• Brief Exclusive Opera Lively Interview with Stage Director Katie Mitchell

    In the context of our guidebook (coming soon on paperback and Kindle e-book published by Opera Lively Press) to the spectacular contemporary opera by George Benjamin, Written on Skin, we have briefly interviewed the talented stage director who put together the world premiere in 2012 in Aix-en-Provence, Katie Mitchell. Her production is coming to New York City in August 2015 as part of Lincoln Center's Mostly Mozart festival (see announcement [here]). This is Opera Lively's interviw # 158



    Photo Credit AFP/Getty Images - fair promotional use

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    Brief Artistic Biography

    Born Katrina Jane Mitchell on September 23, 1964, she was raised in Hermitage, Berkshire, and studied English at Magdalen College, Oxford. She started her career at King's Head Theater in London, then became an assistant director at The Royal Shakespeare Company. She was granted the Evening Star award for Best Director in 1996 for her production of The Phoenician Women for the RSC. Operatic credits included work at the Salzburg Festival, ENO, and the Royal Opera House. She is scheduled to direct Così fan Tutte at the Met in the near future. Author Martin Crimp and designer Vicki Mortimer are frequent collaborators. She's been heralded as ""the closest thing the British theater has to an auteur" (The Independent, London, 17 April 2008). She was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 2009.

    Some of the operas she has directed include:

    Don Giovanni
    Jenufa
    Kat'a Kabanova
    Idomeneo
    Written on Skin
    - Grand Théâtre de Provence, 2012, world premiere

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    The Exclusive Opera Lively Interview with Katie Mitchell

    This interview is copyrighted to Opera Lively and can only be reproduced in part or whole with authorization (use the Contact Us form). Links to it do not require authorization.


    Luiz Gazzola for Opera Lively - Please describe to us how you first heard of Written on Skin and how the author and composer selected you to direct the world premiere in Aix-en-Provence. Most likely it stems from your previous collaborations with Martin Crimp, I’d assume (you directed his The Country, his Attempts on Her Life, and his The City, before tackling Written on Skin), but please correct me if I’m wrong and elaborate on the seeds that led to this project. In which point of the project did you jump in? Did you have the opportunity to give input during the creation of the piece itself, or did you receive a completely finished product to work with?


    Katie Mitchell - I was asked to direct the opera relatively late on in the process as Luc Bondy had to withdraw due to new pressures with his job at The Odeon. I had worked of over a decade with Martin Crimp. I directed The Country, The City, Face to The Wall, and Attempts on Her Life, twice (at the Royal National Theatre and also at the Piccolo Theater in Milan). We had also worked together on several versions of classic texts, including Chekhov’s The Seagull, Buchner’s Pains of Youth and Genet’s The Maids. The invitation to direct Written on Skin was in one sense a natural extension of my collaboration with Martin and of course this relationship was my primary point of contact with the opera. It was through Martin that I had initially met George a year or so earlier and been introduced to his music (‘Into the Little Hill’). Luc had worked alongside George and Martin from the beginning, especially in the area of the casting which was already decided by the time I came on board. So i joined the process after all the key decisions had been made about the libretto, the cast. George was in the middle of finishing the arduous task of composition. It was clear that my work would focus on finding dynamic staging solutions to the musical and dramatic decisions already made by George and Martin. This was a thrilling proposition.

    OL - Please describe the concept you used for the piece. I must say that you and designer Vicki Mortimer put together a truly brilliant staging, with the simultaneous rooms – the modern/sleek look for the angels and the ancient-looking room for the characters. What were your first ideas on how to stage the piece, and how did they develop?


    Photo by Opera Lively of Ms. Mitchell's production of Written on Skin

    KM - The main challenge for Vicki and I was to create two distinct worlds, one for the angels and one for the characters in the middle age narrative. It was clear from the libretto that the angels occupied a post-war modern time period and that the characters of Agnès, The Protector and The Boy were firmly rooted in their historical period. Initially this seemed a contradiction that we couldn’t really resolve in one overarching world. The breakthrough was when we realized that we could have a modern and an old world simultaneously on stage with Angel One acting as the bridge between the two worlds. After we had come to this conclusion we then worked of making the two worlds as different as possible in terms of architecture, color, texture and lighting. The world of the angels was contemporary, blue, stark, forensic, windowless. The world of Agnès and The Protector was warm, crumbling, flooded with light through windows, painterly.

    OL - Written on Skin is a powerful work. I believe it has enduring power and will be talked about up to the next century and beyond, conferring some immortality of sorts to the people who first created it including the composer, the author, the singers, and yourself, which must be neat. What have you experienced as an artist when you first read the text and heard the music?

