An interview with Opera Factory director David Freeman
Freeman, founder of the Opera Factory companies in Zurich and London, is home in Sydney to direct a new production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute for Opera Australia. The production also uses physical theatre company Legs On The Wall. This is an edit of a recent interview.
[David Freeman:] Theatre policy, in effect, is based on museum policy. There’s a direct line in London, for instance, between the founding of the British Museum in 1762 and the opening of the National Theatre [of Great Britain] in about 1975. They are the same sort of thing. They are there to present the jewels of collectible culture.
[CHRIS BOYD:] PRESENT AND PRESERVE.
Yes. It’s conservative in a wonderful sense. But it is very hard to make these theatres as alive as theatre once was. Theatre is a very old fashioned business. But then on the other hand, so are we! Human beings haven’t really changed much in an extraordinarily long period of time.
AND THEATRE IS, SORT OF, WHAT WE DO...
Theatre is what we do. I remember Phil Glass saying to me once: well, the thing about your theatre, David, is that acting's really important. I said to him, look Phil, I don’t think of acting as a part of theatre. I think of theatre as a part of acting. Theatre is one way of looking at acting. Theatre is about behaviour, which is what acting is. And unless you can analyse and create behaviour in very very complex ways, theatre always remains a little bit dull.
It seems to me that in theatre today, people think that modernism is changing the sets and the costumes, which people have always done. Shakespeare didn’t do historically accurate versions of ancient Rome. Guys came on in Elizabethan dress!
It’s almost like, you’ve got a very very tired salad, you keep throwing more salad dressing at it. When what you really need are new leaves. I think the theatre needs new leaves, in that sense.
Mark Wigglesworth conducted the most exciting version of a Beethoven Symphony I’ve ever heard live. It was just so radical! And you have to say when a piece of music is radical, it’s essence remains radical. And the same goes with a piece of theatre.
No, I’m not interested in radical politically. I’m interested in radical spiritually.
I DON’T ACCEPT THERE’S A DISTINCTION NECESSARILY --
[Politics] is how we interact with each other. And until you can deal with how you interact with yourself, you can’t really get very far with each other. Therefore politics is full of people like Lenin who love humanity and hate people.
The problem spiritually of course is that we have tossed out religion -- I think absolutely rightly -- because one person’s religion is one person’s voodoo as far as I am concerned...
BUT HAVEN’T WE REPLACED RELIGION PRECISELY WITH “NEW AGE” VOODOO?
Well, no. Most people don’t do anything. We’ve basically replaced it with consumerism. The trouble with that is it doesn’t work! You always want more.
Fantasy’s great, but there is no vulnerability in fantasy unless it’s revealed to other people. But that’s the trouble with fantasy.
My point is this. We edit the past.
Fantasy is not only a projection in the future. The memory is almost -- it is in a sense -- a fantasy. It’s a composite of things that have happened. Fantasy is one of our ways of responding to reality. In fact, it’s arguably what we do with reality all the time.
REFINING IT? OR EDITING IT? OR “NARRATIVISING” IT? --
Telling a story. Turning it into story. Yeah, absolutely.
As actors, we all talk about wanting to live in the present, but in a way it’s impossible, because every moment is just going.
Charles Marowitz -- who I worked for at one point -- published a book called The Art of Being. [N.B. The book’s title is, in fact, The Act of Being: Towards a Theory of Acting.]
I think, on the contrary, it’s the art of becoming. You can’t be... unless you’re in a permanent state of near-Nirvana Buddhism, meditating. But that, on the other hand, leads to tremendous passivity and acceptance of suffering in life which I think we also need to address.
Rather than we in the West thinking: ah, the East has all the answers, [we need to] take the fantastic focus of the West and marry it to the tremendous breadth of the East.
I don’t think either [East or West] has the truth, but when people are disaffected with the West they sometime imagine that all the truth is in the East. I don’t think so. It doesn’t make sense.
MORE ORIENTALISM! YOU WERE GOING TO SAY SOMETHING ABOUT AN AUDIENCE...
One of the things an audience manages, in theatre, when it’s good, when they’re not just bored or patting themselves on the back for just being there and understanding Shakespeare’s jokes, or something like that --
DON’T GET ME STARTED!
Yes, it’s very depressing! It’s the [opportunity] to be part of a community -- the community of that audience on that night -- and also to retain your individuality.
I suppose I’m deeply suspicious of crowds. Canetti’s Crowds and Power is quite apposite. Really, when an awful lot of people -- tens and tens and tens of thousands -- are just screaming at a sporting event, there is a relationship to the Nuremberg rallies which none of us wishes to admit. The Nuremberg rallies maybe be a perversion of purpose, but it is the same. The loss of individuality in the crowd is what makes everybody feel empowered. But you’ve got to be skeptical. God stands up for skeptics rather than bastards!
We live in a culture which is based upon obedience unfortunately, particularly in [classical] music, but to a certain extent theatre too.
BALLET’S EVEN WORSE...
There is some stuff that isn’t like that, of course. But there’s not that much. If you wanted to go to the theatre of Dionysus today, you wouldn’t go to the theatre, you might go to a pop concert, you’d probably be disappointed.
MIGHT GO TO PHYSICAL THEATRE OR CIRCUS OR MAYBE DANCE?
Maybe dance. I have yet to see the piece of physical theatre which had the intellectual backbone and behavioural subtlety to really do all of that.
WHAT ABOUT DV8 AT IT’S BEST?
DV8’s fantastic... But we can both name a number of groups around the world...
OR A NUMBER OF PIECES BY ONE GROUP -- I MEAN ONE PIECE BY EACH OF A NUMBER OF GROUPS...
Absolutely. It’s that rare. And it’s not on the menu of most theatres. And that is a great great shame. It’s not striven for.
