Opera productions rouse strong passions among critics and audiences. This month we put the directors under the spotlight, discovering the process they undergo to create new stagings. Many directors also run opera companies, so we aim to find out their ideas about programming and the challenges facing the art form today.

David Pountney © Nick Treharne
David Pountney
© Nick Treharne

David Pountney is currently the Artistic Director of Welsh National Opera and one of the world’s leading opera directors, whose groundbreaking work at ENO, in particular, helped shape the way opera developed in the UK in the 1980s. As Intendant at the Bregenz Festival, he was praised for combining “totally serious interpretation and a populist touch”. This spring sees WNO tour Figaro Forever, with the world première of Figaro Gets a Divorce, composed by Elena Langer, creating a Beaumarchais trilogy to follow on from the events of The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro.

For Figaro Gets a Divorce, you’ve not only commissioned a new opera, you’ve penned the libretto yourself. Why?

Well it was my idea to create the sequel and I began sketching out a scenario to see how it might work and once I had done that I realised it was much too much fun to give to anyone else! 

Are you able to describe the creative process between composer and librettist on this new opera?

Elena and I worked very closely on the text, and slightly shifted around the order of scenes. She cut quite a bit of text and I made her put some back! 

Your season programming is always inventive and daring – the Beaumarchais trilogy, the Donizetti Queens, or programming around a particular theme. How much fun do you have putting these seasons together and who else is involved in the planning stages?

They are basically my ideas but of course my colleagues are very involved in the practical questions that arise from repertoire choices. But yes, I do find it much more satisfying to come up with a coherent repertoire that builds ideas between different pieces.  

I’ve been very interested to see in WNO’s promotional literature a brief description of the productions, i.e. a modern updating, or a production set in period. What was the thinking in sharing this information with audiences before booking? Is it something other houses should replicate, do you think?

The main reason is that some of our audiences have become increasingly interested in production details, especially the period in which it is set. Personally I don't think this should really have a bearing on whether you choose to see something or not. To me, should be ruled by an open minded curiosity rather than any predetermined dogma about how things "should" be done. But some sections of the audience have asked for this information so we provide it.

Mark Stone and Elizabeth Watts in WNO's <i>Figaro Gets a Divorce</i> © Richard Hubert Smith
Mark Stone and Elizabeth Watts in WNO's Figaro Gets a Divorce
© Richard Hubert Smith

Sometimes WNO present operas in their original language, sometimes in English translations. When making those kinds of decisions, what elements do you consider?

The suitability of the pieces concerned. In the case of the Figaro trilogy, Divorce was written in English and I wanted the trilogy to be coherent in this regard. 

How do you split your time running Welsh National Opera and directing your own productions? Are you ever frustrated by lack of time to spend on your own creations?

I am only now coming to the end of the external productions that were precontractual. And there is The Ring in Chicago coming up this autumn, which I accepted at a point when my WNO contract expired. It has since then been extended to 2019. I am not frustrated at all. I am immensely lucky and privileged to be able to create projects like the Figaro trilogy and In Parenthesis for WNO and then do a few projects outside. Working in other international companies also helps me to keep WNO in touch with the wider operatic scene - essential for developing partnerships and co-productions. 

What are the biggest challenges facing opera today?

Making sure we continue to innovate artistically and to find the audience that will support an adventurous approach. Then matching that with the challenges of the financial climate. 

How do you view the broadcasting of opera into cinemas? Is it having a detrimental effect on the art form? Or does it widen the potential audience? Is the situation any different with web-streaming?

People have often felt that technical advance would deter people from experiencing live performance but in practice the ease of access to music through CDs etc has in fact encouraged live audiences. There are some oddities though, one being that this technological advance is currently working to popularise the most conservative view of the presentation of opera - star based productions principally from the Met. This is not necessarily helpful to the art form, neither is the assumption that the "celluloid" version of an opera performance is in any sense equivalent to a live performance. The significant difference with web streaming is that it is usually free – in the case of The Opera Platform on which our summer production In Parenthesis will be streamed for instance – and for most people the quality cannot compete with that available in the cinema.