Director Victoria Newlyn in interview
Where did you get the idea to place the story to a music festival?
First, I must confess that I have never been to a music festival! But I always watch the TV coverage of Glastonbury (a big summer music festival in the UK), and am struck by the special outdoors atmosphere, the vivid colours of the tents, banners and clothing, the contrast of darkness/stage lighting with daylight/sunshine, the vast number of people coming together to enjoy themselves, and the sense of a "time-out-of-time" that people seem to experience when there.
I also wanted to find a contemporary setting for the opera, so that we as a company could make as many connection points as possible between ourselves and Shakespeare's characters; so translating the enchanted forest of the original play into the world of the festival seemed like a good fit.
As Yannis and I explored this setting together, we found that the 3 very distinct social strata of the play could translate directly and fruitfully into the groups of people who would be at the festival: the performers, the audience and the staff - with the extra fun of an appearance by a soon-to-be-married royal couple! At the festival, these distinct groups could mix, and characters could find themselves transported to and transformed by new situations which they would never experience in their daily lives.
What is it like to work with singers? Are there some special challenges with singers compared to actors? Do you have some special methods when working with singers?
The essential difference between a singer and an actor is that a singer has so much of HOW they say something prescribed for them. Pitch, rhythm, tempo, dynamics, emphasis - all are set by someone else, and all must be honoured and obeyed. And yet what we also ask of a singing actor is that every word is uttered as if he or she has just had the impulse to say it, in that moment, in a free and truthful way. Opera requires immense discipline - vocal, physical and musical - and the material must be thoroughly prepared before rehearsal begins. And then, with all that structure and precision embedded and absorbed, you must be available and ready to play. To be completely adaptable and alive within that precise structure. To tell the story in a new and fresh way, using material that is so completely codified. And because the material is so codified and "set", I think there is a far greater propensity for a singer to feel they have got something "wrong". As an actor, unless I actually say the wrong words, it is very hard for someone to say I have got something wrong. I am free to interpret a character or a speech or a line in the way I choose. But a singer can be fully engaged in the moment, connecting with his or her colleagues and with the audience, expressing a feeling truthfully and with commitment... and if that note should have been a minim not a crotchet, then in some sense they have got it "wrong"! This strikes me a quite a pressure to have to deal with, and I am full of admiration for our entire cast for their ability and willingness to experiment and play, within the structure of a very challenging score.
Have you directed Shakespeare plays before?
No, but I have acted in several: Much Ado About Nothing, Henry IV Part 1, The Winter's Tale and A Midsummer Night's Dream.
You have done Helena's role, what kind of character was she in your interpretation?
When I played Helena I had just started at university and was quite new to acting. I had always enjoyed Shakespeare from a literary point of view (I was studying for a degree in English literature), and had seen many of his plays at the theatres in London. Playing this role showed me how alive and how full of energy his language is when you speak it aloud and experience it head-on. Helena is basically a very sensible, slightly uncool girl (I could relate to that!) who has gone a bit crazy because of her feelings for Demetrius. Her emotions are all very near the surface; she doesn't know how to play games and be sophisticated, or how to behave with men, like Hermia does. Working out how to play Helena's outbursts was very liberating for me, and really good fun! Helena was my first proper acting role, so both the character and the play are very special to me.
How is it to work with students compared to professionals?
Students are in the process of building their "toolkit", and usually every role is a role debut. So the extent of what is new and changing is often far greater than it might be for a singer at a later stage of their career, who may sing a number of core roles over and over again. This meeting with constant "newness" demands appetite, courage and resilience on the part of the young singer. It is a great privilege to be a part of the development of young artists, and it is central to my work.
Something you want to share of your experiences in Helsinki?
I would like to thank Markus for inviting me to direct this production, as it has given me the opportunity to learn and grow alongside the singers. The emphasis on process rather than product, which is embedded into the opera programme here, is a very healthy thing, and something I have enjoyed greatly.
Interview by Silja Aalto and Alina Koivula