Age only 33, Sam Brown is to direct a new production of Rossini’s Barber of Seville at Welsh National Opera as part of a Figaro Forever trilogy in Spring 2016.
This young director’s enthusiasm and passion for theatre and opera were strikingly evident throughout our meeting.
Born in Leeds, “to an ordinary Jewish family”, studied Classics at Oxford University before gaining his MFA in theatre directing at Birbeck College, London. The bright and eager Brown then sized opportunities to direct in his home town, Leeds, where he worked at West Yorkshire Playhouse then moved on to Opera North as an assistant director.
In 2011, in addition to winning, together with his set designer Annemarie Woods, the RING AWARD, an international competition for stage directors and designers in the field of music theatre, Brown received the European Award for Stage Direction. He is the only person ever to win both awards.
RJ: Passion for theatre?
SB: I just loved going to the theatre and being in the theatre.
After a brief pause he adds I think I liked making something. And I was never good at sports, and I was terrible at drawing and making things, and the thing I really enjoyed doing was being in the theatre and being in plays. And then I had this opportunity to direct one because I thought the teachers who were directing plays were doing a very bad job. So I thought, well, I could do better than that.
RJ: We spoke about the differences in directing theatre Vs Opera
SB: My opinion on the theatre, the spoken theatre, has become very different as a result of me working in opera. When I now direct plays, I spend the first period of time doing what the work of the conductor would be in an opera, that we just are sitting reading the play and I’m listening to it. Because what I realised after working in opera is that, for a good production of a play, there has to be a music in the language. People used to say “we go to hear a play”, didn’t they? A beautiful play is about language, and how that language is spoken. And the way that play is communicated to the audience is, in my opinion, primarily about the way it’s spoken. And then, of course, on top you can make everything else. But the experiences that I find frustrating in the theatre are those which are visually very interesting or fun or exciting or sexy, but nobody can speak and you can’t understand the play, or it’s not even a play that’s interesting. It has no rich language.
So when I started to direct a play last year, I spent the first four weeks of six weeks just sitting at a table reading it and listening to how the actors would speak and talking about how they could say the words. And this was very interesting to me because it was all as a result of having worked so much with music.
One thing I’ve learned a lot in opera is that the role of the director is, I think, primarily one of interpretation. We are very stuck still in the UK, I think, with this naturalistic, box set, French window style of theatre which has been going since a hundred years. Now we’re just starting to see how other countries do it, and it feels like the future is finally here. But for a long time it felt like you went to see plays at the big theatres in London, and you could not have said what decade they came from, just from looking, because they were just the same old naturalistic stuff.
RJ: Well, sets have changed for a while.
SB: No, I don’t know if it has really! The last couple of things I saw at the National or the Royal Court, I didn’t feel that there were hugely visually exciting and brave things going on there. They were naturalistic plays set in naturalistic environments.The theatre is not really about being real, I don’t think.
RJ: Is this the reason why you are attracted to opera buffa, to the comic?
SB: Well, I’m quite good at comedy. That’s what I’m known to be good at. And I enjoy it. It’s very difficult, of course, to make comedy funny. But people who run theatres or opera houses, they are always looking for people who can do operetta and opera buffa well and to make it funny, because there aren’t that many of them. I like to make people laugh. And with music it’s very nice to do this as well.
RJ: Do you find it more difficult to direct people who trained to sing rather than act? As you know Maria Callas, Carmen Giannattasio and a few other opera singers said they are first actors and then singers.
SB: I think that’s true. All theatre is an act of communication, and singers communicate with their voice through music. But they’re not just standing in a concert stage. They’re communicating to us in the context of a production, and they’re wearing a costume, and they’re in a play, basically.
RJ: Would drama school be of help?
I’m not sure actors do go to drama school and learn to act. I think actors go to drama school and they learn technique. They can either act or they can’t. Or let’s put it another way: They can either act well or they can’t act well. There are a lot of people going to drama school, and they come out of the best drama schools, and they’re no better actors than they were when they arrived. Because they can’t be taught to be acting. It’s an ability you either have or you don’t, talent. And you can train it.
And a singer has to have something before they start in a conservatoire. Otherwise they can’t be produced with a good voice. Now, the singer learns technique in singing. And they don’t always learn technique in acting. But just because they’re singers doesn’t mean they’re not good actors, because they can have and sometimes do have that same inherent natural ability to play on a stage. Just like an actor can. They just usually don’t have the technique to know how to use it.
Now what I’ve found is that with a lot of older singers, so for example Andrew Shore is doing Bartolo for me who I did Jakob Lenz with, he didn’t go to drama school. But he’s a very, very good stage actor, and he’s quite old now, and he has learned how to perform on stage very, very well, brilliantly. He’s a wonderful actor. But he was never taught that. He had an ability, and through experience he refined it. And he works very hard.
There are some singers who have the best voices in the world and will never be good actors. And there are some actors who have very good abilities at being on stage, but they’re still not very good actors. The theatre is full of very bad actors.
