Deborah Humble in conversation with Australian director Greg Eldridge, a recent member of the Jette Parker Young Artist Programme at the Royal Opera House who has returned to Australia to be assistant director for the Ring.
“Can you give readers a brief update on your time at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden? What has the Jette Parker Young Artists’ Programme given you in terms of development opportunities?
I have been incredibly fortunate to have spent the last 3 years resident at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, first as a Young Artist and subsequently as an Associate Director. The scope and scale of the work produced by the Royal Opera is breathtaking and second only to the skills and expertise of those who work there. My time there involved assisting on main stage productions, working on outreach and education projects, some international touring and the opportunity to direct productions both on the main stage and in the ROH’s chamber venue The Linbury Studio.
The Jette Parker Young Artist Programme is the only full-time elite-level young artist scheme to offer a place to a stage director, alongside the more usual participation of singers and music staff. It was a huge honour to have been the first Australian director on the programme and the experience of the programme has been instrumental in setting up my career. I’ve been able to work on productions by directors including Sir David McVicar, Sir Richard Eyre, Christof Loy, Kasper Holten and to work with singers like Jonas Kaufmann, Angela Gheorghiu, Bryn Terfel, Nina Stemme, Sir John Tomlinson, Sondra Rodvanovsky, Roberto Alagna, Sonya Yoncheva and others. Watching these great artists at work has been enormously influential in shaping my own rehearsal room practices and the way I approach productions.
Although there is often depicted a creative tension between directors and conductors, I have found that at the highest level there is a wonderful synergy between the music and stage directors. The real challenge (and, when it comes off, the greatest joy) of opera is to be able to marry musical and dramatic impulses in a way that allows the story to shine through without a dogmatic approach to music or staging swamping the message of the piece. Leading conductors like Gianandrea Noseda , Maurizio Bennini, Marc Minkowski, Bertrand de Billy and especially Mark Wigglesworth and Sir Antonio Pappano (in my view the most inspiring conductors in the world today), all have this gift and have helped enormously in refining my ideas about what is possible within the structure of music.
The other wonderful aspect of the operatic scene in London has been to see the huge numbers of Australians who are making waves both in the UK and Europe – successes that are often under-reported and unacknowledged. While I was at the Royal Opera, there were five Australian singers on the young artist programme, many more appearing as principal artists and countless others working for other companies throughout the UK. I found it impossible to work for a company in England without finding a contingent of Australians leading the charge into artistic excellence, and this is something that should be more widely reported and celebrated at home.
I am enormously grateful to have been able to assist on around 20 productions at the ROH, and to have been closely involved in education and outreach projects under their auspices. I am also very proud to have been the youngest ever director accepted into the ROH Young Artist programme and to have become the first young artist director to have received a 5-star review (for my production of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ The Lighthouse).
It must be very exciting to be asked to be assistant director on such a project as the Ring Cycle. What kind of preparation did you need to undertake?
I absolutely adore Wagner’s work and when I was offered the opportunity to make my Opera Australia debut working on Der Ring des Nibelungen I jumped at the chance. It’s been 6 years since I was at home for any significant length of time and I can’t imagine a better reason for returning to Australia (…and the prospect of 2 summers in one year was impossible to resist!)
This will be my second Ring Cycle, having first worked on the 4 operas for the Longborough Festival Opera in the UK in the first private company staging of The Ring since Bayreuth. I used to think that the deeply philosophical discussions of universal themes in the work would preclude me from really enjoying it, but I was utterly wrong. One of the great joys of these works has been the experience, which I’ve encountered in both productions I’ve worked on, where the rehearsal room will suddenly come to a halt as we find it necessary to spend time in a conceptual discussion and debate about a particular scene. No other opera I’ve worked on has so regularly required as part of its rehearsal process a period of deep thought and reflection.
Practically speaking, there is an enormous amount of work required in preparing a revival of a Ring. The production books run to over 300 pages for each opera and the operas themselves total around 15 hours of music. I was working in London when I was first offered the contract, and so my Christmas present from Opera Australia was a series of DVDs and several blank scores into which I spent the next 6 months entering the detail of the production, relying also on photocopied notes from the original production. The ultimate aim, of course, is for me to able to know in any given moment precisely where every person should be on the stage, what direction they should be facing and what thoughts should motivate their next movements. This requires significant study of the production and a desire to recreate as honestly as possible the original intent of the director.
Philosophically, there are many, many texts that deal with the Ring Cycle and its thematic elements and all are important reading for those of us tackling a production. My go-to book is George Bernard Shaw’s The Perfect Wagnerite which explores, in a very accessible way, the philosophical undercurrents of the operas.
How has the rehearsal process been so far and what is it like working alongside Neil Armfield?
My job on this production is a combination of the roles of Assistant Director and Revival Director – Neil Armfield (the original director) is with us for most of the rehearsal period, but the time constraints require several rehearsal rooms to be working at the same time. This means that while Neil will be in one room working on one opera, I’ll often be in a second room rehearsing another. Thankfully, there are many opportunities to be in the room working alongside Neil as he tweaks stage shapes and explores deeper meanings and nuance with the cast and, like all great directors, there’s always something to be gleaned from his methods.
I’m finding it a huge joy to be revisiting a piece that I love so much, and I’m finding it utterly impossible to not be moved all over again by the power of the music, especially with such an incredible cast in the leading roles who are bringing all their formidable talents to bear on the piece. Although I had seen Lise Lindstrom perform at Covent Garden, we hadn’t met until we started rehearsals and she is proving an incredible presence in the rehearsal room and will make a tremendously exciting Brunnhilde. As I’m primarily looking after Gotterdammerung, I haven’t had much to do with James Johnson who is playing Wotan, but from the times I’ve ducked into other rehearsal rooms it seems that his will be a towering King of the Gods.
What are the main points to consider when directing singers, especially in this mammoth repertoire? How do learn to deal with any conflicts that may arise?
After a month of rehearsals, I think I can fairly safely say that everyone is really lovely and there don’t appear to be any signs of tension. I think that Neil promotes a healthy rehearsal room atmosphere that encourages questioning and enquiry and alternative, and this is one of the hardest things to balance in revival.
There are obvious time pressures (for example, the shortest opera in the Cycle, Das Rhingold, is performed without interval and is about as long as Tosca; the longest in the Cycle, Gotterdammerung, has 3 Acts each of which is almost as long as Tosca), but within those constraints there must be time to reflect, to think and to try new things. It is impossible – and, in my view, utterly undesirable – to try to recreate move-for-move what a previous cast has done. With new performers come new abilities, new thoughts, new instincts and a new combination of people on the stage telling the story as best they can. Where Neil – and other great directors – really come into their own is in the process of working with this new constellation to refine the staging to best reflect their strengths while keeping the heart of their interpretation intact.
What are some of your future plans and dreams as a director?
I’m looking forward to some wonderful work in some very interesting places. Alongside assistant work at my alma mater in Covent Garden, I’ll be reviving shows in Frankfurt and Tel Aviv and directing shows in London, Iceland and China. I’m also in talks for future projects in Malta, Singapore, Hong Kong and Melbourne which will enable me to combine my joint passions of theatre and travel. I’ve been very lucky to have been able to work with some of the most wonderful artists in the world, and I look forward to continuing to work with old friends and make new ones as we pursue excellence in this, the most inspiring and moving of all art forms.