“Opera starts where words stop!” Stefan Herheim’s piercing blue eyes spear me as he warms to his subject. “That’s what fascinates me. That’s what makes opera a spiritual experience.” The Norwegian director is making his return to Covent Garden to direct The Queen of Spades (Pique Dame), a staging co-produced with Dutch National Opera which places the composer, Tchaikovsky, at the very centre of the action. Animated and intense, Herheim describes how inspiration strikes, his anger at the industry’s “boutique” approach to opera and how he hopes his impending move to Vienna, as Indendant of Theater an der Wien in 2022, can bring about much needed change.

Stefan Herheim rehearsing Vladimir Stoyanov (left) and John Lundgren (right) in Pique Dame
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

“I never do drama.” For a director with such theatrical flair, this is a surprising statement. When considering new projects, Herheim always starts with the score, playing it on the piano, listening to five or six recordings. He comes from a musical background – his father played viola with the Norwegian National Opera – and grew up surrounded by ballet and opera. He saw his first Tristan und Isolde aged seven. “I am extremely connected to the dynamics of the score. I still feel like a musician in this job.”

But after immersing himself in the music, Herheim begins the creative process. “I’m a very visual person. I have strong ideas how the stage must correspond with what I think happens within the characters. However realistic the environment you choose to set the piece in, it will always be a mirror of the person’s soul on stage.”

What was his initial response to Pique Dame? “First I had this wild vision, seeing lots of Kandinsky paintings before my eyes. This is one of the most modern operas ever written. Although it’s in the language of Mozart seen through an 1890s lens, it’s also heading far into the 20th century. This was not long before the Ballets Russes and Diaghilev. Just imagine if Tchaikovsky had survived! 

Jacquelyn Stucker and Stefan Herheim rehearsing Pique Dame
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

“Then it got difficult. Should I just go bananas as an artist and present all my pictures?” Herheim shakes his head and jabs a finger at the table. “No, because this is also about words. It is a very complicated drama. If you start looking at Tchaikovsky’s biography you start understanding that this has very little to do with Pushkin. Unlike Eugene Onegin, where he could identify with the characters, Tchaikovsky could never do that with Pique Dame."

Herman, the army officer obsessed with the gambling secret of the three cards, is, Herheim claims, difficult to understand. “Psychologically, you don’t believe what is going on with this character. You don’t understand Lisa any better. People have tried to rescue the opera by moving it closer to Pushkin’s time, but you have to take it for what it is. This is Tchaikovsky’s opera. He was this very creative guy but this creativity was growing upon the incredible circumstances that he was a homosexual and that he denied himself and his desire to love.”

I point out that Tchaikovsky confessed in a letter to his brother Modest, who wrote the libretto, that he had “wept terribly” when composing Herman’s death. “And went on crying for weeks!” exclaims Herheim. “But he also writes in the same letter that it’s because he liked Nikolay Figner so much, the tenor for whom he wrote this role. So it’s difficult to know who he is writing about, because it’s definitely not Pushkin’s Herman. How are these characters even drawn together? Nobody knows who they are, they’re not really established. In the Act 1 quintet, everyone sings almost without orchestra about how they fear each other – this is something only opera can allow us to do.

“It becomes very clear when you read Tchaikovsky’s correspondence with Nadezhda von Meck – his patron whom he denied ever to meet – that she cut ties with him the moment she read Pique Dame, recognising herself in the Countess. There are many incredible analogies in this opera towards his own biography: knowing that Tchaikovsky killed himself and that, a few years before, he tried to kill himself after his unhappy, short-lived marriage to Antonina Milyukova, throwing himself into the Volga – like Lisa throwing herself into the Neva; and the rumours about the glass of water [from which he was said to have caught cholera]. Or was it a disease he caught from one of the prostitutes he was frequenting? We don’t know. There is so much mystery about Tchaikovsky’s death. His open coffin was displayed, which never happened for people dying of cholera at that time. We used this speculation in our production in just the way Tchaikovsky uses ghosts in his opera – that spiritual twilight zone of fear and guilt, guilt, guilt! 

Vladimir Stoyanov (Yeletsky) and Svetlana Aksenova (Lisa)
© Monika Forster | Dutch National Opera

“This is one of Tchaikovsky’s most personal pieces. It’s like a code. He’s actually delivering a message about his own true self. He uses all the characters, but mostly this central trio [Herman, Lisa, the Countess] who he crucifies upon his own cross in the name of an unspeakable love. It has a fatality to it and a melancholy which is just extraordinary.”

