DirectorUpClose

Valentina headshot.jpg

Director, Valentina Ceschi
OperaUpClose directing credits: Ulla's Odyssey (Kings Place), Dido & Aeneas (King's Head Theatre), Elixir of Love (King's Head Theatre), Manifest Destiny (King's Head Theatre), Associate Director La Bohème (Cock Tavern Theatre, Soho Theatre, King's Head Theatre).

How did you get into opera?
I stumbled into it a bit. After graduating from the Jaques Lecoq School, in Paris, I set up a company with Thomas Eccleshare with whom I co-wrote directed and performed all the shows. As our work developed we became more and more inspired by European auteur- directors and performance artists. We were at a festival in Italy at the same time as Emma Dante. I was a huge fan of her work and found out that she was directing Carmen at la Scala and did everything in my power to get in and work as her rehearsal assistant there. Growing up I was taken to many (and I mean very many!) musicals and being half Italian opera has always been in my blood. But it was only when I was in Milan, spending my days listening and watching the singers, studying their faces and bodies, their emotions, their processes in the rehearsal room where you are really close, that I truly fell in love. 

The production was considered controversial and caused a bit of a stir on opening night. It was exciting to be a part of this, and I realised how opera - especially at an institution such as la Scala - could be shaken up a bit, and that stories needed to be told by fresher, younger voices. 


What is your favourite part of the job?
The moment when something shifts and suddenly you see something in the story or the piece that excites you that you'd not noticed before, and together with your MD or the cast you all get goose bumps, it's like having a vision and you think "ah, yes, that's why we have to tell this story now! And it all makes sense! " 

I also love working with young people, they don't have any baggage from training, they inspire me and they make me laugh. I would love to work more with young people. 

Valentina working on  Ulla's Odyssey  with musical director Alex Beetschen and puppeteer Matt Hutchinson

Valentina working on Ulla's Odyssey with musical director Alex Beetschen and puppeteer Matt Hutchinson


What's your least favourite part of the job?
I don't know. Often once the show is up and running you feel left out. The cast, MD, musicians and stage manager still get to hang out every night and do the show, but you're no longer essential, no longer in the gang. It feels quite lonely then.

What's the best thing you've seen on stage (theatre or opera) in 2015 and why? 
I just saw some Kabuki whilst on holiday in Japan and puppet artist Basil Twists's Dogugaeishi at the Mime Festival in London, both Japanese art forms, both breath-taking. I also love the new programme at the Almeida. 

What are your dreams for the future/ what's next?
Making design-led opera. I don't know how yet, but I'm working on it.

Tell us a bit about Ulla's Odyssey?
It is a charming action packed adventure for anyone of any age who has ever felt determined to prove themselves against the odds and who will brave huge waves, winds and sea monsters in order to achieve their dream. 

Your strangest / funniest experience whilst working on a production? 
Once I was touring a show with my company Dancing Brick and we were on stage up in Stockton, halfway through our show when we suddenly realised we had skipped ahead 3 or four scenes without even noticing! The scenes all took place in real time, so it was easy to feel our way back and we were so tuned to each other we recovered without the audience noticing! The show however was packed full of subtle but complex sound design and lighting cues so when I happened to glance up at the tech box I could see our stage manager pulling her hair out and mouthing all sorts of obscenities! The fact that the audience were none the wiser makes me worry about the structural integrity of the piece. 

What do you think is an essential quality in the work you direct? 
I'm a stickler for visual clarity and I strive for efficient storytelling. If what I'm seeing - whether it's slapstick or a romantic scene - doesn't tell as much if not more of a story than what I'm hearing then it's not working for me. 

Binnacle, more than your average cat.

Five things you probably didn't know about Binnacle (or puppetry for that matter!) 
By Matt Hutchinson (Ulla's Odyssey Puppet Designer, Director)

1.

Binnacle weighs less than a bag of sugar. His body is totally hollow. He started life as a miniaturised sculpt from a type of clay, which we then covered in cling film and gaffer tape. Cutting off the pieces that form Binnacle's shape, we work out a pattern laid flat. This is then enlarged to the right size and printed out before being cut from foam and glued together. It's a process that is used in a lot of puppet making, resulting in well structured but very lightweight forms that can carry a huge amount of detail in shape.

Binnacle in  Ulla's Odyssey  Photo by Christopher Tribble

Binnacle in Ulla's Odyssey
Photo by Christopher Tribble

2.

It's generally believed that for a puppet to live, and for an audience to believe in it, it needs three main things. 

1. Breath. But that doesn't necessarily mean we need to see the puppet breathing constantly like its about to hyperventilate  (we breathe all the time and it just happens). Breath is an extension of thought and an energy source for movement.
2. A relationship to gravity. A knowledge of the puppet's weight distribution, how it holds and moves that weight. When we counterbalance, we are under the direct control of gravity as it's pulling us over/down. How do we not fall over? Our brain tells us to counter act and redistribute our weight so we stay in control. Brain showing thought and therefore life.
3. A focal point. This doesn't always have to be where the puppet is looking, more what the puppet is focusing on. A focal point can also be a sound or a smell they might sense, however more often than not it is what the puppet's eyes are looking at. The point here is that we are showing the puppet's brain processing information and acting upon it. 

These three things are the bare bones of what underpin a good puppet performance. We as an audience need to be convinced that the puppet has its own thought processes and is a living thing in order to believe. 

3. 

Most puppets fall into one category of classification, for example glove, rod, shadow, marionette.

Binnacle doesn't really fit into any of these classifications. To an extent he is a rod puppet as his head and body are controlled by rodded handles, but not to the extent of a true rod puppet. He also is also what's known as a composite puppet, meaning many different things make up his composition, this is usually seen in object puppetry, where many different items may assemble to represent a figure. It's not uncommon for puppets to be hybrids.

Puppets are story telling tools, and we need our tools to work in the best way possible. You wouldn't cut your lawn with a set of nail scissors. They'd do the job, but not in the most efficient manner. 

4.

When Binnacle appears in full form (with legs) the puppeteer team have to work in very close harmony with each other, being mindful and aware of each other's movements. They must communicate silently to be perfectly in sync with each other. This is done by working through the puppet. The lead puppeteer - in control of the head - initiates all movement. This is because the brain is located in the head and the head therefore controls the thought, action and breath which can help lead movement.

binnacle & Sarah Minns photo by christopher tribble

binnacle & Sarah Minns
photo by christopher tribble

5. 

Puppetry and Opera are a perfect pairing. Opera being a heightened style of performance can be very illustrative in its language and musical stylings. Puppetry is a great visual representation for this, it too being a heightened style of performance. The real crossover though, and partly one of the reasons that I feel it works so well, is opera is able to lend a voice (either through libretto or score) to puppetry, which can often be silent or vocally detached. It provides a soundtrack, underscore or lyrical choreography or illustration for movement. Puppetry for opera conjures visuals to further illustrate a rich and deep score, full of detail. The two feed into each other, complement each other and also offset each other to show the other's beauty so, so easily. Ulla's score is wonderfully textured and a great source for puppetry. As much as there are stage directions and lyrics that dictate necessary action, there's also a huge amount written into the score that helps show larger pictures or greater detail, examples include Cy-ops's movement and processing patterns, Sylla's tentacles, the crashing and impact of waves, the extent of the Goddess's power and how she can manipulate the environment around her and objects around her.