, almost a girl, who tries to break out and find her own way and leave her father, risking everything in order to live this love, but then gradually becoming aware that she cannot live in this cold human world: she’s fooled by the society, humiliated by them and betrayed by the prince of course. Then the third act is very desperate. It’s not so much about an intact natural world - but one of the first lines is  that Vodnik the water goblin says "You are selling yourself," bartering – like The Bartered Bride, in Czech it's the same word – so it is also about the violation of the natural world. Then she realises that the human kind of utopia she dreamed of discovering with her prince becomes a trap more and more. We end up – it’s sort of inspired element, very strange, maybe it has some fin-de-siecle elements, but it is really a brothel, with sofas and couches...
SS: An American brothel!
SM: We end up in a very sad situation where she has no escape any more and so she decides in our production to commit suicide - which is an important element of the Rusalka story. Pushkin wrote a drama which he didn’t complete and later Dargomyszky transformed it into an opera – it’s the East European Rusalka myth, about a woman or children also who were not baptised or were expelled from Christian society, so they had no burial and they are doomed to live not living, not being dead, expelled by this Christian world. In the Pushkin she commits suicide and transforms into a rusalka - she comes back as a kind of vampire and drags him to his death. This goes perfectly not only with the music but also the text of this opera. It’s a horror ending: the prince goes mad and crazy, begging she gives him the mortal kiss, so it's not a love reconciliation, but she’s really kissing him to death. She comes back from the dead and revenges herself. She knows that she never will be granted salvation because she’s been told from the very beginning 
SS: She can save the prince but she can’t save herself. 
SM: Her last words to him when she kills him are "May God be merciful to you," but she knows that she herself is doomed to haunt this place. 
SS: In this undead state 
SM: exactly. We tried to find the right balance, and it's very sophisticated and playful, but also a sophisticated game of the authors of the text. It has much to do with this fin de siècle melancholy and sadness.

JD: When Dvorak wrote the work, around 1900, Freud's work was already current and it strikes me that the Freudian symbolism is very clear - do you think that is a deliberate element in the opera?

SS: I think that was partly the spirit of the times – the decadence of turn-of-the-century Vienna. 
SM: It’s not so far started around the same time. There's a strange structure to the story with the Foreign Princess: we don’t know what the relationship with the prince is, where does she suddenly come from – this very violent, destructive female character. And of course it’s also the madness of the prince at the end, he goes crazy.
SS: He really does despair - and he’s in a pretty rocky state at the beginning! 
SM: One can assume he tried to fall in love with Rusalka: already he’s trying to liberate himself from the spell from the foreign princess, it could be an explanation. Then he realises he can't cope with the other woman – the foreign princess is a bit much for him and he tries to conform to his society and their expectations when he meets Rusalka, but her idea of love is too different. He has not the strength to fight for it, in a way. He’s so fragile – and he is very brutal to Rusalka in the second act, when he falls completely under the power of the Foreign Princess.

JD: The story seems full of echoes of Giselle and Swan Lake... 

SM: Yes, the Wilis, the women who were abandoned before the’s exactly this tradition. That’s what we have to make concrete, this journey by Rusalka...

JD: Will you make many changes from your original production in Salzburg? (This interview was on the first day of ROH rehearsals).
SM: Two of the main parts are the same singers – Camilla Nylund was crucial because she is so charming on the one side and has so many colours she can convey vocally and with her acting. She’s able to have this playfulness, but she faces also the catastrophes of this character and the final scene is really chilling. But of course we try to react, not just to fit in the new singers. We have to find it and adapt it and it’s a great chance to work over some details. 
SS: There's an element that involves the Austrian Empire - bringing the production to England, we have to make sure the wedding party wouldn’t be construed as being German because they’re in dirndls and lederhosen. It’s not about germany, it’s about Austria. If you just picked 30 people outside the Salzburg Festspielhaus they’d look like our chorus! 
SM: Of course the Habsburgs and Czechoslovakia was part of it - the national opera was a manifestation of the Czech identity. We have on stage a little fountain with the famous statue of the Little Mermaid, but she wears a sort of halo: she's a pagan being, but she dreams of having sanctity and being granted a soul and being safe. That’s the background of the folklore motifs: these gods, goddesses, wood nymphs and sea nymphs that were demonised under Christianity. It’s not that their existence is denied, but it was thought that the devil was behind these elemental spirits, so this plays a certain role that we see these fairytale characters – in a way, they are in exile. They don’t live in the Bohemian woods, but they've had to retreat. They got pushed out to the edges of society. What we try to have is space for imagination – in the third act you might have this association that it’s a brothel because you see how people are dressed and how they act, but its just one moment of the story. We didn’t want to define it in one way, but to leave it open to different interpretations.

