Boney and Britten get the feminist treatment

Opera director Francesca Zambello's revival of 'Billy Budd' and her new musical 'Napoleon' challenge conventional male interpretations. Anna Picard met her
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Three years ago an opera house in Italy was keen to engage the American director Francesco Zambello. His portfolio was impressive; award-winning productions, a reputation for intelligent populism, and the all-important "controversial" debut at the Met. Magnifico! But then they discovered the typing error; he was a she.

Three years ago an opera house in Italy was keen to engage the American director Francesco Zambello. His portfolio was impressive; award-winning productions, a reputation for intelligent populism, and the all-important "controversial" debut at the Met. Magnifico! But then they discovered the typing error; he was a she.

Francesca Zambello is able to laugh about the contract that wasn't - though she makes a small mewing sound through her mouthful of decaff when I tell her that she was described to me as "that girl who's good at crowd scenes", pointing out that at 44 (just) she's hardly a girl. But to many in the ultra-traditional world of opera Zambello is a girl and probably always will be, Olivier Awards or no Olivier Awards.

Her past remarks about menopausal male critics still reverberate, thus the picture of Zambello that emerges from her previous interviews is a strident and serious one. But in the flesh she is warm, funny and easy to be with - despite flying in from the states overnight and rehearsing Benjamin Britten's opera Billy Budd all day - so we get straight onto the issue of sexism.

"Of course I'm bored of talking about it," she tells me. "But it needs to be talked about. The infra-structure of the performing arts is for the most part male-based. The people who run the organisations are not going to think 'let's put a woman in a position of power' ... Of course when you are a 'girl', it's not so bad," she laughs. "It's when you get older and stronger and bigger and more opinionated and more out-spoken that people get either much more in your court or much more threatened by it."

You can understand why the old guard might find her threatening; Zambello is disarmingly relaxed and open, qualities she attributes to the "American principles" that co-exist with her "European aesthetic". She's a tall woman with a rich, maple-syrup voice and the kind of strong-featured face that can change from stern concentration to fresh-faced wonder in a split-second. And she is at a point in her life where she can afford to relax, for after 16 years in the business - as a gopher at Bayreuth, then as assistant to Jean-Pierre Ponnelle before her debut at Houston Grand Opera in 1984 - there are many people who are in her court.

It's a sticky August evening and we're sitting in the compact flat in Covent Garden that is her home for half of the year. The rest of the time she commutes to the Manhattan apartment which she shares with her three dogs and her partner of the last 10 years, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Manuela Hoelterhoff, who Zambello describes as "the best thing that ever happened to me". In marked contrast to those in her profession who pursue a monk-like devotion to their art, Zambello makes time for her personal life ("It gives work more meaning and depth. I need that centre") scheduling three-month breaks in order to "protect" the relationship. If her sexuality has compounded the difficulties of making a career in opera, she makes no mention of it. She views her gender however as positively advantageous to her work - even in the all-male world of Billy Budd.

"Directing an all-male cast is in a funny way much easier," she tells me. "Sometimes they start to behave like schoolboys so I just become a schoolmistress and say 'right, now everybody just shut up, this is what we're going to do'. Being a woman is very much part of my ethos as a director. I don't have an ego that gets hampered or freaked out by suggestions. I think you have to encourage individuality as much as possible. I'm very open and try to be all-embracing, and I think those are traditionally what you'd call women's attributes. You may as well use them as best as possible..."

The same calm pragmatism has informed Zambello's directorial attitude to the heroines of grand opera. The kind of authenticity that she wants has more to do with emotional and intellectual integrity than frilly frocks or funny uniforms. It's not (as has been implied by her detractors) some kind of loony, ball-breaking Lorena Bobbit fantasy, she simply believes that it's time to see Aida and her sisters from their perspective. "You're supposed to hold the material up - whatever material you're doing, from Shakespeare to Bellini. You're supposed to hold it up to the looking glass of today," she says. "It's a sub-conscious thing; people think 'why are we always harping on about the victims in 19th-century opera?' Maybe they're not all victims! I do think that a lot of that opera-world has been created by men who want to keep women down."

But opera, which hinges on the diva-aesthetic of glamorous suffering, found Zambello's approach initially hard to swallow. In 1992 she put feminist theory into practice in her Met debut, Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor - a performance that sparked literal fist-fights in the auditorium. Looking back it seems extraordinary that suicide shown as a positive act could cause such a fuss in a theatre, but the conservative New York audience wanted "cute sword-dances, nice kilts, and a pretty white dress with a bloody smear down the front" not a depiction of Lucia's interior landscape. The morning after the first night, Zambello felt her career was over. But then the phone started ringing; scandal at the Met was her passport to Europe.

Eight years later, Zambello is in a position to say no to companies, casts or works which do not interest her. "I'm grateful to be at that point, believe me," she says. And, in sweet symmetry, her European successes have finally won her an invitation back to the Met in 2003. "It's taken me more than a decade to get back to those hallowed marble halls!" she laughs. "Oh well, it's safe - it's a modern opera."

Her award-winning 1995 production of Billy Budd is revived at Covent Garden on Wednesday. After several years of touring it's a tight ship, so Napoleon - which Zambello is directing at the Shaftesbury - is her main focus as she dashes between the two theatres. She describes the new musical as "an intimate epic" that explores the emotional life of Napoleon and his brother against the backdrop of revolution. It's relatively rare for an opera director to do musicals as well but Zambello enjoys them. Recent years have seen some real stinkers in theatre-land, particularly on historical subjects, but Napoleon has something of the through-composed romantic sweep of the Rodgers and Hammerstein heyday, she tells me. So it's not like Cats then? No roller-skating even? "No! Euch, euch, euch, euch!" she cries. "Hideous! No. No. No. I'm interested in real people."

"It's like Billy Budd," she says. " Billy Budd and Napoleon are stories about real people with strong passions and emotions, and as a director what I'm interested in is story-telling," she says, eating a cookie. "I think 'High Art' is crap. I think it's bullshit. I really resent it. I believe in populism. It's totally unpopular to say that with a number of my colleagues but I think that if in any way we alienate the audience, it's terrible. I'm just not interested in all that pompous stuff. That's not to say we should be 'giving the audience what they want' - I want the audience to want what I'm giving them, and that's an important distinction to make."

She pokes the table with a neatly manicured finger. "If we do things that alienate or ostracise our audience then we're being irresponsible. It's an irresponsible use of private and public funds. That's not to say we should be giving them La Boheme or Carmen - most people may not want to see Lulu or Wozzeck but we should try to do [them] in such a way that they want to see it." She pauses and smiles. "I just want to be doing things that really speak to the whole audience, rather than sending them home to their videos."

'Billy Budd', Royal Opera House, WC2 (020 7304 4000), from 20 September to 3 October. 'Napoleon', Shaftesbury Theatre, WC2 (020 7379 5399), from 17 October

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