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.

James Conway in rehearsals © Bill Knight
James Conway in rehearsals
© Bill Knight

James Conway has been general director of English Touring Opera since 2002, and regularly directs productions for the company’s ambitious programmes. We caught up with him shortly before the launch of their spring tour.

How do you manage to run a touring opera company and yet also direct two productions on the upcoming tour?

Well, that is the fun part! In truth it all comes down to the team, both in the office and in the rehearsal room. If one manages to cast well, schedule efficiently, and the physical conditions are right, rehearsal starts well and just gets better. I am also a bit of a devil for preparation.

I don't think directing two shows in the same season is ideal (though it has gone very well this time!); the simple fact is that the rehearsal schedule was really very tricky, and there was no way I could offer a freelance director those kind of conditions. At least I couldn't be fighting myself...

Opera in English or in the original language? You mix the two judiciously. What factors influence your decisions?

Gillian Webster (Gismonda) in Handel's <i>Ottone</i> © Richard Hubert Smith, 2014
Gillian Webster (Gismonda) in Handel's Ottone
© Richard Hubert Smith, 2014
I just try to make the best call for each show. Now that audiences really regard surtitles as some kind of right, even if performances are sung in English, the situation has become less clear. I am convinced that people listen (and look) differently.

Comedy and even semi-seria needs directness, and real control over timing - so very often we will perform this in English. I think performers work more precisely in their own language, and one has to battle a sort of 'general' physical style in original language.

The terminology is not very good, anyway. What is the original language of Iphigénie? German or French? People go on endlessly about Janáček's operas being untranslatable – often the same people who profess to have an understanding of “the composer's intentions” - and yet we know that he was keen for his work to be translated well, and performed in the language of the city of performance.

I take all audience feedback into account, and I also take into account the sometimes strong feelings of singers – but basically I end up making a call that provides for a variety of good experiences for the audience.

One of the composers that ETO has explored over many years is Handel. Why is he such a rich source of inspiration for you? Is it easier for a director to relocate baroque operas to a different time/setting than 19th century classics?

I really like many Handel operas. I reckon that the decades in which he composed them was the richest period in opera history in the UK. I love the clarity of the form and storytelling, and of course the emotional quality of the music is extraordinary. To be honest, I find it much more dramatic than what we call verismo.

Relocation per se is not interesting to me. I think that is what people – journalists among them – imagine to be the proper or improper business of the director. It isn't. It's a very small part of the picture. When working on Simon Boccanegra, with its famous 25-year gap between Prologue and Act I, and with it's very clear preoccupation with the divisions confounding Italian political life, I did find it very useful to thing specifically of 1948 and 1973. There is a kind of history-making in many operas.

Craig Smith (Simon Boccanegra) © Richard Hubert Smith, 2013
Craig Smith (Simon Boccanegra)
© Richard Hubert Smith, 2013

What is utterly dull is the adoption of a 'look', usually based on a film, which 'fits' or is made to fit a part of an opera, and then just seems like a director or designer talking to the audience.

Days of yore, which many vocal people indicate they prefer, can be pretty dull too. I just wish that the commentary was more informed - when tries too hard to meet expectations, it's pretty much circling the drain.

You’ve also staged lots of rare Donizetti. What is it about Pia de Tolomei which appeals to you as a director? When it was performed in Naples, Donizetti had to write an ending where Pia does not die… are you opting for the original ending?

We are performing the Venice ending, rather than the happy ending reshaped for Naples. That is not because one has any special authority because it is 'original'. The habit of reshaping operas for different performing contexts is interesting and rich, and every version has its own authority. It's just important to recognise that each is a response to artists, audiences and impresarios - lively things!

Pia is a terrific piece: the score is strong and various, the source material vivid, and the dramaturgy expert. Besides, I knew we could cast it well. Everyone who comes to this will enjoy it, I am convinced. The relations between men and women are impressive, and a bit scary. I love the fact that the tenor is a self conscious villain; his inclination is to be virtuous, but he is utterly corrupted by the physical desire he experiences for a someone forbidden. He is like a sort of spoiled priest, corrupting all around him – so naturally, he gets conflicted, interesting music (just like the unloved characters in Handel!).

