Music adds drama to Mice and Men
Director Bruce Beresford discusses his latest production with Opera Australia
Allerta!: You are a famous film director who has directed many operas. How does directing film differ from directing opera?
Bruce Beresford: The main difference is that in opera I’m aware that the audience is watching a fixed wide shot: no cutting, no close-ups, no camera moves. This means that it’s essential to have a well designed set that establishes atmosphere and underscores characterisation. Far too many modern productions have abstracted sets which contribute nothing to mood and tell the audience nothing about the players. I work out the staging carefully and try to create telling and attractive compositions with the manner in which the singers are grouped. Lighting is critical: too bland and it can destroy the mood.
It was you who suggested Of Mice and Men to Opera Australia. Why do you think this opera in particular would appeal to Australian audiences?
When I first heard it, while I was directing Carlisle Floyd’s Cold Sassy Tree in Houston, I thought the music was both melodic and powerful. The Steinbeck novella is superb. The friendship and tragedy of Lennie and George is probably even more affecting when sung than when read, as the music brings so much emotion to the drama.
Could you tell us more about the inspiration for your “take” on the opera?
I’m anxious to have the performances as naturalistic as possible. We have a wonderful cast and should be able to achieve this.
Once you’ve settled on a concept, what is your process with the set/costume and lighting designer?
I’ve worked on a number of operas with the designer, John Stoddart. His sets strike me as inventive and atmospheric. Never slavishly realistic, they always conjure up a time and place for the audience the moment that the curtains open. Similarly, I’ve worked with the lighting designer, Nigel Levings, a number of times. His work is subtle. He always finds a source (this is aided by the set design) for the light and always manages to arrange for it to fall artfully, but never too obviously, on the singers. Too many operas, I find, are over-lit, often because the abstracted sets supply no obvious source from which the light can emanate.
Have you had a say in the casting of Of Mice and Men?
I suggested the American tenor, Anthony Dean Griffey, for the role of Lennie. I’d heard him a number of times and was struck by his beautiful tenor voice. He’s a very large man – essential, of course, for this role. All other roles are performed by regular Opera Australia singers and I’m thrilled by all of them.
As a film director, how do you deal with the fact that opera singers are less well trained in acting than film actors?
These days I find that opera singers are much more inclined to realise the importance of acting the roles as well as singing them. I’ve worked with very few singers who thought their only function was to sing from as close to the front of the stage as possible. Still, I sometimes find myself asking singers to refrain from elaborate gestures. I’ve been told “I have to exaggerate because people sitting at the rear end of the theatre won’t understand otherwise”. My answer has been to direct from the rear of the stalls to see if there is any truth in this. I’ve found that there is none. Exaggerated emotions are exaggerated from any viewpoint.
How do you make interaction with the conductor work for you?
So far I’ve had excellent rapport with conductors. They are invariably accommodating and helpful. [When I was directing] Elektra [for the State Opera of South Australia], the conductor, Richard Armstrong, laconically commented at one point: “I wouldn’t advise that she stand on that side of the stage at the moment.” “Why not?” I said. “That’s the brass section,” he replied, “No one will hear a word she’s singing.”
Your first collaboration with OA was when you directed the Company’s very successful A Streetcar Named Desire production a few years ago. Looking back, what would you say are OA’s strongest points?
I’ve found the Company to be very efficient. The workshops are first class and the props team phenomenally attentive and thorough. All my emails about anything related to the production are answered almost immediately. The enthusiasm for opera from every member of the Company creates a pleasant working atmosphere.
And which aspects of working with the Company did you find challenging?
I suppose my only worry is: “Am I directing this up to the standards of this first-rate opera company?”
You’ve said in the past that OA has very good directors and that you are usually very impressed with the productions you see here. Do you still feel that way?
Yes. I’ve been watching opera obsessively all over the world since 1962 and I think that Opera Australia is in the front rank.
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