Director Sir Jonathan Miller on his collaboration with Dorset Opera
PUBLISHED: 14:14 25 July 2013 | UPDATED: 14:24 25 July 2013
Sir Jonathan Miller brings his trademark clinical observation of human behaviour to a groundbreaking production of La traviata in his debut collaboration with Dorset Opera
“Pretending is a peculiar game,” says Sir Jonathan Miller. “The audience is entertaining double vision. They are seeing a famous performer and the person who they are pretending to be; applauding someone who they know and someone they have never met - because they don’t exist. I find this double vision very interesting.”
I am sitting in the Coade Theatre in the grounds of Bryanston School, where in July, Miller’s La traviata for the Dorset Opera Company will be staged. This is the ninth year the Company has held their international opera summer school here and to have lured a director of such international repute as Miller to work on this production is a real coup. Everyone is dying to find out what this cultural colussus has in mind as he is not known for running with the pack. This is an opera director who likes to break the mold.
To be fair he’s not out to deliberately shock, but neither has any interest in pleasing the establishment - to be frank he loathes the whole elite concept of opera but what he does have is a real passion for observing how people behave. His acute, almost clinical, observations of life and his encyclopaedic knowledge of medicine, art, culture and photography bring a freshness to his work and makes it more accesible.
Miller was born in London in 1934. His father, a doctor, specialised in child psychology. He founded the Association for Child and Adolescent Mental Health and was also a painter and sculptor. Miller’s mother was the novelist Betty Spiro. As a boy, Miller was fascinated with the natural sciences, especially embryology. He gained a first in medicine at St John’s College, Cambridge, where he joined a high octane group of comic writers and performers known as the Cambridge Footlights. Many would later become household names on the British comedy scene.
Miller qualified as a doctor in 1959. He became a house officer at Central Middlesex Hospital but, in the summer of 1961, took what he laughingly refers to as ‘a summer job’ at the Edinburgh Festival, performing in Beyond the Fringe with Alan Bennett, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, and took the show to Broadway.
Subsequently Miller was invited to try his hand at directing. “They said I would pick it up as I went along,” he shrugs. And so he did - with some style. He directed Sir Laurence Olivier in The Merchant of Venice in the West End, became an associate director at the National Theatre and directed numerous productions at the Old Vic. Alongside his theatrical work, he studied the history of medicine at University College and presented the controversial television series The Body in Question (1978), which included the dissection of a cadaver on screen.
His introduction to opera was equally unintentional. In 1974 Roger Norrington, the Music Director of Kent Opera, invited him to direct Mozart’s Così fan tutte, the first of seven operas Miller would direct for them. Miller had never seen an opera before and couldn’t read music. “He [Roger Norrington] said that didn’t matter - he could.”
So, no previous interest in opera? “Not really, I wasn’t enormously preoccupied with music as a child and when I was at Cambridge I was entirely involved in dissecting the human body,” he says. “When I started to direct opera I found it was very similar to doing a play. The only difference was the dialogue was sung.”
For Miller, the stage is the analyst’s couch. As director he offers himself as both therapist and doctor.
“When you are training as a doctor, you are trained to watch what people do,” he explains. “On the basis of what your patient is doing, or can’t do, you start to arrive at a diagnosis. I have taken this through to my observations of the way people perform.”
Miller’s continuing fascination with human behaviour means his productions bring realism to works that are often played as fantasies, especially when it comes to opera. He cites the death scene in La traviata, where the heroine Violetta is on her death bed, dying of consumption and then usually leaps up and does what he describes as ‘a lap of honour’.
As a doctor Miller knows how people die. “They don’t all die in the same way,” he says, “but I know that they don’t run around the room. I always tell my divas that dying is a full-time business and you stay in bed to do it.”
Dorset Opera’s charismatic Artistic Director, Roderick Kennedy, has sung bass roles in a third of its productions, as well as performing regularly at the Royal Opera House. He sat in with Jonathan on the auditions for Violetta.
“Jonathan would say things like: ‘I wouldn’t have her standing at this point. Can you sing lying down please?’ He gave them a whole master class on the character. They had never really considered how Violetta would behave and how this would manifest itself physically - its not easy to sing an aria lying down.”
