Deborah Warner: How I learnt to love opera

Deborah Warner made her name as a searingly provocative theatre director. So, asks Paul Taylor, what's she doing at Glyndebourne?
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The Independent Culture

"We live," declares the theatre director Deborah Warner, "in a soap-opera culture of small, local, diminished emotions. The antidote to soap-opera is opera. Opera offers us emotions on the grand scale. This builds up our sense of human possibility and allows us to see that our lives are not small and cramped."

She's talking to me in the lunch-break during rehearsal for her modern-dress Glyndebourne production of Fidelio, a take first seen in 2001 and now being remounted in a freshly pondered and almost wholly recast incarnation. Beethoven's sole opera is particularly germane to her argument, she thinks, because of its own dramatic progression. "It begins on the most extraordinary domestic scale and it concludes with the liberation of a state prison and we find that it's the lowest menial, the odd-job person who mops the floor, who is leading us to the heroic ending."

Now evangelical about this art form, Warner was not always so smitten. Catapulted to the front-rank of theatre directors by her Royal Shakespeare Company production of Titus Andronicus, she "actively did not want to do opera" and had to be pursued for four years by Nicholas Payne, then at Opera North, before relenting. "I made the big mistake of saying that Wozzeck was the only opera I liked and he said, alright, come and do it". Though acclaimed, the production was a traumatic initiation for her. "I had a wonderful cast but they were quite young, so they were in terror of what is really complicated music. I formed the impression that singers are always counting in their heads and nervous of the material".

She was benignly disabused of this notion when she first went to Glyndebourne in 1994 to direct Don Giovanni. The cast was very experienced and therefore "had tons of energy to put into the rehearsals, and were really up for non-stop exploration and proper excavation". The result was a revelatory account of Mozart's masterpiece, with a Don who commits the ultimate blasphemy of adding a statue of the Virgin Mary to his list of conquests. It was too searching, however, for the first-night crowd who greeted it with a barrage of booing.

The areas of the opera repertoire that she wouldn't touch are those where the vocal demands are so technically exacting that there are only ever four of five singers in the world who can tackle them, none of whom may be a real stage animal. Beethoven's opera abuts this territory. "I came away from the first experience of directing Fidelio feeling that it was a thrilling piece, but thinking maybe one could never get together a cast that could properly inhabit it". The critics admired the way the production, with its prison cages evoking camps in Bosnia, scrupulously avoided simple distinctions between joy and sorrow, good and evil, suffering and relief. The problem was with the performer who played Leonore, the devoted wife who infiltrates the prison as a male worker in search of the "disappeared" Florestan. While Charlotte Margiono was deemed to have brought exquisite musicianship to the role, "one has," according to one reviewer, "to shut one's eyes in order to be moved by her".

To judge from the run-through I witnessed, eyes will widen (and ears pop) in awe of Anja Kampe, the German soprano who caused a sensation when she played Sieglinde opposite Placido Domingo in Washington Opera's Die Walküre. She's beautiful, very believable as a male, and she sings with extraordinary fearlessness, even in a piano rehearsal where singers tend to save their voices. That, for Warner, is the key, because the intrepidness of the artist mirrors the courage of the character.

"People say that it was Beethoven's mistake or his unkindness that he has people singing on their break in such an uncomfortable place for them. But actually I think it's fundamental. He pushes Leonore to the absolute edge in her aria and Anja is prepared to try it in rehearsal again and again and again". Warner singles out two lines from that aria where the heroine sings (in the original German at Glyndebourne) "Sweet hope, oh never let your star,/Your last faint star of comfort be denied me" (Warner's italics). Because Kampe is willing to experiment as an actress, they have been investigating the possibility that at the start of the opera, "Leonore is on the point of losing it and giving up. Florestan has been missing for two years and I don't reckon this is the first prison where she's looked for him. Anja's exploration is of the really complicated area of being in a despair that, because hope is so much her philosophy, Leonore cannot even confess to herself."

The atrocity of the World Trade Center and George W Bush's "war on terror" were still to come when the production began life in May 2001. Warner has resisted the temptation to convert the prison into Guantanamo, but it will be lightly intimated in the finale that it has taken a foreign liberation force to upset the status quo. The audience will be left to make of that what they will.

Warner's production also draws attention to what she calls the "unsteadiness" of the ending. The distress of Marzelline, whose love Leonore has exploited, is realistically highlighted. Snow falls on the jubilant reunion of prisoners and wives. "It's a party, but how long can it last?" asks Warner.

She's renowned for leaving no received wisdom untested. I wondered how this worked when, as in opera, two people are in charge. She talks about how she and Mark Elder, who is conducting Fidelio, are "sensitive to what the other does and heading in the same direction. He lets me speak about tempi and he's been of great help to me in bringing out the musical expressiveness of the spoken dialogue". Talking generally of relationship between director and conductor, she cites the dramatic potency of complete pauses in the music if the director can justify them to a conductor, in whose gift they are. In her Vienna production of Dido and Aeneas earlier this year, she persuaded William Christie to "allow an extended pause in which everything stopped while Dido went through the stages of thinking, 'Aeneas has gone; I'd have him back; no I don't want him to come back; I've got to go forward, and now I'm moving towards the abyss'. I'm not sure that Bill would sustain it that long in a recording, but you can't disapprove of it in the theatre, because it held that stage".

Her future plans include an ENO Death in Venice and Poulenc's La Voix Humaine for Opera North. Warner-watchers will be intrigued to learn that at the end of this year, she was to have to have directed "two major actresses" in a taboo-busting Waiting For Godot at the National. Warner had a famous run-in with the vigilant Beckett estate when it banned her production of Footfalls, but when it lost its recent case against a cross-gender Godot in Italy, she and the NT thought "the writing was on the wall and that we were in with a chance with this fantastic proposition of a cast". But the estate won't give an inch.

Meanwhile, Warner, who slashed ticket prices for the young when she did Medea in the West End with Fiona Shaw, is looking forward to the special performance of Fidelio on August 16, when all 300 stall seats at Glyndebourne (which usually cost £160) will be available for £30 to people under the age of 30. She will lead the discussion afterwards. This audience development initiative fits neatly with her claim that "what you do is try to make something that would have excited the person you were when 18 or 20".

'Fidelio' runs until 27 August (; 01273 813813)