Arts & Culture

Head and Heart

Director Robert Carsen brings a Canadian temperament to the world’s great opera houses

Annemie Augustijns/courtesy Vlaamse Opera
Annemie Augustijns/courtesy Vlaamse OperaDaffodils cover the stage in a Carsen production of La Boheme

Nine fifty-five a.m.; the stage of Zurich’s regal ,” he implores in a patented Euro-mélange. Though he is idiomatically fluent in English, French, German, and Italian, “the point,” he later relates, “is to make your point.” And at five minutes to rehearsal, the point is a patch of clumsily laid floor panelling around the prompter’s box. “But when does it come? ” he presses on. Parquet is technically not in the stage director’s portfolio. But Robert Carsen is nothing if not a details man.

The maestro, Christoph von Dohnányi, with his distinguished white mane, is shuffling his way to the orchestra pit rostrum. The stage manager, a sprightly woman wearing a headset, attempts to break up the last-minute technical summit; this is, after all, only the first stage and orchestra rehearsal—more like a musical meet-and-greet than a serious creative session—and opening night is still two weeks away. There will be no lighting, no makeup, just a few token costume pieces; even the ubiquitous chorus has the morning off. Coolly milling about backstage, humming, swigging from water bottles, and muttering to themselves in nineteenth-century Italian, the singers greet colleagues with cosmetic charm. They know the stage and orchestra drill: give just enough to show the maestro what you can do while remaining firmly in your personal and vocal comfort zone. Most tend to mark their acting during these rehearsals as well. Not with Carsen. Even as he is tying up negotiations on the flooring situation, the tenor is getting a note on the timing of his first entrance, and a Chaplinesque gag is being worked into the secondary baritone’s short opening aria. It is announced that there will be a kritik following the rehearsal.

At two minutes to ten, Carsen dashes into the wings. Over the next 120 seconds, he shakes hands with half a dozen people ranging from suit to stained overalls clad, approves the prima donna’s shoes, rejects a servant’s wig, signs off on a production poster mock-up, reviews the next week’s rehearsal plan, and explains to an assistant the excruciating details of a close friend’s death the night before. At ten o’clock sharp, the diminutive director slips into an upholstered seat in the twelfth row, just as the mighty opening chords of Puccini’s Tosca ring through the house. By the time the heavy red velvet curtain swings up, three measures later, he is already whispering notes to two aides perched over either shoulder.

At fifty-four, Toronto-born Robert Carsen is one of the world’s most successful operatic stage directors. Though he has spent most of his career in Europe, in a profession of prima donnas, his obsession with the minutiae of the theatre is balanced by a refreshing sense of flexibility, versatility, and good old Canadian reasonableness. “I don’t throw tantrums,” he says in a measured yet indefinite mid-Atlantic accent. “Art is in the details, as they say, but theatre is also a big compromise. As a director, you have no choice but to enjoy that—to embrace it.”

In many ways, it was this attention to detail that started Carsen on the road to directing. The son of German immigrants Clementine Nahm and Walter Carsen, whose name today adorns a room at the Art Gallery of Ontario and the National Ballet of Canada headquarters, the younger Carsen grew up in a cultured environment: “Toronto was an exciting place back then [in the ’60s and ’70s]. The coc did some great work; Seiji Ozawa was at the symphony; then we always went to see shows in New York.” Captivated by theatre, he quit York University to pursue acting studies at the Old Vic Theatre School in Bristol, England. “I wanted to be an actor,” he recounts, “until one day, one of my teachers, an old Austrian named Rudi Shelley, pulled me aside and suggested maybe I should consider directing. I took this to mean he thought I was a bad actor, but he said, ‘No, it’s just that you actually seem more interested in what other people are doing—and in telling them what to do.’ That got me thinking.”

The instincts for observation and persuasion Shelley noted in the young Canadian were honed into skills through an intensive phase of assisting: “The old adage that it takes about fifteen years to become an overnight success… well, that happened to me,” he concedes. With only rudimentary piano skills, he had never really entertained the possibility of working in opera until, in 1980, he landed an assistant director’s job at the Spoleto Festival in Italy. This led to a longer-term association with the Glyndebourne Festival, a prestigious summer opera festival in Sussex, where Carsen assisted many of the important British and American opera stage directors of the day.