At what point did Herheim decide to turn Yeletsky – the Prince to whom Lisa is betrothed – into Tchaikovsky himself? “Yeletsky is a character who does not exist in Pushkin’s story,” he replies. “He was invented by Tchaikovsky himself, who even wrote the verses for his aria. It’s like a mask that Tchaikovsky is hiding behind, to appear as the rejected loving husband. But it’s a lie. And yet this is the most beautiful music he ever wrote.”

How does Herheim counter the argument that audiences will require background knowledge of Tchaikovsky’s biography to understand his concept? “Even if you don’t know who Tchaikovsky was – a guy compensating through art for lost love – you will still see a character faced with a problem born out of a clear, realistically told situation. This could easily be Oscar Wilde instead, who was condemned in this very city just two years after Tchaikovsky’s death. Of course, the more you know, the more you’re able to read into it. I’m still telling the story but it’s told in a way that may surprise a lot of people. I’ve never been to any interesting production of an opera where I was not confronted by something that surprised me.” 

Erwin Schrott (Procida) and Malin Byström (Hélène) in Les Vêpres siciliennes
© ROH | Bill Cooper

Tchaikovsky isn’t the only composer to appear in a Herheim show. Wagner appeared in his Bayreuth Parsifal, Rossini in Cenerentola, Puccini in Manon Lescaut. Similarly, angels and characters in angel wings: Lisa in Pique Dame. And who can forget the infant executioner in Herheim’s Vêpres siciliennes, another Royal Opera production? Are these mottos in the director’s work?

“It’s not a conscious signature. I’m not quoting myself,” he adamantly replies. “It’s the same with the composers. It is never a conscious decision. In the case of Cenerentola it was a very different thing, Rossini was a deus ex machina mechanism. The composer is surprised that we are still playing him, so he descends like a little angel from the sky. We start up the machinery and then he injects some energy to fan the flames.

“We travel in time when we hear these pieces. We listen to a composer as a human being who is reflecting upon his own time but also reflecting, in his own style, a totally different period. So if Verdi sets Shakespeare, and Shakespeare tells a story from the 12th century, we are in a time machine. But making opera always means bringing it to us in the here and now. It has to come alive through us.

Rossini in La Cenerentola
© Erik Berg | Norwegian National Opera

“We are reproducing operas from a narrow canon, but when they were new, they were shocking, taking musical theatre to a place it hadn’t been before. Audiences were totally overwhelmed; it is an effect we should still try and achieve. It should be like seeing the opera for the first time instead of just going in and getting your expectations fulfilled, which bores me to death. If you want that, go and buy the CD and listen to it at home!

“What is tradition in opera? Sometimes it is something that actually goes against opera and opera as a medium can work against itself badly. Opera can be the most boring thing on the earth. Yet it can also be the most thrilling, lifting us up to places we have never been before.” Does he enjoy challenging audiences? “I don’t know that my aim is to challenge audiences,” he protests. “I want audiences to feel and see the music on stage and hear it with their eyes.” It’s a Balanchinesque response.

Herheim’s debut at Glyndebourne received mixed reviews. Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande is a slippery opera for directors to pin down and Herheim admits, “just when you feel you can conceptually grab the piece in a certain way, it just disintegrates in your hands. It evaporates.” I wondered where the idea of setting the opera in Glyndebourne’s own Organ Room came from. “That was a very odd and unfortunate process,” he sighs, describing how his initial concept was to have the opera told by puppeteers. “I trained myself to try and learn the music and sing it myself whilst doing with the puppets what I wanted the singers to do. But I figured that perhaps this was the sort of thing I should wait and try in Vienna where I could give myself four months. I kind of panicked a bit so then we went on… and landed in a space-station!

“With Philipp Fürhofer, we built a fantastic setting which was very much like something from Solaris. Could we try to reproduce it? Everything became a question of aesthetics and very quickly it became a question of finance. To reproduce that kind of Solaris look on stage is hard and the budget would have totally blown up! It risked looking like a Sci-Fi “B movie” from the 1950s… and I panicked again. I totally panicked.” Herheim firmly denies the rumours that the decision had anything to do with Claus Guth’s Bohème, which opened late in 2017, also being set in space. So how did he end up with the Organ Room concept? 

