Nina Brazier, director of Clapham Opera Festival’s La bohème, has vast experience directing opera at Buxton Festival, Tête-à Tête, Grimeborn and Stockholm Interplay Festivals. She has been called ‘One of Britain’s leading young directors of opera’ by the Observer. Just before La bohème’s opening night, I caught up with her to talk about the art of directing.
Is it your first time directing la bohème?
Yes. I worked on the opera as an assistant director at Welsh National Opera quite a few years ago. I assisted the main director and supported the in-house side of the team and found it a very different approach when bringing it to life.
I can imagine it’s very exciting right now?
Yes, it is. We have young emerging singers who are establishing themselves so we’re very lucky on that front.
Alongside La bohème, what other Puccini operas are you dying to direct?
The epic opera Tosca. That’s an incredible one I’d like to get my teeth into. It’s such a great dark tale. There are other beautiful ones like Rondine and the lesser known ones I haven’t worked on that would be interesting too.
Let’s talk about your directing style. Some people like to work alone, utilise the internet or collaborate with others. How do prefer to work?
I work very collaboratively. Normally in a project you would work hand in hand with the designer and together you will brain storm and come up with ideas and visuals. I find this more interesting than looking online. I would also rather go out to an exhibition or go to the zoo where you can really share ideas and come up with a common vision. Having ideas from people and throwing them back and forth at each other is part of the collaborative process with the designer. It’s to ensure you have an idea of the elements in place and what’s out there to play with such as entrances, exits and that sort of thing. It’s also a step-by-step process.
Speaking about art exhibitions have you seen anything recently that really caught your eye?
The Ai Weiwei exhibition is on at the moment at the Royal Academy and he has got an incredible exhibition. It’s quite hard to describe. It’s about human rights in China essentially. There were enormous earthquakes over there and he was putting together the names of the children who had been killed because the local services wouldn’t release them. The whole thing was extraordinarily tragic. The schools that had been built collapsed in the earthquake killing thousands and thousands of innocent children and nobody was putting the pieces together because it would have become a big scandal. It was him and his team who were digging through the debris to work out what had gone wrong and they found corruption in many of the buildings of these properties that he is now creating artwork of. They reflect all of that corruption. I found that incredibly powerful.
Right now, I’m working on a piece on human rights and it’s interesting to see ideas that go back to the origins of human rights. There are so many corrupt societies today. I find it powerful given what is going on at the moment.
The other recent exhibition I’ve seen recently is FrankAuerbach at the Tate Britain. That was absolutely fascinating. The paintings are built up slightly in 3D and have a fascinating theatrical effect.
Do you go to art exhibitions regularly?
I really like sculptures. Seeing them in 3D sets off your imagination in terms of structures you might use for building a set. You can imagine things working as entrances and exits. I like things that have sculptural properties. I have to remember to take photos and have them ready in my mind as it could be useful later down the line.
Of course, you can absorb information from wonderful artists. We are not trying to steal things from other people but it’s just the gem of an idea. By Victoria Park, in Hackney, there are some extraordinary straw sculptures that rise up out of the big ponds and I’m always thinking about how I can use them in some way on a set.
Do you have specific artists you turn to for your work or is it constantly changing?
I did a production last year, one that springs to mind is the Coronation of Poppea and we had the three gods at the beginning. Their designs were based on wonderful Klimt portraits. That was certainly inspirational. It was god-like and it was a starting point as we were working on a small budget but it was something about the colour and the intensity of those characters. How they were framed and haloed. We tried to capture the use of gold leaf and bringing that to life.
So I would say it always changes from piece to piece and very much depends on how much budget you’ve got, and whether you have the ability to bring something like that to life. With saying that, I’m hugely inspired by Alberto Giacometti’s sculpture. These human forms are stripped back to nothing and they are so skinny with long limbs. There is something that he said one time that really stayed with me. It was that he didn’t mean for them to come out that way but it took away everything that wasn’t meant to be there. He took everything away that didn’t need to be there. Keep it to the necessities of the personalities and the characters. I really like that and find his work dynamic.
I understand you are directing A Song of Good and Evil at the Nuremberg Palace of Justice. Can you talk a little bit about that?
