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)

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Arts and Entertainment
Crime watch: Cara Delevingne and Daniel Brühl in ‘The Face of an Angel’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
music Malik left the Asian leg of the band's world tour after being signed off with stress last week
Author J.K. Rowling attends photocall ahead of her reading from 'The Casual Vacancy' at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on September 27, 2012 in London, England.
peopleNot the first time the author has defended Dumbledore's sexuality
‘The Late Late Show’ presenter James Corden is joined by Mila Kunis and Tom Hanks for his first night as host
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss