MUSIC / The gastarbeiter: Mark Pappenheim talks to Jonathan Miller about his new staging of the St Matthew Passion and finds him in melancholy mood

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JONATHAN Miller is feeling a bit left out. Looking at this season's English National Opera prospectus, with three of his productions - The Turn of the Screw, Rigoletto and The Mikado - rapidly following one another in and out of the repertoire, you'd never know it, but Miller hasn't worked here for years. Those three productions are all revivals, and the last new opera stagings Miller did in this country were five years ago.

Even before that, while he worked regularly, and very successfully, at Kent Opera and ENO in the mid-1970s and early 1980s, he was only ever asked to work once each at Glyndebourne and Scottish Opera, never at WNO, Opera North or Covent Garden. 'It's rather like being dead really - and the dead are sometimes, I think, allowed a certain amount of indignation.' And so he rants and raves and swears he will never work here again (conveniently forgetting that he has in fact been asked to do a new Rosenkavalier at ENO next season).

What rankles most is the way he's gone from Beyond the Fringe to beyond the pale. 'When I started 20 years ago, at Kent, I was fairly universally viewed as a vandal. Most of the things I did were reviewed as 'The good doctor is up to his tricks again' - as if I was this mischievously dangerous person. Now I think I'm seen as some sort of dreary traditionalist. So I went from vandal to fossil in only 10 years.'

The public are clearly on Miller's side - Rigoletto's latest revival is billed as 'by public demand'. It's the critics, though, he blames for their compulsive 'kerb-crawling - always looking out for the newest tart on the block. You know - 'Suck me off in an interesting way.' And they'll take three episodes of being sucked off and then they'll move on.'

Miller, however, is looking to establish a little more of a permanent relationship with the operas he directs. And the fact that the best of his ENO productions - the Turn of the Screw, say, or the Rigoletto - still hold the stage 10 years or more after they were created is testament enough to his more enduring, if old-fashioned, values. For him, it should be every producer's ambition to produce just such a classic 'with a capacity to last for, say, 15 years. That seems to me to be a sign of doing something of some importance . . . I think there are classic productions, that go on looking good, solid, convincing, inevitable - probably because they address something which is independent of fashion, which is some sort of permanent, accurate truth about the way we are. That's very unfashionable now - the idea of behavioural realism, psychological accuracy. But if you want a 'concept', those are the concepts which I value - getting it right, getting us right. That's the only interesting concept in the world, really.'

Small wonder, then, that Miller turned his back upon this country and now travels the world as an operatic 'gastarbeiter', a welcome guest at all the major houses of the world from Vienna and Berlin to La Scala and the New York Met. There are advantages to working abroad: apart from getting to spend his afternoons off at some of the world's greatest art galleries, he is spared the worst assaults of the critics. 'Partly because I can't read them] I know the languages well enough to know what they're getting at in general terms, but actually one is separated by a thick layer of contraceptive linguistic rubber from the full infection of their prose . . . And the other thing is, you're out of the joint before the reviews appear.'

Abroad, too, he says, he is never made to feel embarrassed about being old (he is 60 next year) or ashamed of being more than just an opera director. 'It's only in this country that any sort of versatility - and I'm not saying that mine is particularly conspicuous - but, you know, the fact that I use both my legs in walking seems to be somehow a source of irritation; it's thought pretentious.'

So why doesn't he emigrate? 'How could I possibly leave this country? It's where I live, where my family are.' Much as he resents being turned into an artistic exile within his own land, he clearly takes a certain pride in being a 'journeyman craftsman', a 'migrant worker', on the world stage. The globe- trotting life is, however, far from glamorous, he hastens to add.

'For Christ's sake] You live alone in rather poky hotels, often in quite unspeakable cities. You're away from your family, you eat alone at night, you spend half your fee ringing home every evening . . . When I say I'm going to Monte Carlo next week, people always say 'Poor you]' with elaborate irony, as if it's something terrific. They're usually people who've never been to the place. I mean, it's a horrible Hong Kong on the Mediterranean. There isn't a bookshop in town. It's a wretched place filled with tax-dodging, fur-coated fools. You just stick it out doing the opera. And that's when I feel, every three or four years, Christ, wouldn't it be nice to be doing something of serious importance at home, going backwards and forwards to the hospital every day, instead of competing for attention, approval and applause in Opera magazine when what one ought to be doing is depositing one's papers in the Journal of Cognitive Psychology.'

In the meantime, we in Britain have a rare chance to see Miller at work again, with a production of Bach's St Matthew Passion. But those expecting some great theatrical extravaganza will, he insists, be disappointed. 'It's not going to be staged. It can't possibly be staged. There are no events in it]'

What there is, however, is 'an extraordinary variety of discourse' - a novelistic alternation of narrative, commentary, direct and indirect speech, meditations and interruptions. 'What I want to do is not to dramatise the action, but to dramatise the narration.' Above all, though, what he hopes to do is to 'informalise' the work, to liberate it both from conventional churchiness and from traditional concert presentation. While staged in a church, it will be played out in the round. Instead of distant dinner-jacketed soloists lined up behind lecterns, Miller will have roving soloists, moving freely about between audience and orchestra. The singers will be encouraged to address one another, their audience and even, in those arias that spotlight certain obbligato instruments (a flute, an oboe, a viola da gamba), their instrumental alter egos. Such intimate exchanges will, he hopes, echo the sort of musical interplay you occasionally get between singer and solo instrumentalist in the best kind of jazz - 'when you get those wonderful, collusive smiles which imply that they are making something together. And in a way there's a deep sense of the sacred about that.' It will, he hopes, have the quality of a genuine communion - a communion in which one can share irrespective of creed.

'In a way, you're looking at the most interesting, intense and naked form of Christianity, which was the Christianity of the first century and a half, when people just gathered together in houses, broke bread together and celebrated this thing in memory of 'Him' - when it was still perhaps in living memory that 'He' was Jewish.' Whether or not one subscribes to the story as a sacred story is, to a certain extent, besides the point. 'The story itself is so intense, so dramatic, so central to everything that's important to human beings - the idea of willingly undertaking sacrifice; of feeling agony at the moment, and doubt; of being betrayed by one's closest friends, even those in fact who then have remorse for it . . . You haven't got to be a Christian to feel that this story touches the central concerns of human beings.'

As an atheist, he feels particularly well qualified to tackle the subject 'because, in some awful, strange, paradoxical way, atheists do take religion more seriously than the practitioners . . . I know that my need will never be satisfied. There isn't anything out there, there's nothing that gives a damn, but it might, in Hemingway's words, be 'pretty to think so'.'

And all this theatrical make-believe, he fears, is only preventing him from gaining true enlightenment. 'There's a terrible, ghastly moment at the end of Jude the Obscure, when Jude is dying in Oxford, never having got into the university, and he hears the applause and the noise of the people receiving their degrees in the Sheldonian. Well, that's the sort of feeling I have at the moment, as I reach the end of my life. I can hear the din of the real action going on in the area of the brain sciences, and I'm outside it . . . It's terribly sad.'

St Matthew Passion, 18-21 Feb, Holy Trinity, Sloane St SW1 (071-730 1745)

(Photograph omitted)