There's nothing like a change of scene

The glamour of the opera has lured many a theatre director. But now the ENO's former chief, David Pountney, is making a rare trip in the other directi on. David Benedict met him on holiday in Illyria As director of productions at ENO he cycled to work on a collapsible bike and w as famous for his dress sense: loud `You need trust to work well in the theatre. You've got to be able to make an i diot of yourself if necessary'
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"It was something I very much hoped would happen. It just so happened that Martin Duncan [Nottingham Playhouse's new artistic director] was the first person who popped the question."

Spurred on by opera successes from directors such as Tim Albery, Nicholas Hytner and Richard Jones, theatre directors are heading to their CD players and discovering the operatic repertoire. Even Richard Eyre has succumbed with his recent La Traviata. However, after 25 years of opera, David Pountney is heading in the opposite direction with Twelfth Night.

He hasn't directed a play since he was at school. At Cambridge the nearest he got was conducting the score for one, but he did direct nine operas. Since then, he hasn't really looked back. As director of productions at English National Opera (1982-93), he cycled to work on a collapsible bike and was famous for his dress sense: loud. He sported a laurel green tartan suit to the opening of his production of Verdi's Macbeth. If this suggests a solipsistic eccentric, think again. "He's completely egalitarian. The archetypal company man," says one ex-colleague, "he has real artistic vision but also actually enjoyed the management and business side of things." Pountney laughs at the suggestion that he is good at organisation but admits to missing having a hand in policy-making. Although he still baulks at bel canto - he'd rather jump off a cliff than direct a Bellini opera - he is evidently enjoying the challenges of freelance life.

None the less, he confesses to having been terrified before rehearsals began. Ten days in, he is preoccupied but relaxed. He grins, softening the penetrating gaze from very dark eyes. "I was always told, `In the theatre we rehearse things properly, not like you opera people.' Now that I'm in it, I discover I'm doing a piece in three-and-a-half weeks, which I haven't done since I was about 25."

It isn't only the pace of rehearsals that's different. Auditions were an unfamiliar experience. "I actually had to talk to these people. You hardly ever do that in opera auditions. You sit in the stalls, and people come out and you say, `Next! Whaddya going to sing now?'" His assistant, Daniel Slater, put together four or five days of friendly chats in a minute room during which highly experienced actors read for him. "I think they did it as something of a concession to my profound ignorance of straighttheatre. I go to theatre a lot but I don't sit there clocking actors. They didn't mind because I was obviously such a berk from the edge of another world. The process taught me a lot about the play and my own responses to it."

His cast are providing him with a completely new rehearsal dynamic. He describes it as something of a holiday.

"Singers rely on you to help them an awful lot. With actors it's more about setting the context, letting them grow within that and then steering. They are all quite capable of turning round and saying `Doesn't this scene go like this?', and doing it differently, more slowly, inserting huge pauses, all kinds of things. You can't do that in opera." And there's also the question of scale. There are 12 in the cast of Twelfth Night. Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk had seven times that number. Chorus rehearsals in opera are expensive and few. "If you cock up a rehearsal with the chorus, it's terribly difficult persuading 70 people to change their minds about how a scene goes."

There have been several tea-break discussions about opera acting - or the supposed lack of it. Faced with the charge that opera singers cannot act, he mounts a strong defence. "Good operatic acting is not the same as good theatre acting. The primary acting instrument for a singer is the voice and the first thing you want is a singer who can act with their voice. That sounds simpler than it is. Fewer and fewer singers are being trained that way. They are just being trained to sing beautifully - record industry fodder.

People who can really modulate what they do with their voice, who can convey a performance almost by that means alone, are already well on the way to acting. Ann Murray, who is not at all naturally a good actress (which I think she would forgive me for saying), has discovered acting through being able to act with her voice, and it has led her to being able to deliver a completely riveting operatic performance."

He is strikingly articulate about the technical reasons for the different approaches to stage and opera acting. "If you take four lines of Shakespeare text there is its meaning, but technically there is no instruction about how it should be delivered. Take eight bars of music and there are probably 100 instructions in those eight bars alone: what speed, what pitch, that bit shorter, longer, legato, all that stuff. There is an immense density of control. Music has the enigma of being the most precise language we know in terms of notation and the most opaque in terms of its meaning. That's one of the reasons why singers are always grateful for parameters, because there is no way you can say `It definitely means this'. It just means music.

"If I were directing this play as an opera, I would do it much more abstractly. Paradoxically, a singer being told, `Now do this as though you were on Mars', or whatever, is fine because everything else is clearly written down. It's much more tricky to plunge an actor into a completely abstract situation and say `Now cope.'"

It is this sense of abstraction that is at the heart of Pountney's best work. "Nothing betrays music more than a kind of fussy naturalism on stage. It pins it down into a world that doesn't really exist."

The magnificently dark vision of 1950s suburbia in his Hansel and Gretel, the monolithic meat factory of his celebrated Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk or the Freudian nursery setting for Dvorak's Rusalka were all shining examples of thematic relocation which revealed ideas about class and sexuality. These relocations sometimes outraged purists but Pountney's response is judicious. "Rusalka has wonderful content encased in quite a problematic shell. The content needs to be teased out. With Twelfth Night, I'm not imposing an over-arching interpretive concept. Not least because it doesn't need it."

For someone embarking on a new career, he seems remarkably sanguine, possibly because he has operas lined up at Scottish Opera, WNO and ENO plus Munich, Tokyo, Bregenz and Vienna. His proudest achievement at ENO was raising standards throughout the house, something he ascribes to genuine collaboration and trust. He is similarly enthusiastic about the level of support he has received at Nottingham. "You need trust to work well in theatre. You've got to be able to make an idiot of yourself if necessary."

`Twelfth Night' previews from 9 Feb at the Nottingham Playhouse (0115 941 9419)