'Twisted Fire-starters: staging the incendiary opera Biedermann and the Arsonists'
Max Hoehn's Feature for The Guardian, 11th November 2015
Article for 'International Artist Manager' Blog. See here for original article.
Max Hoehn on winning Independent Opera at Sadler’s Wells 2015 Director Fellowship, the first competition of its kind for opera directors in the UK.
I was lucky enough to discover opera early in the living room of my grandparents, listening to my family’s favourite singers: Gigli, Callas, Fischer-Dieskau and Olga Borodina. I immediately found the expressivity of the human voice to be the most powerful form of storytelling one could encounter. Although many of these experiences were purely aural, my mind’s eye would create a film as an instinctive sensory response to the music. The process of listening became synonymous with a form of dreaming that gave these voices a face, a costume and a visual context.
Soon I encountered fully staged opera, primarily through recordings of television broadcasts. But only when I watched a film of Graham Vick’s Glyndebourne production of Eugene Onegin did I begin to comprehend what an opera director’s contribution might be as an interpretive artist. At the end of Tatyana’s Letter Scene when the music boils over in excitement as she finally sends her love letter to Onegin, Tatyana turned abruptly to the audience as if sharing a secret with them. She then took a jug of water from her bedside table and baptised herself, marking the transition from girl to woman. These early experiences were the first of many that established the idea of a director as an artist who can, in collaboration with many others, sensitise an audience to the full power of an opera.
Now in my twenties I find myself directing the UK Premiere of Biedermann and the Arsonists, a new opera by Šimon Voseček based on a play by Max Frisch, for Independent Opera at Sadler’s Wells. The production is the result of a nationwide competition run by Independent Opera to give a young director the chance to stage a chamber-scale piece in London with resources comparable to those of the main UK companies.
Every candidate had a nominator and mine was none other than Graham Vick, with whom I worked as assistant director for two years at Birmingham Opera Company. Working in 2014 on their Khovanskygate: A National Enquiry, an English version of Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina, felt like another education following the one that began in my grandparents’ living room. As well as assisting Graham, I wrote the English translation of this epic meditation on social and political polarisation in Russia at the beginning of the modern age. The production went on to win Best New Production at the International Opera Awards and remains one of the key formative experiences of my professional life so far.
Alongside my assistant director work, the Arcola Theatre and the Cheltenham Music Festival have also invited me to direct several pieces. My revival of Viktor Ullmann’s haunting opera Der Kaiser von Atlantis ran over two consecutive Grimeborn Festivals and this September I returned to Birmingham Opera Company to direct Stephen Oliver’s ingenious mini-opera The Waiter’s Revenge in cafés all over the city. Independent Opera’s production of Biedermann and the Arsonists, however, offers a completely different level of exposure and depth of collaboration.
I began work with the set and costume designer, Jemima Robinson, a former Linbury Prize winner, on our production proposal for the competition over a year ago. We have had the time and support to analyse the piece from every angle and let our original vision evolve into the final design that audiences will see at previews this week and on Saturday’s opening night.
The opportunity to collaborate with a living composer is a relatively rare one in opera and Šimon’s encouragement and positive engagement with every side of the production has been invaluable. David Pountney, current head of Welsh National Opera, chaired the competition jury and then somehow found time in his crowded schedule to write the English translation of Šimon’s opera. He has managed to capture the Central European sensibility of the 1950’s text while also finding a language that is recognisable to UK audiences today.
I have also been able to sign on the lighting designer, Giuseppe di Iorio, who works internationally with Graham Vick, to intensify the strange and nightmarish elements of the design. And I have an excellent cast of international singers, many with extensive experience in contemporary repertoire, with the Britten Sinfonia conducted by Timothy Redmond.
Given the calibre and maturity of the cast, rehearsals have been highly collaborative with some scenes emerging organically and other more stylised sections carefully shaped and choreographed. The combined efforts of all these forces are all essential in making any production work, but a director cannot rely on this synergy to emerge without a clear vision of the opera in the first place. Devising that approach in one’s mind while studying a score and listening to a recording is the key mental process that is constantly bubbling away in my mind.
This is arguably the same imaginative process that I engaged with when I first started listening to opera all those years ago, but this time thanks to Independent Opera’s Director Fellowship (the first of its kind in the UK) I have the opportunity to give these visions of music a tangible reality and, hopefully, show my directorial work at its best.
