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Director Cameron Menzies

by Deborah Humble

Multi-talented Melbourne director Cameron Menzies has recently been very much in demand and it is not surprising that he is  in London directing a new production of Don Giovanni for Britain’s foremost chamber opera company DivaOpera. Deborah Humble interviewed Menzies just before the opera’s opening in London on April 30 and talks about the director’s recent achievements.

Since 2009 Cameron Menzies has been artistic director of opera for the City of Stonnington, managing to take the annual event from a “best of the pops” focus to a concert of original language opera that this summer drew a crowd of more than 6000 in the Victoria Gardens, Armadale.

He directed and was executive producer for the closing event of the Melbourne Indigenous Arts Festival in February this year, a piece entitled William and Mary telling the story of an interracial marriage in the 1940s between Aboriginal William and wealthy Scots woman Mary Onus.

He created the script for STATUS, a play about people living with, and affected by HIV/AIDS which will be the premiere event at AIDS 2014 Melbourne with over 14,000 international delegates expected to attend. Last but not least he recently received his second consecutive nomination for Best Director for the Green Room Awards for a new operatic version of Norman Lindsay’s The Magic Pudding.

With all this success under his belt it is not surprising that Cameron was chosen to direct Don Giovanni. After its London opening the production will tour around the United Kingdom, the Channel Islands and France.

I caught up with Cameron in London and asked him to share his thoughts on directing opera.

Q: What do you think are the necessary skills required to be a good opera director?

A: There are SO many facets that make up a good director. Being a good director is about making sure you have as much clarity in your communication as in your vision. If you are clear then people know how to engage with what you are doing and asking them to do.

I really do believe that to be a good director of opera you need to have a degree of musical training. It is very handy as a young director to be able to musically, as well as dramatically justify why you want to do a certain thing or why a certain conceptual idea is important.  It always helps to win over a conductor when musically you can hold your own in a room. Understanding the text that has inspired the music is also important. I start with the text then I look at the music.

Aside from pure artistic understanding, good time management and being able to work and collaborate with your cast and artistic team is vital. It is important to have an understanding of how each department works and to gather up language or jargon from the different areas. If you can speak to wardrobe in a way they appreciate and understand then you are going to be more clearly understood yourself and the same goes for the production side of things.

Q: How do you help singers get the best out of their on-stage work? How much input do you give them? How much freedom?

A: I see each character on stage as kind of like a page in a book all feeding back into the central spine of a work. In order for my production to work each member of the cast needs to know how they exist within the story telling.

As a director I always like to know what a singer is thinking about their character and how he/she sees the character in relation to the others and where they fit into the scheme of things. But I also like to ask singers why their character exists in the opera. This gives me an insight into how similarly or differently we may see the same thing. Ultimately it is the singer who has to make a character very real for the audience so I am keen to get their input. This is not to say, however, that they have free reign.

In the rehearsal process I initially allow singers a lot of freedom; they try different things to see if they work. Even though I always have a strong concept in mind it is sometimes in these moments of exploration that something even better than the original idea is discovered. Coming to idea together means you have joint ownership and in my experience this always serves to consolidate a performance.

I encourage open dialogue but eventually definitive decisions need to be made about each moment and sometimes you have to impose yourself upon the process for the clarity of story telling. I never want to bully a singer into doing something particular, but as my mentor Hayes Gordon OAM would always say, “Theatre is not a democracy, it’s an emphatic, autocratic world.”

Q: Is there a difference in your perspective between directing an opera and directing a theatre piece?

A: Whilst there are a lot of differences between a play and an opera, directing them is not so far apart. Obviously they are not the same beast by any means, but with a play you still have to find the understanding and clarity of each moment as well as it’s own tempo and pitch. Working on a piece by someone like Tennessee Williams you find it has quite a strict tempo. Just as in opera a Verdi tempo and pitch is different to a Mozart tempo and pitch; each piece I take on be it a play, opera, music theatre,cabaret or film you have to find the specifics of each story you are telling.

I do approach actors and singers quite differently however, as their training is so completely different. Actors and singers come to the stage with their own set of tools and my job is to bring out the different skill sets.

Q: How does a small budget impact a big opera?

A: Budget always has an impact. Even if I know I have a limited budget I start with the multi million idea in my head and then keep distilling down to what I can afford in terms of set.  I think you have to decide what are the one or two things you cannot compromise on to create your production and stick to your guns regarding those. You need to think in terms of theatre practice; the idea of suggestion. Spaces can be created physically with actors. That being said, most of the time we would rather work with a bigger, rather than a smaller budget!

Q: You were awarded the 2008 Bayreuth Opera Award and the Deutscher  Akademischer Austausch Dienst as well as the 2011 Berlin new Music Award. What did your time in Germany teach you about foreign opera productions as compared to those in Australia?

A: In 2008 I spent 3 months working on a new production of Wagner’s Tannhauser directed by Kirsten Harms  and in 2011 I studied and worked on music composed in Germany after 1945 as well as how Jewish music has been performed in Germany since world War II.

Both experiences taught me that a strong directorial voice was what was going to allow me to forge my own career as a director and not as an assistant or as a resident director of a company. I also noted that the Germans conceptualise to a very German understanding, and this got me thinking about opera in Australia.

Are we conceptualizing productions enough to Australian sensibilities? I am not saying that everything need to be set around the BBQ, or, God forbid the football field, but I do see myself out there in those characters. This sounds far fetched, but, scientifically, light travels faster than sound, and therefore it stands to reason that if the visual impact of a work holds my attention I am more likely to listen for longer until my ears catch up.

I will most likely always be a director who is rooted in the narrative. And a director who feels it is his duty to pull the story off the page and not to impose myself across it. The regie theatre that has been so popular in Germany was great to see and be a part of, but my direction will, I imagine, always be inspired and challenged firstly by the narrative.

Q: Any future Australian projects you can discuss?

A: Once I leave London I will return to Australia to direct Pecan Summer which is Australia’s first indigenous opera composed by Deborah Cheetham. The cast consist of both indigenous and non-indigenous singers trained through Short Black Opera Company. I directed the Perth premiere back in 2012 and will be directing the Adelaide premiere season.

I am also doing an operatic reworking of Alice in Wonderland for children in collaboration with the Melbourne Recital Centre. It ill be an immersive experience through a maze-like space where the children will be lead into each room by the white rabbit. It will finish with all the children sitting around the Mad Hatter’s tea party.


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