JD: You're mixing the references to the late Habsburg Empire with something much more 21st-century...

SM: Yes, it’s not that you can say OK, we put it in the 1960s or 1980s – we are coming from different sources, so we have a very beautiful traditional Czech wedding dress for Rusalka. It’s an invented world on stage – if you have documentary realism it wouldn’t work. 

JD: What do you make of Jezibaba? 

SM: She’s terrifying. Rusalka addresses her really as an ancient goddess - maybe Hecate, who was a benign goddess thousands of years ago, but now she’s reduced to a very miserable existence and she’s frustrated, of course, because she lost her dignity and people forgot her and think she’s just the old witch. So we see an old woman who can hardly walk - but she has some skills. It’s a mixture, so we don’t have just a classical fairytale, but this is a woman like those you can see on the streets nowadays. A bag lady. But she has a very special cat, which she addresses in the text also – it’s a very frightening, big cat, played by a dancer. 

JD: (remembering with alarm what happened in the Glyndebourne production) It doesn’t get its paw chopped off when they make the potion, does it....?

SM: No, this is a bit more playful! The little Rusalka we see at the beginning has a toy cat and it’s funny this fishwoman loves this toy cat; and suddenly in the scene with the witch it transforms into a cruel monster. And this cat transforms her and gives her legs.
SS: It’s very ambivalent: it has sexual elements and it’s quite horrific, but at the same time Rusalka really wants this to happen to her. 
SM: Everybody wants her, but she’s relentless, she really fights for her dream and does everything...and at the very end, in the third act in this brothel situation, there is the cat of Madame Jezibaba, a real one, sitting next to her – it is privileged to sit next to the Madame – and that is when Rusalka realises she is really trapped and she commits suicide. She asks "How can I come back to my former existence?". Jezibaba says "You have to stab the prince," and gives her a knife. In Dvorak she’s supposed to throw the knife into the lake and in our production, with the same words - it makes perfect sense - she says "he shall be happy, whatever happens to me" and she kills herself. 
SS: The alternative is that the world of the nymphs is also the world of the brothel so if she decided to stay there, she’d become one of the girls.

JD: What do you say to people who say "but this is a fairytale and we want a mermaid"? 

SM: But we have one! We have also the nymphs! We have a giant cat! They are right – you shouldn’t negate this abstractly, but you also shouldn’t reduce the fairy story because it’s much more than that. 
SS: I think fairytales have got a bad name – a lot of them are very psychologically dark, not harmless little stories for children. We do have fairy tale elements and the video projections to create that kind of ambience. SM: I’ve often seen beautiful films which are also playing with fairy tales, transposing them to a more contemporary world of experience. Children, when they hear fairy tales, they have concrete associations, they connect it to their real world. They don’t analyse them, but I remember how you link to certain persons or certain objects - so, you try to understand through the symbols when you don’t know the real meaning of old words. 
SS: There’s a lot of cruelty in them. I once went to a children’s performance of Cinderella where the Ugly Sisters had their feet chopped off to fit into the slippers. A friend of mine who’s a kindergarten teacher said you have to have this because children have an innate sense of right and wrong and if the bad sisters aren’t punished fittingly then they go out with this sense that it was unjust! So the cruelty is justified. That was an interesting insight.

JD: This is the first time Rusalka has been done here. Is that maybe why people have fought shy of it, because it is so dark? 

SM: It’s hard to say, but it could be one reason. 
SS: There’s a sort of renaissance of it going on – since we did our production in Salzburg there’ve been several others that have been very successful. 
SM: Also the Czech language...Especially in Germany, we have this repertory sustem and it’s not so easy to fill the houses... I think it’s partly due to the language, which also affects the musical language in an interesting way. I could imagine for some people this makes it difficult. [Morabito is currently based in Stuttgart.]

JD: You work very much in tandem with another director, Jossi Wieler – this is interesting, because in my experience some directors tend to be a tad despotic? 

