OPERA & THEATRE / The many sides of Elijah Who?: He's director to the stars in two art forms, but he isn't famous. Yet. Stephen Fay tracks down the elusive Elijah Moshinsky

ALTHOUGH Elijah Moshinsky is a successful stage director, he is not well known. So, at 47, he has hired a press agent to make him famous. But what he is best known for in opera right now is a thundering three-month row he started about directing Verdi. Talking about it, Moshinsky seems apprehensive and sounds miserable. The press agent might well have advised that the row could backfire on him. He would have been right.

The brawl about Verdi in Opera magazine has turned into a nasty confrontation between partisans for two styles of production: call them the literalist and the expressionist. Moshinsky attacked the fashion for experimental productions with angled stages, beds hanging from the walls and bare electric lights swinging from the ceiling. This has provoked a tumultuous correspondence in which his own credentials as a director - the very thing he hired the press agent to establish - have been severely questioned. 'I expected them to call me a fuddy- duddy,' Moshinsky says, 'but I was shocked and really upset when critics said I was no good at my job.'

They did too: the Guardian's opera critic, Tom Sutcliffe, referring to Moshinsky's Otello at Covent Garden starring Placido Domingo, wrote of 'a neutral approach, leaving bland stars seriously under-directed in a decorative, historically correct environment'. David Pountney, director of productions at the English National Opera, says that while the expressionist productions of Verdi done at the ENO may be accused of excess, Moshinsky's literalist Verdi, with period sets and costumes, is dull. Pountney is bluntly dismissive: 'He does things his way and makes a good career of it, so what's his problem?'

Moshinsky says sometimes he thinks his problem may be terminal: 'You have the feeling that you'll never be able to work again.' This is melodrama, of course, but the fact that it crosses his mind at all is compelling. It is like Moshinsky's description of the plot of a Verdi opera: private emotions versus the sweep of history. He is well cast as a principal player.

His facial features are soft, but the eyes are full of character: deep brown, amused and playful. He walks with a slight stoop, and would easily be lost in a crowd. He was brought up in the same dull Melbourne suburbs as Barry Humphries, and has some faint nasal Australian vowels to show for it. But Moshinsky has a much more exotic past. He was born in the French Quarter of Shanghai in 1946, and the most dramatic memory of his early life was of his father lifting him up so that he could see Mao Tse-tung's victorious entry into Shanghai in 1951.

His father and mother were stateless Russian Jews who had already fled once, from Vladivostok to Shanghai. When the family left China after the Communist takeover, all their belongings were packed in the suitcases they took on the train to Hong Kong and the boat to Melbourne. But the refugee image is misleading. Moshinsky's father had studied law at the University of California before the war; the family had money and knew how to get it out of Shanghai. As a schoolboy Moshinsky became addicted to history; he graduated from Melbourne University and taught history there for a couple of years before winning a scholarship to Oxford in 1973. There he came under the wing of Isaiah Berlin, and specialised in a study of the emigre Russian liberal Alexander Herzen. 'When I arrived in Oxford I was extremely gormless. I think I still am; I'm still trying to catch up.' The air of artlessness is part of his image.

At Oxford, Moshinsky saw that, to direct a play, all you had to do was ask. When he did As You Like It (Mel Smith was Touchstone), the general director of Covent Garden, Sir John Tooley, saw it, liked it and offered Moshinsky a job as a staff producer. It was extraordinary luck, and for years Moshinsky's career was like scenes from a soap opera.

In 1975 Covent Garden asked him to revive Britten's Peter Grimes. Moshinsky said boldly that he could mount a new production in the Brechtian manner for the same cost. Jon Vickers, the great Canadian tenor who was playing the title role, encouraged him, and with his first professional production, Moshinsky had a hit. Peter Grimes was taken to La Scala in Milan, where the great director Giorgio Strehler was so impressed that he sought Moshinsky out. Britten hated it, but even the critics who are now attacking him in Opera recall the brilliance of that Peter Grimes.

In London Moshinsky was taken up by Peter Hall, and asked to direct only the second new production in the Lyttelton Theatre. But Thomas Bernhard's Force of Habit was a disaster, and it was withdrawn after six performances. Moshinsky says ruefully: 'I wasn't ready for the opportunities I got, but I wasn't favourably treated by the National either. Work disappeared. I didn't do another play for 10 years.'

He was only 30, and, he says, he had to hide himself away in the opera. He makes a setback sound like a catastrophe, but the fact is his opera career prospered. Covent Garden productions of Wagner's Lohengrin (1978) and Stravinsky's Rake's Progress (1979) both won Society of West End Theatre awards for best opera production. In 1980 Jonathan Miller, a friend from the Oxford & Cambridge Players, asked him to direct some Shakespeare for television; and this restored his confidence in directing actors. With singers he had never had any trouble; by the age of 40 he had directed all the great operatic names.

