With Bampton Classical Opera’s new production of Nicolò Isouard’s Cinderella showing at St John Smith Square this Tuesday evening (September 18), its Co-Artistic Director Jeremy Gray sheds some light on his experience at Bampton, the company’s future projects and staging Isouard’s opera.
When did you realise becoming an opera director was your calling?
I’m not sure ‘calling’ is the right word, since I am also an art historian and teacher. My first production was Mozart’s delightful unfinished L’oca del Cairo which we put on at Bampton for our second annual production, in 1994. It was simply that the previous year, when we employed a talented outside director, I thought to myself “I could do that” – and so I tried and enjoyed it and then thought “let’s do better next time”, which is something I repeat to myself every new production!
Where does your interest in opera and classical music stem from?
Classical music came from my father who couldn’t read music or play an instrument but loved it dearly, and listened to Radio 3 all the time. I started learning the piano at 6 (my choice), and throughout both primary and secondary school I was hugely encouraged to participate and make music. I was always going to concerts as a child in Birmingham (not opera however) and organising concerts – so that’s certainly where my interest stems from. But also my parents met on the amateur stage, and my father was an accomplished amateur stage designer, and a great lover of comedy – all of this comes through in my operatic work now. Opera came much later, in my 20s, when in London it was possible to attend both ENO and ROH quite cheaply: it was so exciting to discover this amazing art-form which seems to tick every box.
Do you have a preference for directing music by particular composers or are you open to all forms of music, old and new?
At Bampton we’ve evolved a concentration on rare works of the classical period – mostly c1760 – 1800 (and Opera Now has just praised Bampton as “Britain’s unchallenged champion of 18th-century opera”) – but, with Isouard, we’ve crept forward to 1810. I love mounting works which are unknown – it offers immense freedom of approach and a real thrill of discovery. I feel I have a facility for comedy, although I enjoy serious themes as well. I admire the clarity and structures of the classical period, much more than romantic 19th century opera. But I’d also like to direct contemporary work too, but perhaps not at Bampton: both Tippett and Henze are particular heroes for me.
Let’s talk about Nicolò Isouard’s Cinderella: how much historical research did you do and what kind of things did you study to understand the music.
It’s been such a thrill to promote a composer who was one of the greatest names in opera in his time (his bust is on the Paris Opera house) but who is now almost forgotten. We came across Cendrillon through a recording made in Russia by Richard Bonynge and, realising that 2018 is the bicentenary of Isouard’s death, it made a brilliant choice for our 25th Anniversary production. Isouard himself published the score (the opera sold out to packed houses in Paris after its premiere), so from that we’ve made our own performing edition, and of course made our own translation into English since we believe in direct communication with our audiences. Cinderella is a French opera-comique and so has spoken dialogue – witty but lengthy, so we’ve shortened those to make it more palatable to modern audiences. It’s been fascinating finding out more about the many facetted Cinderella legend and the countless versions made of it – indeed Isouard’s opera was so popular it led to a lengthy craze in France for operas, vaudevilles, ballets and comedies all on the Cinderella theme.
How do you want the audience to feel when they’ve seen Cinderella?
We’ve been collecting audience responses, so we know exactly that they’ve matched our hopes – “excellent”, “stunning”, “fabulous” – we’ve had universal acclaim and we know that people go away from the performance feeling radiantly happy! The essential Cinderella legend is virtually mythical, and touches people deeply, especially with music as delicious as this.
Do you have any exciting projects concerts or shows after Cinderella?
At Christmas we are, most unusually, presenting a 20th century opera, Menotti’s seasonal masterpiece Amahl and the Night Visitors – this will be both at the St John’s Smith Square popular Christmas Festival and at St Mary’s Bampton, Oxfordshire. In particular we are inviting local primary schools to these performances. As for 2019, our main production choice is still under discussion, but could be another comedy from the very fertile, and not very well-known, French tradition.
What advice would you give to an aspiring opera director?
Understand the historical, literary and musicological contexts, know and feel the music and not just the text, and simply tell the story to the audience – that doesn’t mean being a slave to tradition, by any means, but it does mean finding a concept which ‘reads’.
Bampton’s Cinderella is showing on Tuesday 18 September. Click her for more information and to book tickets.
(Photo: Bampton Classical Opera: Isouard’s Cinderella – Bolero.)