Over the past 17 years, British filmmaker Penny Woolcock has made a name for herself in the opera world. After directing a film adaptation of John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer (which won the Jury Prize at the Brussels European Film Festival and the Prix Italia), Woolcock staged John Adams’ Doctor Atomic at the Metropolitan Opera and the English National Opera. She followed Doctor Atomic with a production of The Pearl Fishers at the English National Opera (ENO) in 2010, which ENO revived last year and which also had a successful run at the Metropolitan Opera. Now, Woolcock has brought The Pearl Fishers to Los Angeles. Before a rehearsal, we sat down with Woolcock to discuss her entry into the opera world and how she brings The Pearl Fishers to life.
You’ve had a successful career in film and television especially with the Tina trilogy, Tina Goes Shopping, Tina Takes a Break and One Mile Away. What drew you to opera?
I love music. When I was a teenager, I lived in Buenos Aires and I used to go the Teatro Colón with a friend. We were so high up, you couldn’t see the stage unless you held the other person’s legs while leaning over the balcony. [laughter] It’s been something I’ve always had a feeling for but I never imagined I would get a chance to direct it.
I’d also really loved John Adams’s music. I remember going into a record shop in Newcastle in 1988 and they were playing Nixon in China. I asked the guy in the store and asked, “What is this? I must have it!” Then, in the late ‘90s, I went to a concert performance of the The Death of Klinghoffer choruses. I was really moved by the way the first two heartbreaking choruses express the claims of two traumatized, dispossessed people over the same piece of land. It brought me to tears and the friend I was with saw that and said, ‘You should make a film of it,’ and I thought, ‘Yes, I should.’ I emailed the head of Channel 4 Music and to my surprise my phone rang immediately and she said, ‘What a fantastic idea!’ I was sort of known for making films about tough inner-city communities, not opera, but she thought that I might invent something different than just filming a staged performance. Then, obviously, I had to see if John Adams would approve. Again, it was one of those right place, right time moments, because he said that he’d always wanted someone to make a movie of one of his operas.
So, I made The Death of Klinghoffer.
We filmed John conducting the London Symphony Orchestra and we recorded the singers in isolation booths at Abbey Road Studios (where The Beatles famously recorded).
Once we had that, we hired a cruise line and sailed across the Mediterranean. We shot the film on location. John’s assistant conductor came with us and was running around behind the camera, conducting the singers as we shot them with a handheld camera. It was quite a magical experience and funnily enough we ended up using over 80% of the live sound in the final mix.
After The Death of Klinghoffer, you directed a stage version of Adams’s Doctor Atomic. How did that come about?
Well, I’d made The Death of Klinghoffer and John and I got along well during the filming process. One day, I was in the cutting room with a film I was making and I got a call from Peter Gelb’s assistant at the Metropolitan Opera. He asked if I’d be interested in directing for the stage and once I got over the shock I said yes. So, the first ever stage production I’d ever done was at the Met. [laughter] I was completely terrified, but I prepared for months. I went to see lots of operas and analyzed what worked and what didn’t work – when it was too obvious people were coming on and off stage, for example – and I tried to find ways of transitioning from scene to scene on stage. Then, I staged the opera and it was a wonderful experience. When I didn’t know something I asked for help.
Then you staged The Pearl Fishers.
Yes. John Berry, who was the artistic director of the English National Opera at the time, asked if I’d like to do something from the repertory. He suggested The Pearl Fishers, but I was unsure. Then, when I listened carefully to the overture for the first time, this image floated into my head of divers diving from the top of the proscenium arch to the stage floor and I thought, ‘Well, I’d really like to see that.’ So, it all started with that quite magical image and after that I looked at the piece more closely. There are universal themes of friendship, love and betrayal and then there’s this force of nature – the sea – which now with climate change and rising sea levels couldn’t be more relevant.
Why did you update the piece to the modern times?
In the original libretto, the setting is listed as Ceylon, which is now Sri Lanka and it had generally been staged in a very camp way. I decided to take it seriously and place it in the real world. Sri Lanka is particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels and in all parts of the world it is the poor who live in rickety villages whose homes are easily swept away. Dick Bird and I looked at footage of the Delta in Bangladesh where people are having to move every six months as their homes are permanently under water. It felt very relevant to set the opera in the present when villagers are dealing with something that is out of their control, and where praying is really the only thing they can do, because the structures they’re living in can’t withstand cyclones and tidal waves.
How has the production evolved since that first staging in 2010?
The joy of a production that lives on is that you can fix things you are not happy with. Since 2010, we changed the staging of Zurga’s aria after the storm and his fight with Leila. In the original staging, it happened in what we imagined was a UN tent, but it looked very flat. Instead of making Zurga the village headman, we’ve made him more of a bureaucratic politician, a little bit corrupt, with an office in a sturdier building than the rest of those in the village.
The production also changes every time depending on who the principal singers are. I’m not a director who says move here move there put your hand there. That’s not interesting for me and it’s not interesting for the performers. It’s much more fun to give singers freedom to find their own way into the piece and their own physicality with the character. Being able to work with different performers is such a gift, because we get to reinvent the piece every time.
What do you think you bring from your experience working in film? How do you look at things differently?
On film, we look for believable performances and I do the same in opera. If it looks fake close-up, it’ll look fake from far away. I like subtler, more interior performances, and I think they do read perfectly well wherever you are in the theatre and that actually exaggerating everything can look really phony – though obviously, I have to stage things so the singers are not singing upstage or into the wings. I do like to use film projection to enhance the visuals.
What have been the most challenging parts of the piece?
There are a lot of moments when people arrive and exit en masse. It’s challenging to make these entrances and exits not look too obviously staged. For example, the first time the chorus enters, they must enter very quickly, because they don’t have a lot of music before they start singing. However, we want to establish that they are in a very hot country where people walk slowly. They must enter ‘quickly, slowly!’ My challenge is to work with the chorus to create a whole world. Finding ways of representing the sea was a challenge. In film, you are kind of trapped in naturalism but in opera, you can be far more inventive, actually you have to be.
What are some of the most beautiful moments in the opera for you?
It’s difficult to pick out moments that I love. Some of the big chorus numbers are thrilling but I do love those moments of connection between people. I love the duets, the famous duet for the boys of course but Nadir and Leila also have the most beautiful love duet and Leila and Zurga have a very intense and passionate fight when they are at cross purposes. We have had a lot of fun staging these. Each of the singers has a beautiful aria too so this is an opera of many tunes!
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