I can’t wait to hear the response to the Act I finale, especially the breathless stretta following the spacious trio and duet. The Venice audience responded coolly, so he rewrote it (well!) for Senigallia – but I think the first version is terribly exciting.

This upcoming tour is huge. What are the logisitics for taking three shows on tour to so many theatres? Taking Iphigénie en Tauride to 16 theatres is wonderfully ambitious! What strategies do are you using to “sell Gluck”?

Hmmm. Hard to answer that all in one. Every place on tour is different. In places where the theatres share box office data, we have a much better knowledge of our own audience, and we can be much more sophisticated in influencing them to bring along other people, especially people new to opera. Theatres that don't share data generally don't know their own opera audience, and don't work in a very specialised way on developing it.

I guess the logistics amount to detailed preparation, long hours and cunning. It is a very long time to maintain a feeling of company – generosity, support, and striving for excellence. Everyone has to care deeply, and the foundation of that is fairness. I think we are an artist centred company – that is hard won, and easily squandered.

Catherine Carby (Iphigénie) and Grant Doyle (Oreste) in ETO's new <i>Iphigénie en Tauride</i> © Richard Hubert Smith
Catherine Carby (Iphigénie) and Grant Doyle (Oreste) in ETO's new Iphigénie en Tauride
© Richard Hubert Smith

Because we return regularly to theatres, the most effective thing we can do is persuade people that we will do our very best to give them an evening of technical excellence and high, serious aspiration. Cyncial or smug presentations speak loud, and are real disincentives to exploring the repertoire. Many people have come to trust us, and we hope that they will influence others. We try to foster a 'family' feeling at our very many partner theatres, and to offer 'ways in' to new repertoire with informative pre-show talks and digital content, as well as opportunities to feed back on the experience. We always listen, and answer.

Describe the story of a staging an opera. Do you always follow the same process? How does a production develop during the creative process of getting it to stage?

In my case, it begins at least a couple of years in advance. It is great good fortune to cast the operas that I choose. Casting shapes production in very many ways – after all, the director empowers performers to be the best they can be in the world of the production, and it is the performers who recreate it night after night. Often the work with the set and costume designer(s) starts very early, and it can go on for months; often the lighting designer is involved more than a year ahead, as well. I almost always do a lot of reading, but I try to put the books away once I start working with the designer. Sometimes some new influence interrupts a process – I thought I knew all there was to know about Iphigénie, having loved the piece for 30 years before getting a chance to direct it, but Edith Hall's splendid book threw new light on it for me only six months before rehearsal.

Sometimes there is quite a bit of work to do on language and word setting. I love this part. When I have translated an opera, I always have an especially close relationship to the text. It frustrates me that translations are often so banal, and sometimes downright anachronistic. I struggle to find any that are as poetic and incisive as they need to be.

The process has to adapt to the performers in the room. Personally, I like to emphasise clear storytelling, and to make shapes with bodies that have a chance of transferring well to the theatre. I am annoyingly precise about that. I do find that most singers find it liberating, though – it's like finding a physical language which, once shared, enables people to be free and expressive. The danger is always that it becomes more fluent when repeated, and gesture loses its 'lucky' duration. That's why a staff director is on tour, watching!

Roderick Earle (King Priam) © Richard Hubert Smith, 2014
Roderick Earle (King Priam)
© Richard Hubert Smith, 2014

What is your proudest achievement since being artistic director of the company?

King Priam, I think. Or perhaps the marriage of work in theatres and work for different audiences outside theatres that goes on during our Spring tours. I love the way in which artists express themselves beautifully in different contexts for different audiences, each kind of audience highly prized by us. The Handelfest (five Handel operas touring the country in rep) was extraordinary, and I'd love to do it again. Today, after the dress rehearsal of Iphigénie en Tauride, it feels like a different sort of peak. Then again, the next season always seems like an obscure object of desire: now I am working on Ulysses' Homecoming, one of the greatest of operas, and Radamisto.