    KM - I was bowled over by the power of the libretto when I first read it. I didn’t really fully grasp the power of the music until I heard the singers together with the full orchestra at the Sitzprobe. By that point I had directed the whole show listening to a piano reduction supplemented with George’s fantastic annotations in my score (describing the sound of the orchestra bar by bar). However nothing could have prepared me for the overwhelming power of the composition when the orchestra and singers came together. It was an emotional moment all round, and the brilliance of the composition was palpable for everyone.

    OL - Were you anticipating this much success? How do you feel it will survive over time?

    KM - The opera is a masterpiece, no one doubts that. It will stand the test of time.

    OL - I couldn't agree more. What is your opinion of the role of the Angels and their views on humankind? They issue some rather interesting statements, like a Greek chorus.

    KM - The Angels act as a kind of chorus but they are also participants in the main scenes – Angel One plays The Boy and Angels Two and Three play Marie and her husband. This is what makes their function distinct from that of a Greek chorus. They comment and participate. Their views on humankind are dark, despairing and are very much connected to the philosophy about violence emerging from Post-Qar writers like Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt.

    OL - I’d like to collect your take on whether or not there is erotic tension between The Protector and The Boy as well – most notably in scene XIII - I asked the singers the same question and collected some interesting answers, so now I’d love to hear your opinion on this as well.

    KM - An indirect influence on the composition for Martin was the film Theorem by Pasolini. It tells the story of a young man entering a middle-class conventional home and having an affair with a everyone in the house: husband, wife, son, daughter, maid. It’s a very powerful film. I always understood that there was a connection between the character of The Boy in the opera and the young man in the Pasolini film in the sense that the new person (The Boy) threatens (and attracts) both Agnès and The Protector sexually. From George’s point of view this was born out by the orchestration for the moment where the kiss happened between The Boy and The Protector in the production. The manifestation of attraction between the two of them was Martin and George’s wish for this moment.

    OL - In terms of artistic ownership of the project, how were your interactions with Mr. Crimp and Mr. Benjamin during the push to create the world premiere? I’d assume that there might be an issue (not necessary conflictual) of whose “baby” this is, when the director is tackling the work of living people being staged for the first time. This overlaps a bit with my first question but I guess that question was focused on the origin of the work, while once it’s all said and done and the opera exists in paper, now it’s a question of staging it, and I wonder if at the point the director takes more ownership and the author and composer sit back.

    KM - My interactions with Martin and George were always clear and uncomplicated. For me the text and music were the heart of the matter and Martin and George were the primary artists. Mine was a happy secondary role – and the work i did was to support what they had both written. Practically in rehearsals Martin acted as a discreet dramaturg, guiding and giving feedback on the directing choices I was making and George focused almost exclusively on the music.

    OL - And what about the singers? What advice did you have for them, and vice-versa, did you fell that you learned from them, and did you take input from them in ways that altered your directorial guidance?

    KM - I worked collaboratively with the singers, integrating their ideas as much as was possible. For example, the dance skills of Barbara helped us generate the ideas of the slow motion together with the associate director Ben Davies – for example with the slow motion movement of Agnès right at the end of the opera. The insights that the singers had into the characters would always be a shaping factor of any new opera and the fact that the opera had not been done before meant that the singers did not have the shadows of other interpretations cast over their work.

    OL - Are there interesting memories to tell us about the opening night in the world premiere? Do you typically relax and sit back, or are you nervous when the time for the first performance comes?

    KM - By the time the first night comes my work is done and it is now over to the singers to deepen and evolve the production – and of course the conductor!

    OL - The same extremely successful staging of Written on Skin has been revived numerous times by now, and the opera has received new productions as well. Now, with some distance between you and your work, what would you change, if anything? Have you made changes to your staging in subsequent revivals?

    KM - I wouldn’t want to change a thing in the produciton; it is all held together in a very fragile way and any changes could end up unravelling the whole concept. The music also has so many vocal demands and the staging is very much built around those demands so any staging changes would have negative repercussions on the music (which would not be a good thing).

    OL - Written on Skin has scenes of striking eroticism, without, well, showing any skin (pun intended), in your staging. I thought it was masterfully done. Any comments on this?

    KM - I was very keen to ensure that the eroticism in the story and the music was presented in a way that was true to female experience. One of the main challenges was to present a female orgasm without cheap nudity or penetrative sex scenes. I worked very closely with performers to find a subtle solution which they achieved beautifully in the production.

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