Listening to the Gut
by Joel Ivany
(photos were submitted by Mr. Ivany as images which inspired his production)
Les Contes D’Hoffmann, is a wonderful piece written in the Opéra-Comique structure, meaning speaking between the singing. It’s easy to confuse it to mean comedy, when unfortunately; there is nothing funny that happens during this story.
I was asked, how do you satisfy those who find this work leaning more towards operetta and also those who find this piece leaning more towards opera. I must say that I try not to compartmentalize a work in any way. The first thing I look at is the story. Is it a good story? Yes or no and why? Why did I like it or why didn’t I? What is my gut telling me to do? It’s always a fairly secure litmus test of where the journey begins.
Another great test of seeing the validity of story is looking back at the premiere. I recently saw the film Les Misérables. This movie is a film version of the musical, which I’ve seen in the West End, London, on two separate occasions. The original production opened to negative reviews, however it has since run continuously in the West End since 1985. There was something about it that connected with the audience who continue to come and experience this grand tale. Les Contes D’Hoffmann opened in 1881 after the composer had died and also before he had finished writing the opera. It received several “re-workings” and despite many complications, it has been continuously produced all over the world since that opening over 132 years ago.
My approach is simply to look at the story, and if something clicks, then to tell the story as best as I can. I have a wonderful designer, Camellia Koo, and together we discovered a fantastic world where these characters will live and breathe together.
Every good story has great characters. This opera contains some of the most moving music, but also some of the most disturbing characters that any opera or theatrical show has ever known. A crazed inventor displays his newest creation, a beautiful singing automaton. A star singer is brought to the edge of the underworld as her dead mother is conjured by an evil magician. Finally, a seducing mistress is coaxed to steal the reflection of our hero in exchange for diamonds. In searching for the ideal framework to place these characters (and the others that you will meet throughout the show) we ran away to join the circus. Our version of Les Contes D’Hoffmann is set in the mysterious, dark, and often seedy backstage world of a turn of the century travelling circus and the carousel of characters that inhabit it.
Within this context, it was easy to approach the music that everyone knows. The Barcarolle at the top of the Giulietta act is perhaps the most famous music of this opera and one of the greatest tunes of any opera. This can bring its own pressures of “getting it right”. However, my designer and I felt no issues about approaching this music given the circumstances that we’ve set our opera in.
For me, personally, this is the first time that I am directing this piece. This is the first time that I am approaching how I will direct it and therefore, there is no worry about “making it my own”. I am simply looking at it in its context.
I think for those people that haven’t been “sold” on opera, they’re going to be coming with open eyes, ready to take in and watch a new story. For those opera fans that are already on board, a dangerous expectation is to see how it will be “mixed up”. How will the director juggle that tricky moment? For me, a director’s job is to get out of the way and tell the story. If the big moment flows by seamlessly, then the director has done a good job. That’s all I can hope for. If it seems appropriate and natural, then we’ve done our job!