An Operatic Eyre

An Operatic Eyre

Sir Richard Eyre, one of the world’s busiest and most acclaimed directors, moves with ease between theater and TV, film and opera. A five-time Olivier Award winner in his native Britain, Sir Richard most recently received London’s Evening Standard Award for Best Director for his staging of Ibsen’s Ghosts, a production that is rumored to be heading to Broadway. On Feb. 18, the Metropolitan Opera premieres his new production of Jules Massenet’s tragic romance Werther. In late summer 2013, when the 71-year-old director was in New York on a flying visit, journalist Robin Tabachnik met with him to discuss his love for this relatively unperformed work and how he has made it relevant for audiences today.

RT: You made your Metropolitan Opera debut in 2009 with a well-received new production of Bizet’s Carmen. Four years later, and you’re back at the Met with Werther. It looks as though opera is taking up more of your professional time.

RE: Increasingly more and more. I came to opera late. I did a production of La Traviata at Covent Garden with Angela Gheorghiu in 1994. For years, [the late] Sir Georg Solti [former musical director of The Royal Opera] said that I should direct opera, and I kept refusing because I didn’t understand the medium. Eventually, I capitulated, and fell in love. Angela was making her [Covent Garden] debut, and Solti, 82 at the time, had never conducted Traviata. So, it was a first for all three of us. It was a completely magical time; I couldn’t have had a better start in opera. Then I did a production of The Marriage of Figaro in Aix-en-Provence. Then Carmen at the Met. And now I’m doing Werther, and then Manon Lescaut in Baden-Baden. I find myself doing more and more opera, and I’m more and more content about it. It started out as a small piece of the pie, and it’s becoming a larger piece.

RT: Is there a great divide between drama and opera?

RE: It’s foolish to think that theater and opera are the same medium. They are two utterly distinct mediums. Of equal value, but very different. People often say that theater is a more truthful medium than opera. This is not true. One is not more truthful than the other; rather, it is a question of two different ways of expressing truth. And if you don’t understand that, then opera can be enormously frustrating because the articulation of thoughts and emotion actually tends to be rather slow in opera because one word can be drawn out over a page. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t find truth within it. People say that theater is something real, but when you are sitting in a theater, you are also watching an artifice. When the convention employs actors, it [only] appears to be spontaneous. That’s not the convention in opera. It’s a different artistic universe, and I’m very, very happy that I can travel from one artistic planet to another.

RT: Can you tell me something about how you approach opera? What’s the rehearsal process like?

RE: Initially, I encourage the singers not to sing. So, in the first stages of rehearsal, I just tell them to think about what the words mean and what story is being told, so there is a distillation of thought and meaning. My process is quite similar to that of how I begin with a play. I have a read-through. But then, of course, when you add music, a different dimension takes over. I like to stage things with a clear idea of the architecture, but I love to see what the actors and singers will offer up themselves, so I give them a general road map but let them decide where and when they sit, stand and wander as the music, or in the case of actors, the words propel them. If they are imaginative, they do something very interesting, and quite often it is something I would never have thought of myself. If you don’t allow an actor ownership of the role, then it’s going to end up inert. The singer has to inhabit the psychology of the character and then transmute that into expression through the music.

RT: How do you make opera accessible?

RE: What makes any art accessible is clarity, narrative as well as musical clarity. The most useful thing I can do to make it more accessible is to make it more comprehensible, so you can see what’s going on. That’s done in a variety of different ways: changing the period, simplifying things, just making sure a design touch helps to make the story more comprehensible. Musical theater has an edge in that respect in that it flips back and forth between dialogue and song, whereas nine-tenths of opera is durchkomponiert [through-composed]. I would apply the same criteria to spoken theater and opera. I try to bring that to everything I direct. For example, I changed the period of Carmen so the story would be clearer and Carmen would appear more of an outsider. I had everyone else in the factory wear short dresses, while she wore a long dress to indicate that she was a gypsy, an outsider. She’s treated as someone outside society. If you were to do it in the original 19th century [the opera premiered in Paris in 1875], then all the skirt lengths would be the same. and you wouldn’t get that immediate idea that she is an outsider. It’s a subtle change as far as storytelling [goes], but a massive change for the audience because they immediately say to themselves, “OK, there is someone who is different.” Small, but significant.