Pelléas et Mélisande at Glyndebourne
© Richard Hubert Smith

“I thought, if I cannot grab this piece without destroying it, I have to create something that becomes a place where we meet ghosts – ghosts where we touch upon something very deep inside each and every one of us. And where was closer than where we were working? The first time I visited Glyndebourne, the Organ Room was the first place I was shown. It made such an impression that it came flooding back in that lost moment. But it also had to do with the fact that this organ is not playable any more. It is mute. An empty instrument. And immediately that connected me to Mélisande, being in a place where you cannot actually live.”

He confesses that the process was a bit like his experience at Bayreuth, where his Parsifal referenced Wagner and the history of the Festival through to World War 2. This production had a similar dramatic change of direction. “I just had to feel the spirits and grab everything that actually connected me to that place – to my own belief in opera, the whole idea about Richard Wagner – and create an identification based on the fact that I was doing Parsifal for the place for which it was written, where it sounds differently to anywhere else in the world; to grab that spiritual moment of saying that we are all pilgrims coming here and we’re trying to understand something about ourselves.”

Herheim takes over the artistic direction of Theater an der Wien in 2022/23. For someone who professes he’s “not a born manager”, this was a surprising announcement, even though he’s been offered a few houses over the years. “I’m a director and I want to direct,” he explains. “But at the same time, this life, travelling around from house to house, is tiring. Each is very differently organised, each has very different expectations towards you as an artist. Sometimes it’s just as if they’re buying a name, a brand. ‘Ah, it’s the guy with the Parsifal from Bayreuth and it’s going to be beautiful.’ And you come up with a different look, a different idea and everyone asks ‘Can’t you do it like your other work we know?’!

“Things are becoming harder and harder for financial reasons and because of the way that the operatic business is developing – in the wrong way – I feel like becoming my own manager. If you have to fight for every lighting hour, for every extra day of rehearsals, and justifying it all the time, it gets exhausting. You have to start investing in one place and getting some continuity so you don’t have to start from scratch every time.

“Suddenly my name landed in the melting pot at City Hall in Vienna at exactly the right moment and I got a call asking if I’d be interested in taking on Theater an der Wien. I was quite stunned.” An der Wien is a very different beast to the neighbouring Staatsoper, where Herheim is dismissive of a repertoire system that sees a huge number of productions hit the stage each season. “It’s impossible to create quality under those conditions. You’re reviving and reviving and reviving. Singers sometimes get little more instruction than where to enter and exit the stage. 

Stefan Herheim rehearsing Anna Goryachova and Jacquelyn Stucker in Pique Dame
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

“At TAW, they do 50 performances a year, presenting nine new productions. Every single show has been specially cast. They have no permanent ensemble, no permanent orchestra, no permanent chorus. Everyone is assembled by the director and the conductor on the best possible terms for that particular piece. It’s a classic stagione system and this provides extraordinary possibilities. But at the same time, there is a huge task when it comes to creating continuity because people are coming and going all the time. So I’m heading there as a producing artist myself – two productions a year – and I’m going to stop my freelance career and focus on one house. I will try to build up something, setting up the aesthetics, the idea of a style, something that makes it natural to invite certain other artists, making this a place where they feel at home, where they can produce stuff they can’t at other houses.

“The repertoire isn’t going to radically change. I think it’s just a question of the standard. We really need to question this “boutique” system where you buy in a director for just four weeks. You get the same artists who are working everywhere – in Munich, in Paris. They’re good people, the big “brands” that everybody wants.” Whose productions are co-produced five, six, seven times? It’s always the same few big names but the conditions under which these productions are revived? By assistants given three weeks to put in a new cast? I never co-produce like that. I always go to the houses myself. The singers have to get inside my head and I have to get into theirs.

“As directors we fall between two stools. Houses want high level singing and big names, but they still want a director to come and do something which is barely possible under those conditions. This way of thinking is destroying something in the operatic business. I’m getting tired of it. It’s just getting absurd. You have to ask why they even invest in paying me.”

So being in Vienna will offer a sense of liberation? “I hope. That’s the idea. To try to create a consonance on many levels and find continuity within that and, you know, to simply stop compromising.”


The Queen of Spades opens on 13th January at the Royal Opera House. The 22nd January performance will be shown both in UK cinemas and around the world.