SM: We’ve done opera together since 1994 and it’s a collective art work per se. You are not free – you have to respond from moment to moment to so many decisions the composer made. When you stage a play you have carte blanche to give the text a new structure and make a collage, etc, to create an exciting and interesting production. But in opera you have to contend with the grid of the score. And so that’s what we try to do: for us it’s all about the common process between the two of us and also the designer and the singers We really believe that you have to free the singers, you have to coach them in the best possible way... You are not just reacting: there are many decisions to take in advance before the rehearsal process starts. But the most beautiful thing is when the singers take over more and more responsibility. We’re not directors who expect singers to fill the form we’re defining; we try to stimulate their own fantasy. 
SS: What you often do is tell the singers what the situation is and what you want them to communicate, but not how you want them to communicate it. I think that’s a big difference. 
SM: So often you see opera where everybody is trying to make a remake of the film that was already made in their head, whereas for us the great thing is when they become freer and freer and have their own life - it's not like being marionettes. You find so much more that you couldn’t anticipate. It’s a living process – we are trying to hand over our ideas and input and then see. It gives you the possibility to step back and discover new dimensions. We have this dialogue. invent these productions and involve every collaborator. It’s fun! And when you have singers like Camilla – singers can do so much nowadays, they are so keen, they want to know, they want to play, they want to be asked. 
Often in opera, because it's so hierachical, you have a huge responsibility - and maybe it makes it easier if there are two of you, because you can afford to rely on the other and we find out together how to go on. This takes away a lot of stress, because the institution assumes you know what you want and it can be a difficult dynamic in opera theatre. 
SS: A lot of people have a similar relationship with their set designer and consult them about what they think SM: The stage designer created a space from which this world can unfold. We take the risk, even if we don’t know how it will unfold – it’s about process and it’s much more productive when you don’t know from the very beginning what you want to see. You start and you have long discussions; it’s important to have very specific fixed points and start around those. It’s so beautiful when the conductor, the singers, everyone is really working together and it’s not this power game...

JD: Audiences in some European countries, especially Germany and Austria, have come to expect productions that shock and challenge, whereas Americans tend to prefer traditional narrative stagings. Do you worry about how this production is going to go over here in the UK, which is kind of in the middle? 

SM: It’s hard to say, but of course I hope that the audience will see that no one of the singers is forced to do something awkward, but that they really play with huge intensity. So even if it’s unexpected or even disturbing in some moments, my hope is that nobody can really resist the presence of the singers and the commitment that they have. 
SS: There's nothing gratuitous about it. 

JD: If you were speaking to someone who's never seen Rusalka before, how would you persuade them to come and see it? 

SM: It’s not the answer to your question, but we try to work in a way that everyone, even someone who doesn’t know anything about the opera or the story, is able to step in and understand it. So it's not that we are simplifying – on the contrary, the more colour and detail, the more concrete it is. We don’t like the idea that we are making abstract aesthetic statements and people must swallow it or die! We think and hope that people wouldn’t have preconceived expectations. One hopes one can seduce even people who know the opera in another production to experience it anew. I would say it’s a very sad, modern fairy tale with wonderful late-romantic music – not just the Song to the Moon which everyone knows but a lot of pieces everyone should know...It’s an incredibly colourful score, but permeated by this deep, deep sadness and all the folk elements – it brings together a lot of different musical styles. 

JD: It strikes me that there’s a lot of Wagner in there. 

SM: That’s true – Alberich and the Rhinemaidens and some of the sounds and styles are melded in Dvorak's own style.

JD: And here’s an opera where the heroine is mute for most of the 2nd act! 

SM: Yes, that’s funny! It's an amazing risk to take – she doesn’t sing for half an hour and then this amazing aria bursts out of her. But you’ll see how Camilla is moving this whole second act – it’s so touching. And in the first act we think we need the love duet, but it never happens, Rusalka doesn’t join in! That's quite daring.

JD: Do you like working with Yannick Nezet-Seguin?

SM: I’m very happy he is conducting. When we did this in 2008 in Salzburg, he was there conducting Romeo and Juliet, and it’s a nice coincidence we are brought together now in this opera.

JD: Is it possible to quantify why the working relationship is so strong between you and Jossi?

SM: He was already an established theatre director when then he was asked by the artistic manager of the Stuttgart Opera to direct opera. He hesitated, he loves classical music and opera, but he thought it’s not his profession – and so we came together and started to do our first production, I as dramaturg and he as director, and it developed its own dynamic. After our third production - it was Alcina by Handel, it was invited to the Edinbuirgh Festival for several performances around 2000 or 01 - we started to stage things together. I am coming more from the dramaturgical approach, but what we share is an analytical passion, so Jossi for the 'soul and being' and me for dramaturgy, text and literature. Of course we change, sometimes he is leading, sometimes I can take over and show a direction, but we can hardly say who had which idea. It comes out of the dialogue - but that’s his great quality, that he lets it be. It’s great serenity. We are now at the Stuttgart Opera and we had a wonderful La Sonnambula premiere last Sunday. It’s fantastic because normally in opera you can’t choose - you are asked whether or not you want to stage a particular opera - but now we can decide ourselves.