Opera Loki have been touring in France and the UK. This weekend is the last chance to catch their “sensitive and stirring production” of Tchaikovsky’s Yevgenyi Onyegin, at the Actors’ Church. (My 4-star review can be found here.) Director Jane Gray shares with us how the opera production came about, what a typical day rehearsing with the cast (in France!) looks like and how Jane and Opera Loki would like the audience to feel when they see the performance.
When did you realise becoming an opera director was your calling?
After directing Don Giovanni last year with Opera Loki. I had a sneaky suspicion before that, and I tried directing a few musicals and operetta in my local community first. I wanted to make sure I was actually good at it and smooth out a couple of rough edges before I braved directing with Opera Loki. Before then, I had always wanted to be a performer and I knew I could never be able to direct a production where I was craving to be the performer. I also needed to know I wasn’t looking for power or glory or some other weird domination thing – that my driver was the progress and developer of the performers under my direction and the co-creation of a piece of art. I now am sure that this is the right path for the right reasons.
Where does your interest in opera and classical music stem from?
I have loved singing all my life, since singing a solo of ‘Oh dear, what can the matter be’ at primary school. I joined Bedfordshire Youth Opera when I was 15 and performed annual opera productions with them until my early 20s. I was privileged to be a principal alongside singers who now have made it internationally as opera singers and having inspirational peers has been key to my passion for opera.
Do you have a preference for directing music by particular composers or are you open to all forms of music, old and new?
The only requirement I have is some sort of meaningful emotional journey for the performers and the audience. Words with no meaning are not an option and all performers have to be totally immersed into the character. The choice of work needs to enable this. Last year, with Don Giovanni, it was all about the decline of Don Giovanni’s mental state as the opera progressed – leading ultimately to his suicide. There was a great deal of dark comedy en route but his journey from depravity to regret was always the main focus.
Let’s talk about Pushkin’s Onyegin: how much research did you do and what kind of things did you study to understand the characters, music and nature of the opera?
Well, the answer is fairly simple. I read the novel (which is written as a poem) in English (I also asked the cast to read it), I watched the film (just for fun really), I read up on all the many many cultural references Pushkin makes in his masterpiece, and I listened to lots of different interpretations by Russian and Western performers. I performed about 10 years as Larina in the opera with Hampstead Garden Opera so I had a good feel for the music. I took lots of notes on key themes and feelings and wrote character profiles. I established that the work is that of contrasts: prose and poetry, French, German, Russian; countryside and city; servitude and nobility; love and lust – I could go on. However, when distilled down it is a tale that many, many of us can relate to: unrequited love and regret and this had to be the primary theme.
In the context of this production, describe what your typical day, as an opera director, look like?
A typical day rehearsing in France at our main rehearsal venue for me is get up, do a crazy online workout in the garden looking over a field of cows with two of the cast and nearly pass out, have breakfast of coffee and French bread, rehearse intensely in the sunny courtyard all morning and before I even notice (actually my stomach tells me) the bell goes for lunch. Then it’s an afternoon intense session, a swim for all of the cast and crew by the pool, rehearse again, dinner and red wine, a walk around the lovely countryside and happy chat with the troupe! We do this for a week then go on tour for a week and a half to five historical venues, so the daily routine changes to a more frantic version of restaging and adapting for different spaces.
How do you want the audience to feel when they’ve seen Onyegin, the production?
That they have shared something wonderful (the amazing performances!), that they know a little bit more about the human condition in so that we are all in it together and many of us feel regret, sadness, rejection but we soldier on.
Do you have any exciting projects concerts or shows after Onyegin?
Planning which opera to direct next time! That is very exciting as we have been looking at Richard Strauss, Puccini and Bizet! And to find a new group to work with too, to broaden my experience as a director and learn more skills. I’m not sure what yet though!
What advice would you give to an aspiring opera director?
Ask to sit in on rehearsals watching other people direct is definitely important. Make sure you listen to your cast and be happy to collaborate rather than always dictate. Sometimes you have to but it’s important they all have the opportunity to express their views.
Yevgenyi Onyegin has its last show today (Saturday 29 September) at St Paul’s Church. For more info and tickets, go to Opera Loki’s website.