Rod has known Jonathan for over 30 years: “My wife Jane Randall was Senior Stage Manager at English National Opera and Jonathan did a brilliant eulogy at her memorial service at St Paul’s, Covent Garden, when she died 10 years ago.”
Over the years, Dorset Opera has worked with some very high calibre directors, so Rod thought it was worth asking his friend, who has a reputation for his ground-breaking productions, if he would be interested in directing an opera for them.
“I was so delighted when he said yes. His versions of Bohème, Mikado and Rigoletto have remained the mainstay for English National Opera for the last 30 years. His productions always sell well,” says Rod, who adds that tickets have already sold out for La traviata and there is a waiting list for returns.
Miller loves opera - but not all of it. He has a deep loathing for historical operas such as Verdi’s Aida, which is set in an almost Hollywood-style ancient Egypt no pharoah would recognise. “Its a ludicrous story I wouldn’t touch with a barge pole. I call it an ‘exotic else when’ - it’s a fantasy past they have created.”
In some cases Miller has successfully taken an opera out of its ‘exotic else when’ and (you can almost hear the gasps of horror from the establishment) placed it into a more appropriate period.
Most famously, and at the time shockingly, he did this in 1982 with a Mafia-influenced production of the English National Opera’s Rigoletto, which Miller set in 1950s Little Italy in New York. It was a huge success and though the critics were a little sniffy the audiences flocked to see it. Similarly he ripped Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado, out of the mock-Oriental town of Titipu and set it in an English seaside hotel with a dash of Duck Soup. “I saw The Mikado as a Marx Brothers farce,” says Miller, with a vague hint of a smile. Again it was adored by the public, who loved his stylish makeover of what is sometimes a rather fusty piece of Victoriana.
His extensive knowledge of photography inspired his 2009 version of La bohème. Removed from 1840s Paris, he pushed it forward nearly a century drawing on the sepia images of Bohemian Parisians taken by photographers like Brassaïf and Kertész. Having created such waves in the past it comes as no surprise to discover that this production will also have Miller’s maverick touch and it did initially cause, he grumbles, ‘something of a fuss’.
“In the first act Violetta is wearing black velvet trousers. Some will say you can’t have women wearing trousers in 1850. I say ‘why don’t you acquaint yourself with the history of art’. Paul Gavarni is famous for capturing the lives of Parisians of his time. There is a book by him where women, probably courtesans at a party, are wearing black velvet trousers.”
Rod adds, with a smile: “You can always expect Jonathan to bring the unexpected. He’s even brought a first edition of the book in this afternoon for me to see.” Dorset Opera’s Traviata is certainly going to be ground-breaking.
Miller’s sense of realism extends right through to the way a singer interprets the text and performs. He has little time for overblown gestures of what he calls the ‘Jurassic Park opera singers’.
“I prefer working with singers who are flexible and interested in the nature of pretending to be someone they are not and finding out someone who they might be.”
He returns to his favourite topic: the art of pretence. “Attention to the business of pretence was how we managed to drop spies behind enemy lines in the Second World War. They had to pretend to be French everyday, dress like them, sound like them, act like them, their lives depended on it.
“It is that same attention to detail that I want to bring to a performance, to direct the singers to behave in a natural way and help them to pretend so convincingly that you believe they are someone else. That is what we do on the stage. Pretending is a peculiar game.”
About Dorset Opera
For 39 years, Dorset Opera has been introducing opera to youngsters of all ages, through what has been termed ‘The world’s foremost residential opera summer school’. The Dorset Opera Festival regularly attracts world class directors and singers and this year features 18 performances at 9 venues (30 June – 27 July). The two main operas this year are La traviata and The Flying Dutchman featuring internationally-acclaimed soloists, a full orchestra and a chorus of 85. In addition Dorset Opera are bringing the Nationale Reisopera (the Dutch National Touring Opera) to the UK. They will be presenting a pocket-version of Puccini’s La bohème at venues in and around Dorset during July. This is a wonderful introduction to opera and a very reasonable one with tickets at £15 plus venue and credit card charges.
If you would like to become a supporter of Dorset Opera or you would like to be a part of their chorus or work behind the scenes with the technical team, wardrobe or stage crew on future productions then visit their website dorsetopera.com or call 01258 840000.