Now, the way I work, is I try to take as much of the person into the character as possible. I think that’s easier for the singer, but also I think you get a better result. I think it’s best if the singer can find something of him or herself in the character that he or she is playing, rather than just doing the direction, the mise en scene, that I’m telling him or her to do, and he’s wearing a costume. The other big difference I’ve found between opera singers and actors is that actors like to spend a long time experimenting and only at the very last minute fixing it. Whereas opera singers, on the whole, like to fix it very quickly and spend a long time practicing it. So that means as the director you have to know what you want a lot more, and you can’t really succeed in an opera situation if you don’t know what you want and you’re very indecisive. You have to be good at taking decisions in an opera.
Sam Brown was asked by David Pountney, Artistic director of Welsh National Opera asked you to direct Rossini’s Barber of Seville part of Figaro Forever trilogy in Spring 2016.
RJ: Did you have an opportunity to discuss the characters with the directors of the other two operas in the trilogy?
SB: We did have a meet up in David’s house in France where we pitched all the productions and discussed how they would fit together. I am very much the junior partner. There is a shared scenic design between all three productions, based on a set design by Ralph Koltai that he did for David years ago in Cardiff of Simon Boccanegra, which is a means of moving scenery around the stage. Some large panels that move and can be turned and create different spaces. What’s on that scenery is very different in each piece, but the fact that they’ve essentially been designed by one designer –Ralph Koltai–who is the sort of father of Abstract Expressionism in theatre design–the creating of a domestic comedy in this very abstract design is a particular challenge. Because Ralph’s work, which is very beautiful, and abstract and sculptural and painterly, does not necessarily help you when trying to do the scene where Bartolo has to get shaved, for example.
If I had been commissioned to do the Barber of Seville from scratch I would have discussed with Ralph Koltai, who is a genius, a different approach to the set. I think it’s easier to make comedy out of very seemingly naturalistic situations for which you require a certain degree of thing that the audience can recognize, which then you can subvert. Well, with this production I have a very beautiful abstract world in which we have characters wearing costumes designed by Sue Blane, whose prompt from me was to be very extreme. So they’re almost cartoony, the characters on stage. And I don’t quite know how that’s going to work yet, but I will give it my best shot.
RJ: So you are given the actual mold, you just have to decorate and change a little bit in order to create.
SB: Well, we were given the way that the scenery would move. What was on these panels was the work of Ralph and myself. But Ralph works in a very special way where he presents what he feels is the heart of the piece, the kernel of the piece, without necessarily addressing the problems of the piece. So for example, the Barber of Seville, the plot turns on the fact that somebody climbs up a ladder to go in a window and the ladder is taken away. Well, I said to Ralph, “If you don’t give me a window, we can’t play the opera.” Whereas what he feels is that what the piece is really about, on a very basic level, is not really anything to do with windows and ladders.
RJ: So he looks at it as an idea, or a metaphor?
SB: Yes! And that’s what his genius is. Because he has this way of interpreting the visual world through the lens of the world that he’s trying to make. And that’s very, very, very clever. And, of course, he was the first person ever to do that.
RJ: Do you manage without the ladder and a window?
SB: Well, we have a ladder and a window now of course. But the process to getting there was more unusual than I think a more naturalistic stage designer would approach this piece.
RJ: So what Barber of Seville are we going to see?
SB: Well, we’re seeing one not set in any particular period of time. We’re seeing one where the characters are very extreme. And it’s going to be very slapstick. And we’re going to see lots of different crazy things happening on the stage. I’m quite interested in a sort of a vaudeville approach to very presentational humour, which I hope the audience will find funny. We’ve commissioned a new translation by a woman called Kelley Rourke who’s American whose translation of Elixir of Love I saw at the Coliseum some years ago was lovely.
RJ: A new translation? Will it be in English?
RJ: Why do it in English?
SB: Because it’s a comedy and, David thought, and I agree with him, that to play the comedy in the audience’s language allows a more direct relationship with the material and helps you to be able to find humour.
RJ: Will it be in English in Welsh accent?
SB: No! (Laughs.) It will be regular English, I think, with Welsh subtitles.
RJ: And what about the singers?
SB: Yes, as I was saying, Andrew Shore is Doctor Bartolo, whom I’ve worked with before and has done this role many, many, many, many times. And he is the greatest comic singing actor I know.
RJ: But he sang it in Italian.
SB: And in English. He sings at ENO as well, in a different translation. And we have Claire Booth as Rosina, who’s a really wonderful singer, who I’ve seen in some things before. And Nico Darmanin will play the Count, a young Maltese tenor. And Nicholas Lester is Figaro.
RJ: So you, as the director of the opera, are responsible for the dramatic effect, while the conductor is responsible for the operatic or the musical interpretation.
SB: When people ask me about the director and the conductor, I like to say that the director is responsible for everything you see, and the conductor is responsible for everything you hear. So everything that happens on the stage is my ultimate responsibility–of course with a designer and a light designer and so on. But basically that’s my area.
Well before the rehearsals begin, I’ve had the conductor play through the whole opera for me on the piano and we’ve discussed every single part of it together. I like to do that because I want to see where we’re going to go musically. Because the music is the most important thing in the opera.
Thank you Sam, it was a pleasure meeting you.
My thanks to Paul Meltzer and Sophia Chetin-Leuner.