Biedermann and the Arsonists is performed at the Lilian Baylis Studio, Sadler’s Wells on 14, 17 and 19 November at 7.45pm. For tickets and more information visit independentopera.com and sadlerswells.com.
15/06/15 Blog Post for Independent Opera at Sadlers Wells
What would you do if a pair of suspicious-looking strangers enter your home uninvited and then ask for shelter? Would you throw them out? Call the police? Would you try to be diplomatic and avoid a physical confrontation? These are the challenges put before an audience in Biedermann and the Arsonists. The stable domestic world of the Biedermanns, a respectable, prosperous couple, is destroyed because of their inability to combat the serious threat posed to their home and local community. Blind fear, social embarrassment, middle-class guilt and moral paralysis all combine to drive Herr Biedermann and his wife towards compromising with and ultimately submitting to this new power that has infiltrated their home.
I have been working with designer Jemima Robinson to find a visual language that best dramatises this clash of worlds. We decided to create a two-tier set. In Šimon Voseček’s opera, the orchestra have a highly individual, demonic voice that disorientates and confounds the singers. The decision to place them in a hellish pit in full view of the audience makes them an active participant in the drama. Above them is the Biedermanns’ domestic paradise: clean, monotonous and white.
Interpretations of the text that lock the play into a fixed historical time frame (eg. the Communist takeover of Eastern Europe or the rise of the Nazis) distance the piece for a contemporary audience. Morality plays are timeless by their very nature. Frisch himself wrote to the director of the play’s British Premiere that an audience had to relate to the figure of Biedermann for the piece to work. Šimon has also emphasised the importance of universality in his conception of the piece today. In order to achieve this, the world of our production is recognisably modern, but not aggressively so. I chose to give the Biedermanns’ apartment a bland contemporary look that would be familiar to UK audiences and to dress Herr Biedermann as the archetypal British businessman.
But a semi-absurdist Central European sensibility is also part of the work’s DNA. A hyper-naturalistic approach that updates the work exclusively to modern Britain would undermine this crucial ingredient. During this pre-production process the visual associations of the design have become more broadly European. The inclusion of angel wings for the sanctimonious firmen trio, the hellish basement and the tone of David Pountney’s English translation help add the necessary element of overt theatricality to break up the solidity and realism of the Biedermanns’ apartment. The piece is, after all, about the collapse of seemingly secure cultural assumptions and values. With the model essentially complete and costume designs almost ready, I hope our visualisation of the downfall of the Biedermann household will complement Šimon’s wonderfully vivid, amusing and unsettling music.
06/06/15 Blog Post on Pelléas et Mélisande at Welsh National Opera
I have been in Cardiff for the last six weeks working as Assistant Director to David Pountney on this new production of Debussy's opera as part of the 2015 Independent Opera Director Fellowship.
It is no secret that David Pountney transformed opera production in this country during his tenures at ENO and Scottish Opera. He gave some of my favourite directors their first start and brought a strong sense of identity to both companies, moving opera direction and design away from the literal towards a more intellectually provocative and playful form of representation. His ENO Rusalka on DVD consists of a series of symbolically rich and evocative stage pictures. A swing, a fragment of mirror, a pool underneath the floor boards - all in the context of an Edwardian nursery. These are images that stretch one's imagination and sensitise you to Dvorak's music.
WNO's new Pelléas is perhaps not so far away from this Slavic fairytale and David's approach has been similarly non-naturalistic. A forest of chains and a spooky skeletal gasometer structure contribute to this impression. The acting has also left the mystery of the text intact. What has intrigued me is how Jurgita Adamonyté's Mélisande has evolved into this fascinating, strong, enigmatic figure during rehearsals. David often avoided pinning down a specific meaning or psychological logic to how she behaves. In Jurgita's infinitely subtle portrayal we are invited to guess at what she's up to rather than anything being made explicit for us.
Mark Jonathan's lighting rehearsals were another highly rewarding aspect of the process. As if to balance the severity of the set, it fell to Mark to provide a visual outlet for the beauty of the score. Here, a little literalism came in handy. We had a starry sky and, most importantly, water. The ripples from any movement in the pool reflected onto the set and even onto the ceiling of the auditorium to remarkable effect.
It is a uniquely great opera. I was already under its spell after listening to the Désormière and Abbado recordings and after this production it's definitely on my dream list of operas to direct.