RT: Then it’s not like taking [Verdi’s] Rigoletto and putting it in Vegas [as was the case with director Michael Mayer’s staging of the opera that premiered during the Met’s 2012-2013 season].

RE: No, that’s imposing, and I recoil from that. I go from the inside and try to illuminate a piece as it is written.

RT: Have you made similar adjustments to Werther, in the interest of making it more accessible?

RE: I’ve moved the period by 100 years to the period in which the opera was written. Werther was first performed in1892, and that’s where I’ve put it. It was a period in which dramas—like those by Ibsen, Strindberg and Chekhov—were absolutely at their height. There was a ferment of change in artistic thinking in visual and dramatic arts. Massenet was drawn to the story because he was interested in the ferment of his own times, so I moved it from the 18th to the 19th century, and the story becomes, for me, much clearer. Late-19th-century costume is also very close to early-21st-century [clothing]—men in suits, women in longer dresses—unlike 18th-century [garb], which is distinctly and tremendously remote. You may say I have a bit of a prejudice about 18th-century costume, and this is perfectly true. So, I have moved it to the period that Massenet imagined: his own.

RT: Why do you think Werther isn’t performed much in the repertoires of opera companies today?

RE: I don’t know. It’s a gorgeous opera. I didn’t know it well until I was hired to direct it. So I listened to it very, very hard—and over and over again. I find it the most beguiling piece. I love that it is intensely romantic, and [that there is an] emotional contradiction between a French composer and a German subject. There is a certain rigorousness about Massenet and a lack of sentimentality, and I find that very moving. Charlotte’s story [mezzo Sophie Koch sings Charlotte in this production] is a blighted love affair. Charlotte has a sense of obligation to her mother, whose death, which happens before the opera begins, is the key event. Charlotte had pledged herself to Albert while her mother was dying. She can’t break this promise to her mother, even though she is in love with Werther [sung by tenor Jonas Kaufmann]. That is the thing that eventually breaks her heart. And his as well. I think it’s a doomed love affair magnificently expressed. So beautifully expressed that it is a piece that has become very important to me. I have become evangelical about telling people that they must hear it.

RT: Given your continuing experience with opera is there anything you know now that you didn’t know before?

RE: Not to get worked up about the things you can’t change. And I’ve learned how to be simple—simple and as effective as possible with a minimum of fuss. There is no short cut to that.

RT: Opera is always in search of new audiences. Is there anything you, as a director, can do to help bring in new audiences?

RE: There is a big problem of class perception. People assume that classical music is the preserve of the privileged class, and that just has to be broken down by education. And the best sort of education is for people to get an opportunity to experience classical music and opera. I never went to the theater as a child. I was 16 before I saw a play. And when I finally did, I was astonished. People need the opportunity, and we have to find a way to give it to them, to get young people in opera houses. One of the ways, of course, is the Met’s Live in HD broadcasts. They’re fantastic. [Editor’s note: Werther is scheduled for broadcast on March 15 at 12:55 ET, with an encore on March 19 at 6:30 p.m. local time; for a schedule of other Live in HD broadcasts, log on to]

>> Werther, Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center, Columbus Ave., btw W, 63rd & W. 64th sts., Feb. 18, 22 (mat), 25, 28, Mar. 3, 7, 11, 15 (mat)

Photo credit: Jonas Kaufmann in Jules Massenet's Werther, Brigitte Lacombe 

Robin Tabachnik, a born-and-bred New Yorker, grew up immersed in the city’s arts and culture scene. Following a successful career as an opera and concert singer, Tabachnik is now a passionate music and arts journalist, who writes for Playbill, among other publications.