Interview with Robin Norton-Hale

1. Who was your biggest influence in your developing passion for opera?
My dad used to take me to English National Opera when I was quite young – we definitely went when I was still at primary school. He doesn’t come from what you might think of as a traditional background of someone who might like opera at all (his dad was a bus conductor and he was one of seven kids, so his mum stayed at home to look after them) but he loves all types of music, and learned about opera and classical music from listening to the radio. He went to ENO because they perform in English, and because he thought you had to wear a tuxedo to go to the Royal Opera House – and so for me, because of him introducing me to opera when I was little, and having the stories explained to me, I never thought of opera as something posh or elitist. When I was 14, I went to see Tosca, and cried and cried.

2. What were your reasons for staging La Bohème in a pub?
The decision to use a pub theatre for La Bohème wasn’t specifically to introduce opera to a new audience. I don’t see opera as being a completely different beast to ‘straight’ (spoken) theatre, and there are so many pub theatres putting on plays, so we thought, why not an opera? Also, La Bohème is about a group of four students making their first steps into the world of adults – so having them live in a run-down flat above a Kilburn pub seemed pretty realistic!

3. How does the art form benefit from being 'up close' and stripped bare? Is there room for staging an opera in many different ways? 
Absolutely. Opera is resilient – it can handle lots of different interpretations! I sometimes compare it to Shakespeare plays – not that long ago, Shakespeare would have always been acted in doublet and hose without cuts or changes being made to the words, but now no one blinks at all the different versions we get – James McAvoy in a modern Macbeth at Trafalgar Studios, or the Baz Lurhman film of Romeo and Juliet, and the Globe hosting the complete works of Shakespeare from countries all around the world, in different languages – and these versions can often illuminate the plays in some new way. I enjoy seeing operas in their original language with full orchestra, but that shouldn’t be the only way to see them – that would really limit where opera can be performed, who can afford the tickets, and also means that unless you’re in the front few rows you can’t see the acting in detail. When you look at the story of La Traviata, it’s really about three people – Violetta, her lover Alfredo and his father Germont – and how they love, manipulate and hurt each other. The characters are psychologically complex and the story is a very basic human one about the things we do to and for the ones we love. By getting up close to the action, I hope that the sometimes brutal nature of the story is revealed in a way that you can’t get on a big stage.

4. How difficult is it to write the translations and what do you gain from producing English versions? 
It’s always a challenge finding English words which have exactly the right rhythm for the music – you have to be quite inventive, and sometimes not all that literal in terms of what the Italian means. Italian is an easier language to sing in than English – it has lots of nice open vowel sounds – so I also have to think about what the singers will say if I give them tongue-twisters! Performing in English gives the production an immediacy you lose if the audience are having to look up above the stage to a surtitle screen. I think it helps normalize opera for an English audience, and means they can catch the subtleties of what the characters are saying and feeling. Surtitles are often just a summary of what is being sung.

5. Tell us about La Traviata! What does setting the production in the 1920s do for the story? 
I think the 1920s was the first ‘modern’ era – just after the First World War tore apart the old order of things, and consumer society was really taking off with the movies, cars and celebrity culture, and women had more freedom than in the past (‘flappers’ shocked polite society by showing their legs, bobbing their hair and smoking in public). On the other hand, there was still a very clear double-standard in terms of what was expected of women and men – in many ways, women’s freedom was surface level only, and that double-standard is crucial for the story of La Traviata, as Violetta cannot be forgiven for her past ‘immoral’ life. I think we still have that double-standard to some extent today, and our society is certainly very good at dragging people in the public eye through the mud. By setting the production in the 1920s, I was able to make the hypocrisy of the society very clear, without setting it a time too remote from contemporary life and experience.

6. What would you like OperaUpClose to do next? 
I’d like us to perform in more producing theatres (like the Tricycle and Soho Theatres, as we do in London) all over the country, as I want to convince people who like plays that opera is not different, or weird! And I’d also like to bring people in who have never been to the theatre at all, so we’re planning to do a lot more work with younger people over the next few years, including our first opera for junior school children, called Ulla’s Odyssey, this autumn.

7. What would you say to non-opera goers? 
I’d say give it a go, relax and try not to worry about whether you’ll understand it (you will!), and maybe you’ll like it. And if you try one opera and don’t like it, that doesn’t mean you don’t like opera – that would be like going to the cinema for the first time, not liking the film, and deciding you don’t like any films. There are lots of different styles of music and drama in opera – it’s been being produced for 400 years after all – and there are also lots of styles of production too. In terms of it being elitist, don’t confuse opera itself with the trappings of where it has traditionally been performed and who its traditional audience is. As for it being overblown– well, opera often deals with dramatic subjects (love, loss, death) and it can provide a way of dealing with those huge emotions that is really effective and moving. But it is also extremely subtle – come and watch our performers’ faces and listen to the changes in their voices in Traviata, and I promise you’ll find plenty of detail and subtlety.

Robin Norton-Hale wrote the English translation and directed OperaUpClose's La Traviata. For information about upcoming performances, see La Traviata's production page