It’s this weekend which is the 70th anniversary of the Nuremberg trials and it’s a narrated piece written by human rights lawyer, Philippe Sands. He has already written a couple of books and this is one of his latest pieces. It’s all about the origins of human rights and tying together song, storytelling, narration and images. It is all around the three men originally involved in the trials. There’s music that tie these men together and it becomes an exploration of modern justice. It’s difficult to explain because it’s not a play or an opera. Philippe, the writer, is one of the narrators. Vanessa Redgrave is the second narrator and we have a second performance where Vanessa has to come back to London. So, on the opening night of La bohème at Clapham Opera Festival, I’m jumping on a plane in the early morning as we open on Saturday night at Nuremberg. I can’t wait until Monday when I can breathe.
What inspires you? Gets you out of bed every day?
It’s different everyday. If you’re in rehearsal mode you have to be up, out and have the energy to lead the room and coordinate with the music director. You have to have the energy to inspire others. It’s your responsibility and I often find that your energy is mirrored in the people you are working with. On other days I’m at home in preparation mode. I have to be disciplined and be in control of my time and be ahead of different projects. It’s about finding that balance between being excellent but also learning new things at the same time; looking for improvements and saying, ‘I could have done that better’ and not getting distracted by other things. Looking ahead into the future is also important.
What would you say is the most challenging part of directing?
There are a variety of challenges including technical challenges. Last year there were moving elements of the set that were getting more and more complicated and weren’t working properly. With that production it were the technical things which meant choreographing a lot of scene changes as there were around 17 scenes. These sets were starting to disintegrate and going wrong and I had to totally rethink that. Meanwhile the cast were a dream. They were getting on with it doing a wonderful job.
There might be another scenario where you might find it difficult to get on with the singers. Or other people who find it difficult to get into the production. Occasionally it might be the people. You find with any given show there seems to be something else that becomes a challenge. There may be one day where I might be able to get through more challenges (I’m not sure). Another challenge is keeping everything fresh and not falling back on old directing habits. You have to think about how the production is going to be different and how is it going to be new. That’s a creative challenge in trying to keep your production fresh and interesting whilst not allowing your directing style to become stale and tired.
How did you feel when you told by the Observer that you were ‘One of Britain’s leading young directors of opera’?
I thought they were very kind. The press is such a random thing and people get picked for this and that and I feel very lucky to have such a lovely quote. I have been around for a while but it is nice to be considered as a leading person. You take it with a smile and with this difficult industry you have to be grateful for positive things. So, take it and enjoy it! If it’s useful, it’s wonderful. It doesn’t make me feel smug. [Laughs]
Do you like reading reviews of your work?
Generally, if you get positive ones it is wonderful. The thing for me, and I say this on behalf of emerging artists, is that when you leave a show all you can take with you are production photos as a record of what you have done and anything you get from the reviews. If you take it away it becomes difficult for that production, the show and that emerging artist. Yet it can be disheartening if you get a bad review especially if you feel like your work has been misunderstood. But for the most part it feels like validation of your work because it is out there for the world and it’s from someone who is coming in as a critical observer. And for many artists it is incredibly important that those reviews happen even if it is a negative review. The fact is, someone has come to see it. In terms of documenting your work for a portfolio it’s what us artists need to build up. It’s also fascinating getting someone’s objective opinion as well.
What’s next on your directing agenda for 2016?
After this weekend in Nuremberg we are moving A Song of Good and Evil to the South of France and we are doing it in French because most of the people involved are French. Philippe, the writer, is half French including some actresses. We recently had our rehearsals in Paris and it was my first time directing in French and that was a massive challenge because the whole team from singers and pianist are French. It’s definitely a second language for me.
In January I’m taking some time off but taking up intense German lessons. That’s the next language on the agenda. Then I’m directing a few opera scenes for the Royal College of Music. I was there earlier this year and they’ve invited me back. After that I’m moving ahead with showing A Song of Good and Evil in Istanbul in April and then performing it in London in May. Everything’s ticking along.
What are the kinds of things that you want the audience to feel, see or even take home when they’ve seen a show you’ve directed?
For me it’s the clarity of the storytelling, and the interaction between the characters and making that as vivid and real as possible. Coming from a theatre background, the characters, their journey and the music, which make up the essence of story has to become real. It’s those moments, the sparing of the characters, moments of chemistry, moments of contact, when they are together, and not together, that is alive and immediate. I might think differently in ten years time when I’m playing with enormous sets but for the moment, as I’m working at this scale, it’s about keeping those moments true.
LA BOHÈME at the Clapham Opera Festival– FRI 20TH NOV 7.30PM & SUN 22ND NOV 4.30PM (click here to purchase tickets)
For more information about Nina Brazier and A Song of Good and Evil, click here for her website. Due to be shown in London next year in May.