Rarely does the term “break” accurately apply to the career of an artist. In Carsen’s case, remounting or reviving another director’s production got him noticed. Based on a successfully managed revival for his house, Hugues Gall, the general manager of Geneva’s Grand Theatre, gave him his own assignment: a new version of Arrigo Boito’s Mefistofele. “He took a chance on me,” says Carsen, “but I was ready.” The production scored a major success, leading to three more commissions for the Grand Theatre. The Mefistofele was picked up by the Metropolitan Opera in New York and four other companies, while its director became a hot ticket on the European opera scene, with a quick succession of engagements in Bordeaux, Lyons, and Aix-en-Provence, and a cycle of Puccini operas in Antwerp. When Gall moved on to head the Opéra national de Paris, he brought several Carsen productions from Geneva, and during his Parisian tenure hired him for seven more.

Many of these early productions were the fruits of collaborations with designer and fellow Canadian Michael Levine. “The relationship between director and designer varies from collaboration to collaboration and from piece to piece,” explains Carsen, who, as director, acts as the front man for his creative team, and is at liberty to choose the set, costume, and lighting designers he deems appropriate for each commission. “Essentially, the designer is there to give a physical life to [the director’s] ideas,” he says. In Levine, he found a partner who could create scenery “full of emotional depth,” he says. “Our job is to do justice to the piece. That means reading it together carefully, listening closely, and defining for ourselves what the piece is all about.”

This credo has occasionally landed him afoul of audiences and critics who accuse him of making himself more important than the piece. His productions often shift the action from their original settings to different locations and epochs. Occasionally, characters not in the composer’s score will be interpolated for symbolic elaboration. There is neither an ocean nor an island in Carsen’s production of Ariadne auf Naxos, but a row of mute doubles emulates the gestures of each protagonist. His Tosca transfers the action from nineteenth-century Rome to Milan circa the 1950s. In 2004, the Salzburg Festival was scandalized by the transformation of Richard Strauss’s elegiac Viennese comedy into an austere, bunker Der Rosenkavalier. Some in Italy were shocked when Carsen’s Venice production of La Traviata replaced Verdi’s romantic evocation of nineteenth-century Paris with a contemporary location populated by characters in street clothes; his 2006 production of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide made headlines for its row of political leaders, including Blair, Bush, Berlusconi, and Putin, singing and high-kicking in their underwear.

In response to his critics, Carsen is polite yet unapologetic: “I am not trying to make things up or ‘fix’ these pieces,” he offers respectfully. “So many of our conceptions, or preconceptions, of operas simply do not correspond to what’s actually in the pieces… The ideas for these productions come entirely out of the text. For example, Richard Strauss wrote Der Rosenkavalier four years before World War I. The Feldmarschall, who is never seen but casts a huge, frightening shadow over the whole piece, is the head of the Austrian army. From Hofmannsthal’s text, all we know about Faninal [the ingenue’s father] is that he sells arms to Holland. These militaristic aspects are written in by the librettist. He didn’t have to, but he did. So it only seemed logical we address them.”

Controversial though some of his ventures may be, Carsen’s fresh and stimulating approach has found a popular niche. He is one of the world’s busiest directors. In 2007–08, there were upwards of forty Robert Carsen productions in the repertoires of opera companies in North America, Europe, and Asia. Immediately prior to the Zurich Tosca, he was working at Milan’s La Scala, restaging Handel’s Alcina—for the fifth time. Before that, Janáček’s Katya Kabanova in Madrid, and before that to Paris for Lully’s Armide. Next it’s back to Milan for Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, then on to Amsterdam for his first Carmen. From first cast meeting to opening night, an opera will typically rehearse five to six weeks. Carsen, who keeps places in both London and Paris, admits, “I couldn’t let myself think about how many days per year I am actually at home—it would be too depressing.”

