A colourful double act: Die Frau ohne Schatten reunites David Hockney with director John Cox, the man who brought the artist into opera nearly 20 years ago. Here the director talks to Anthony Peattie about their collaborations

SO FAR the brouhaha surrounding Covent Garden's new production of Die Frau ohne Schatten has focused on its designer, David Hockney. Naturally enough: his most recent work in the theatre has been abroad - Tristan und Isolde in Los Angeles (1987) and Turandot in Chicago (1992). But what distinguishes this production is that in Frau, for the first time since the Stravinsky triple bill of 1981 (at the Metropolitan Opera, New York), Hockney has collaborated with a director. On this occasion at least it would be a mistake to ignore the contribution of Frau's director - John Cox.

'I invited David to design Frau back in 1988,' recalls Cox. 'It has been a long gestation period. David made it a precondition that I spent as much time as was necessary working with him in Los Angeles. At one point I seemed to be commuting, which was hard but, as a result, production and design were integrated from the start. As a matter of fact, we've worked much more closely on this than ever before.'

As a team this director and designer go back to 1973 when Cox brought Hockney into opera and invited him to work on The Rake's Progress for Glyndebourne. 'With David it was a case of inviting an artist established in his own right to come in and use the opera as inspiration. My hope was that his genius would take off as if he were at work on canvas or stone. Normally the director is supreme arbiter of all questions about what is seen and done, but when you invite someone like David to team up with you, you know you will surrender much of your autonomy. A small price to pay, as it turned out.'

It takes a director with a comparatively undersized ego to contemplate working with a designer of such repute. Cox has made a speciality of inviting 'outsiders' to design his productions, undismayed by the flak these have run into. He outlines his philosophy in characteristically diffident mode: 'I have a little bit of a personal mission, which is to introduce to opera a sense of wider possibilities in its visual realisation. Opera runs the danger of getting into a set visual vocabulary.'

But it is not just fashionable figures such as Erte (for Rosenkavalier) and Martin Battersby (Capriccio and Intermezzo) or architects like Michael Hopkins (last act set for Meistersinger) and Hugh Casson (Fedelta premiata) whom he has brought into the cruel glare of the operatic limelight. As General Administrator at Scottish Opera he let Tony Palmer loose on Turandot, persuaded Nuria Espert to make her debut in opera directing Madam Butterfly, got John Wells to translate Vie Parisienne, Anthony Burgess to rewrite Oberon and John Byrne to design Figaro.

'I like from time to time to introduce design elements that are not so familiar on stage - such as Gianni Versace's costumes, for example' (for Capriccio at the ROH). 'It's rather like being a patron, but with other people's money. I don't like opera that projects comfortable certitudes, but at the same time I don't like to subvert a piece merely in order to shock. If opera is elitist, it's not just because of the money it costs. More restrictive by far is the preciosity of received notions of good taste. Colour is suspect, bold outlines make the genteeler soul nervous. Those of us who work full-time in the theatre get too easily infected with caution. A bit of outrage may at times be necessary.'

When Cox asked Hockney to design Rake he was thinking of the artist's mastery of line in his graphic work, which included a suite of prints on the theme of Hockney's own rakish progress through America. He expected something 'daringly modern' and was 'quite unprepared for (Hockney's) desire to locate the design uncompromisingly in the style and content of Hogarth's own graphics'. Hockney fulfilled Cox's hope that his then graphic, linear style had something to offer the music. An opera that can seem difficult was made, as Cox put it, 'audible through the eye'.

Their next project was The Magic Flute but Cox could not be around enough to collaborate on the designs. 'I was unable to do a theatrical monitoring job and once I saw the designs I realised I would have to people 'his' Flute rather than direct 'ours'.' The scenes that worked best, he later said, were those that 'aspired most nearly to the nature of a picture in a frame. David's conquest of space was still to come.'

Cox asked Hockney to design Frau not just because it represents Strauss and Hofmannstahl's sequel to Mozart's Flute, but because 'It's about aesthetic matters - and one of the best ways to communicate that is through strong visual statements - colour has such an important part to play, much more than line, which had been of the essence in Rake.'

He explains: 'I avoided thinking about this opera for years because I couldn't see my way into it. But Frau will be the eighth Strauss opera that I've directed: that helps. It turns out that in Frau, as in Ariadne, Capriccio and Intermezzo, the composer explores the nature of creativity and how it relates to ordinary life. I felt this opera had a painterly feel. When they were discussing the Berlin presentation, Strauss and Hofmannstahl agreed that they needed to enlist the support of artists like Lovis Corinth, Max Liebermann and Max Slevogt. Getting the painters on board had a resonance for me.'

With Frau, Cox was on hand to accompany him through the work. 'In telling him why I wanted him to do it, I suggested it should go beyond being a piece about maternity, about civilisation and the connection between the past and the future. It's a piece about the creative act and a metaphor of itself.' Hockney has discovered parallels between himself as an artist and Barak the Dyer. Where had that idea come from? 'I sort of edged that on him - suggesting that here's a man who deals with colour just like he does.'

The relation between Hockney's paintings and his stage work is a fascinating one. Rake fruitfully disrupted his pattern of working and rescued him from sterile, drawing-obsessed academicism. On stage (in Tristan) he experimented with space and light; while on canvas he reworked cubism. Turandot and Frau have unleashed a passion for abstraction: the new paintings appear to celebrate dizzy perspectives and competing colours and patterns for their own sake. Cox points out that as a designer, Hockney has always worked in three dimensions, presenting a model, where other designers (even Hugh Casson), sketch a watercolour which must then be made three dimensional.

'When David stops designing and goes back to painting his task is to bring all that speciality into two dimensions. His primary work is in the theatre; the paintings explore the secondary field of planes suggesting depths that may or may not be there.' Thinking of Hockney's neophiliac delight in new forms of art and new technologies, Cox comments 'David has attempted all genres, except sculpture - but actually, his stage work is his sculpture; this is where he's concerned with the modelling of space, only his material is light itself.'

I asked David Hockney about Frau's ending which, even in the best productions, can seem to go on rather, as the Voices of the Unborn Children resound from offstage and the life force, fruitfulness and the shadow are celebrated onstage. Would they cut any of it at Covent Garden? 'Oh no,' he explained, in the same terms he once used when justifying the length of the love duet in Tristan, 'it takes that long to reach ecstasy.' John Cox answered the same question with a grin, 'We need all that music for the designs.' Perhaps they mean the same thing.

'Die Frau ohne Schatten' (cond Bernard Haitink) opens 6pm Monday 16 November. Further performances at 6pm on 20, 23, 25 and 28 November. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London WC2 (071-240 1066 / 1911)

(Photograph omitted)