[Vulnerability] is what physical theatre tends to lack. Most strippers wear their skin like armour.
Vulnerability is about allowing. Vulnerability is about what you let in. It’s not about what you control. It’s not about what you do. It’s about what you receive.
And that, of course, is the most terrifying thing for a performer because everybody wants control. Everybody wants to feel: this is my job and I’m doing it very well. It’s called professionalism. It’s the death of theatre in that particular definition!
I WAS GOING TO MENTION KAREN FINLEY, BUT I THINK THE PERFECT EXAMPLE OF WHAT YOU’RE JUST DESCRIBING IS MADONNA ON ONE HAND AND SINEAD O’CONNOR ON THE OTHER... SINEAD RIPPING UP THE PICTURE OF THE POPE... A STRIKING MISCALCULATION. ONE MADONNA WOULD NEVER HAVE MADE. INCREDIBLY NAIVE AND HONEST!
I agree with that. But I also think Madonna has taken big risks and she’s brought them off.
WHY DO YOU DO OPERA? DANCE IS THE PERFORMING ART THAT REMINDS ME WHY WE HAVE PERFORMING ARTS.
You must understand I didn’t do opera. I created two opera companies -- things that I called opera companies -- who also did things like -- who did a lot of television. I had as much rehearsal as I felt I needed. I worked with the same people in London, particularly, over fifteen years.
They were great actors like Marie Angel, my wife. I mean she’s a great actress as well as a wonderful singer. A truly staggering actress. And she has also tended not to fit into the system. Of course I’ve done a few big operas. And I’ve even brought a few of them off. Mostly at English National Opera, I must admit. But some of the Albert Hall stuff has worked. Eventually you get to the point where you do know how to do the job and you can, if you get the right performers. It’s surprising what you can achieve.
DO YOU HAVE THE SAME KIND OF LOVE-HATE RELATIONSHIP WITH OPERA THAT I HAVE? IT’S THE ONLY ART FORM THAT ROUTINELY TACKLES LOVE & DEATH, SEX & DRUGS... AND THAT’S JUST TRISTAN UND ISOLDE! AND YET...
I don’t do those operas and I don’t go to them either!
HOW DO YOU DEAL WITH CHORUSES THAT ARE RELUCTANT TO ACT OR MOVE?
By and large, I just didn’t deal with choruses, or I got individuals to be choruses. I did Orfeo with John Eliot Gardiner twentysomething years ago with the Coliseum. And I choreographed the whole thing myself. I got 21 soloists, chorus made up of John Tomlinson, Diana Montague. I mean, it was like a Who’s Who, eventually, of English opera. Della Jones, Nigel Watson, Chris Robson, Laurence Dale, Anthony Rolfe Johnson. I had a chorus made up of those people! And I had five and a half weeks rehearsal. And half the cast for two weeks, improvising. And the other half improvising for another two weeks. They gave me ten weeks to do it. And I got somewhere that you don’t get very [often].
I had people hanging around a rock for 25 minutes going through slow-motion death agonies of Dante. And that’s very hard physical work.
SOUNDS A BIT LIKE BERKOFF!
I don’t know. I think it probably isn’t [like Berkoff].
I’M THINKING OF THE SLOW-MOTION SUICIDE BY NARRABOTH IN SALOME...
Well if you can imagine 20 people twitching whilst Orfeo sings “orsente spiritu?” but in English, in a wonderful translation...
And, of course, one of the other madnesses of opera is that people don’t want to understand the words. Because it is now done so often, where neither the performers nor the audience really speak the language in any fluent way... it’s unfortunate and becoming a sort of a well-and-truly exotic activity.
But, I mean, Opera Factory did plays. We did Ghost Sonata of Strindberg. But I did the Aribert Reimann opera and the Strindberg play on alternate nights. With the same cast of singers and actors... so you just flipped it from one night to the next...
IS THIS THE LAST GENERATION OF THEATRE? ARE WE REACHING ANOTHER CUSP BECAUSE OF TELEVISION? IS IT A DYING ART?
Well, everybody says that. I think that, to be realistic, we’d all like boring theatre to die out. I don’t think it will!
I think that there is always going to be a small percentage of the population that wants to see almost illustrated versions of great dramatic literary texts.
CERTAINLY IN AUSTRALIA...
But that’s okay. I’m very fascinated with pop music. I think there’s a symbiosis between pop music and theatre, it would be very interesting trying to bridge. The average age in many many theatres -- in subsidised theatres -- is around sixty. Trevor Nunn told me that about the National Theatre a few years ago, although they’ve got it down.
So many pop stars [are] complaining that their work isn’t heard by anybody over the age of 12! So I feel that one could fruitfully bring those things together!
Theatre doesn’t engage with pop music at all seriously... You need pop composers who can do more than a three minute song; you need bigger structures in theatre, of course, at times, and just a wider range than one or two sorts of songs. An awful lot of pop musicians have sort of a fast song and a slow song, they can be very nice, they don’t have a great variety...
I RECKON THE SOUTH PARK MOVIE, BIGGER LONGER UNCUT, IS ONE OF THE GREAT ORTHODOX MUSICALS WRITTEN IN THE LAST FEW DECADES.
Everybody knocks Lloyd Webber... I think Superstar’s still probably his best piece. I think that when he was of his time, [he] interested me more, but he stopped being so. But, I must say, he is rather brave in the sort of pieces that he tries. The Beautiful Game was an extraordinary idea. And it didn’t entirely work. You know with the big broad populist brush strokes I was quite excited. But everybody poo-poos it... There are things to knock of course, but it’s too easy to only knock. To throw the baby with the bathwater and to criticise everything rather than differentiate...