Given the sheer volume of his creative output, it is remarkable how different each Carsen production is from the next. In contrast to many of opera’s elite stage directors, who have established strong aesthetic signatures, it is difficult to define a “Carsen style.” His theatrical identity is nebulous, like his nationality. He subscribes to no particular school, movement, ideology, or theatrical orthodoxy, but artistically draws upon many. He works with a variety of set and costume designers. His aesthetic ranges from spartan abstraction to edgy contemporary updates to traditional period wigs and ball gowns. “Opera is such a mixture of head and heart,” he muses. “You are constantly working with the fact that the music is abstract and the words are concrete. [Opera] is not just an emotional experience, nor is it an excuse to lecture an audience about your views of the world. I try to make both aspects work, but the balance is always different, because each piece is different. In the end, I am just interested in making good theatre. Good theatre is like sex, alcohol, drugs—it gives a feeling of the suspension of time. And in opera we have both wonderful music and, hopefully, exciting theatre, which makes the experience all the more powerful.”

The idea of the essential theatricality of opera comes closest to defining Carsen’s creative ethos. His productions are occasionally attacked for being too cold or for lacking critical bite, but his work is punctuated by a sense that, ultimately, “the play’s the thing.” The visual appeal, subtle humour, and self-conscious theatricality of his productions has made him the import of choice for major opera houses seeking to show an imaginative, progressive tendency without alienating their established audiences. Beyond the efficacy of his creative philosophy, he is also simply very good at his job.

Later that afternoon, Carsen and his two leads are back in their cramped rehearsal studio, putting the finishing touches on act 2. The maestro was tough on the soprano during the morning’s rehearsal, and she is exhausted. The baritone, I’m told, is an internationally reputed difficult case. Carsen’s pace adjusts to the vibe of the room. His eclectic morning dynamism is mellowed into a gentle focus. He takes care not to stress the atmosphere, letting the clock tick well past five before softly ambling over to his cast. Both singers tower over him. In a calm voice, he explains his hopes for the next two hours. Props are set; a large desk is positioned in the centre of the space. The soloists take their places, Carsen pulls up a chair, and the music begins. He does not follow along with the score; he knows the text and melody by heart. The baritone interrupts himself: “I’m lost here… what did we do last time? ” Carsen gets to his feet and demonstrates a move from the desk to a giant painting hanging on the left wall. His gestures reveal a subtle self-consciousness, but the timing is impeccable. It takes several attempts for the baritone to emulate his example.

Does he miss acting? “Not at all. I have too many wonderful projects,” says the man who, in addition to his opera work, has directed plays in Italy, France, the UK, and the US, and musicals for London’s West End; created a spectacle for Disneyland Paris; and designed an exhibition at Paris’s Grand Palais based on the life of Marie Antoinette. “It’s all theatre, whether it’s a play, an opera, a musical, an installation, whatever,” he says, adding with a tinge of new iconoclasm, “and it’s not about being popular or elite; either it’s good theatre or it isn’t.” But how does Carson reconcile himself to working with notoriously difficult opera singers? “Obviously,” he begins with tact, “with singers, there are a few additional factors to take into account, just in terms of the kind of physical engagement they need in order to produce those sounds. You need to reassure them you like what they are doing; once they trust you, they will try anything. To some extent, singers are much more free [than actors], because they come to the first rehearsal already knowing their parts. Actors learn their roles through the rehearsal process; with singers, you can plunge into the details from day one.”

Yes, the details. After two hours coaxing his soloists through a love scene and a murder, Carsen is gracious, but focused as ever: “What are we doing about your dress? ” he asks the weary soprano. To her agitated baritone colleague, “Do you want the blood pack under your left arm or taped to your midriff? ” A question for the maestro about the tempo at bar 472. The stage manager is sent scurrying for a bevy of alternative letter openers. “Can the servants enter from the right five seconds earlier? ” He turns to his assistant: “And for Monday, I want to start with… ” As the clipboard scribbling grows frantic, the director interrupts himself with a familiar reflex. “It’s such beautiful music, isn’t it? ” he says aloud, glowing in wonder. “We’re all very lucky.”