For more than a generation the English theatre has been dominated by directors - Peter Hall, Trevor Nunn, Terry Hands - and actors have grown used to conforming to a director's style, letting him be the star. Moshinsky's aims are more modest; when he judges that the actors are in control of a play, he hands it over to them. Actors like directors who make them look good, and Moshinsky has contrived a memorable entrance for Robert Lindsay in Cyrano de Bergerac at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket. Lindsay first appears at the side of the dress circle and swaps lines with characters on stage before joining them, fast and riskily, by swooping down, like Tarzan, on the end of a rope. The audience is delighted, the actors are at ease and the performance is off to a cracking start.

Moshinsky's wilderness years in the theatre ended in 1987, with a production of Chekhov's Three Sisters for the Greenwich Theatre. That transferred to the Albery and since then Moshinsky has worked regularly in the West End, starting with Felicity Kendal and Alan Bates in Shakespeare and Chekhov. He directed Nigel Hawthorne's award-winning performance in Shadowlands, and the successful 1991 production of Anouilh's Becket with Lindsay and Derek Jacobi.

Moshinsky has also been admitted to the tight circle of people with whom Albert Finney works. He directed Another Time, one of the series of Ronald Harwood plays in which Finney has starred, and now Finney talks about playing in the ultimate star vehicle, King Lear, with Moshinsky directing. He has in mind an intimate production in a small room. As an artistic notion, this is intriguing; as a commercial proposition, it is dubious.

Moshinsky likes working with stars, even more so in the opera than the theatre: 'Because they have wonderful voices, you can hear what's in the music, and because they're never puppets of the conductor or the director, their characters live their own lives on stage.'

Now that he is directing Jose Carreras in Stiffelio, Moshinsky will have completed a hat-trick of the world's great tenors, having already worked with Pavarotti (in Verdi's Masked Ball at the Metropolitan in New York) and Domingo in the Covent Garden Otello. His critics see his liking for stars as an item on the charge sheet. For Moshinsky, the fact that stars like to work with him is a vindication of his style of directing. The problem is that it's the stars who are famous, not Moshinsky. Paul Johnson wrote that Otello was the best opera production he had ever seen, and mentioned everyone involved except Moshinsky.

Moshinsky approaches Verdi as a historian: Verdi is the embodiment of 19th-century liberalism, always conscious of the conflict between individual liberty and the sacrifices involved in creating a nation state, like Italy itself. 'For me, directing Verdi is engaging in the humanity of the piece. I can only do so if the characters are rooted in a social reality I can recognise when I see it on stage.' This does not prevent him from shifting the location of the action: Verdi set Stiffelio - the story of a cuckolded pastor who forgives the adulterers - in a Swiss Protestant community; Moshinsky moves it to the American frontier.

But talk of social reality brings the subject back to Pountney and the ENO. Moshinsky first admires Pountney's work ('he's taken great risks and been very bold'), but there is real rivalry there, perhaps because Pountney's expressionist productions at the Coliseum have aroused more controversy than Moshinsky's literalist productions at Covent Garden. Of the two, Moshinsky has worked in more of the great opera houses, but Pountney's work has made him more famous in London.

Singers who have worked with both Pountney and Moshinsky, however, mind much less about production styles and more about their techniques of directing singers; they notice similarities not differences. The English tenor Graham Clark, who has worked with both in the past three months, says: 'Elijah gives his general idea of the work to start with and then plays around according to the way the artist is singing it. He gives you ideas and allows you to find solutions. David does the same.'

So what is this brawl about? Moshinsky, talking about growing up, says that in Australia intellectuals develop strong tastes early on, and fight over them: 'We're used to being polemical,' he says. The editor of Opera, Rodney Milnes, says crisply: 'Besides being very intelligent, Elijah is very mischievous.'

He also has a reputation for being very tough with the money men in the Opera House and the West End, proving better than most agents at negotiating proper percentages and decent fees. Why not? He is a freelance director whose earning pattern is uncertain, and he has a wife and children aged eight and 12 to support in Blackheath.

When it comes to his art or his job prospects, he has no cause to worry. Elijah Moshinsky knows what he thinks and can look after himself. But if getting involved in arguments makes him apprehensive and miserable, and becoming famous means being controversial, Moshinsky may decide that being a successful stage director is, after all, good enough. It would be curtains for the press agent.

'Stiffelio' opens tomorrow at Covent Garden (071-240 1200). 'Cyrano de Bergerac' continues at the Haymarket (071-930 8800).

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